Bridging the theory-practice divide using social networks

A need to bridge the theory-practice divide

Dr. Corneliu Bjola is Associate Professor in Diplomatic Studies in the Department of International Development and teaches on its MSc programme in Global Governance and Diplomacy. An important component of the curriculum is the foundational course on International Diplomacy, which aims to provide students with an advanced understanding of the paradigms, processes and institutions of international diplomacy. Corneliu has been teaching this course for four years, and students have constantly appreciated in their course evaluations both the content and the methods that he has been using in his teaching. At the same time, however, Corneliu has found that traditional methods of lecturing and seminar teaching offer sub-optimal possibilities for bridging the theory-practice divide, on which the course relies. In particular, he has been seeking to find ways to improve two key aspects of the learning experience of students of international diplomacy:

  • how better to immerse them in discussions of current international affairs so that they can establish direct connections between the theoretical aspects discussed each week in class and the practical aspects of contemporary diplomatic relations, and
  • how to enable them to translate the analytical insights generated by their research of diplomatic processes into outcomes of tangible practical relevance.

A social media solution

To address this dual challenge, Corneliu enlisted the assistance of two social networks, Facebook and Storify.

An excerpt from the course Facebook page

An excerpt from the course Facebook page

Facebook made it easy to post daily news on diplomatic affairs that could be easily followed and commented by his students. The fact that most students used Facebook as their primary forum of social communication also meant this was the medium by which they could be reached most effectively and in real-time. From a logistic viewpoint, Corneliu set up a closed Facebook group at the beginning of the course so that conversations could be seen and followed only by the members of the group. He usually posted one or two news items a day during term time on subjects relevant to the topic of that week’s class. Students were also given rights to post news items themselves, which they did on a regular basis.

The group's home page in Storify

The group’s home page in Storify

Storify, on the other hand, proved helpful in assisting students conducting research and presenting the outcome of their research on a particular group project: for example, developing a strategy for ‘nation-branding’ a country of their choice. Corneliu found that Storify’s key advantage lay in enabling students to develop a visual narrative of their project as a timeline, by importing content from various media including YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Google. In so doing, it gave students an opportunity to peer-review the results of each other’s research from both a theoretical and a practical perspective (that is, how a ‘nation-branding’ strategy would have to be designed and implemented.

Making a difference

Corneliu believes that both apps reached their objectives very well.

On Facebook a total of about 150 posts of news items on current diplomatic affairs were made over the 16 weeks of the course, of which roughly 30 belonged to students. Students embraced Facebook either by reacting and commenting directly on the posts or by bringing up examples drawn from Facebook posts in class discussions.

One of Corneliu’s students wrote that the Facebook group

‘was an excellent way to engage the diplomacy theory covered in class with ongoing global politics problems. Thinking of everyday political realities in the framework of diplomacy theory definitely enriched my awareness of its applicability and purpose. I am convinced that the media-sharing platform made the course much more interactive, stimulated curiosity in students about the material covered, and last but not least – made the student body more cohesive.’

Another student commented:

‘First of all, it provided an easy way to communicate with the professor as well as course mates. It was particularly useful for asking questions, ranging from administrative questions regarding the course to questions on particular discussions which took place during the class. … Second, the professor encouraged us to post interesting articles on diplomacy. Thus, it was other way to learn about international diplomacy than course materials. It sometimes created discussions among students and the professor as well.’

Storify also proved a hit with students due to its ease of use, richness of the available material, and the possibility of visualising the results of one’s research.

Another of Corneliu’s students described how using Storify had enhanced her learning in the nation-branding exercise:

‘Firstly, Storify provides a great way of presenting a compilation of visual material in conjunction with text notes. In this way whilst I was preparing the project, I could relate certain points with concrete examples provided by images, videos, tweets and others. Secondly, in the process of formatting the project, I was able to rethink the order of my points based on the already assembled material in Storify and also benefit from the wide range of media I could use so as to prove my points and improve my presentation. Thirdly, when the final Storify project was ready, I had the opportunity to publish my work so as other people could learn and engage with it.

Overall, Storify was a fantastic way of visually presenting the Nation Branding strategy with relevant media, which supported and strengthened my points and arguments.’

She went on to comment that the skills she had acquired could be useful beyond her studies:

‘As presentation and multimedia skills become increasingly important nowadays, the Nation Branding project presented through Storify enhanced my knowledge and ability to use another platform for generating and presenting information.

Finally, I particularly enjoyed being involved in this project, because it gave me the opportunity to be creative in my Storify presentation and to enhance the strategic plan for rebranding the national image of a country with relevant social media. This experience is an example of how research in a project could be supplemented by multimedia so as to strengthen its message and impact on the target audience.’

Words of Wisdom

Corneliu offers the following advice for using social networks in students’ learning:

Facebook is fairly easy to use for engaging students outside class, but in order to have an enjoyable and productive experience the group must stay closed (i.e. no outsiders) and the news items posted online must relate as much as possible to the topic of the week’s class. This way students will feel comfortable about reacting to posts and the conversation will stay focused on the agenda set by the course instructor.

Storify is a great medium for creating visual narratives and hence only projects that require this form of presentation will benefit from using it. The course tutor must also make sure students’ identity is not revealed online without their written consent. It’s a good idea, therefore, to create a closed Storify account that can be accessed only by the members of the class.

Further Information

Advice on social media and privacy is available from the Information Security group in IT Services.

oxtalent badgeRunner-up, OxTALENT 2014 award for support for blended learning. This award recognises teaching staff who have blended technology with classroom learning.

The text and illustrations in this case study have been adapted from Dr Corneliu Bjola’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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