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Call for Participants in NSF Proposal to Integrate Social Media in Undergraduate Education

2010 October 14

My mission:  I want to develop and research a freely available, NSF-funded, open source online social networking platform customized to the needs of university faculty and students. And I’ve already got pilot data.

I’ve been hunting around for universities to get involved in this project, and given the high level of enthusiasm so far from those I’ve explained it to, I figured it was time to make a larger-scale announcement. Since non-regular readers might come across this, this will be a little more introductory than usual:

Hello!  My name is Richard Landers, and I’m an industrial/organizational psychologist at Old Dominion University.  My research interests primarily center around the potential of the Internet to create community and ultimately provide better adult education and training.

In Summer 2010, I received a seed grant (thanks ODU!) to investigate the value of social media in online education, intended to provide a stepping stone to acquiring a larger grant.  So for that project, I wrote (by myself) an online social network centered around undergraduate education.  This online social network was deployed to 20 courses in the Summer 2010 semester, and was thus available to roughly 600 students.  Of those 600 students, about 400 set up profiles and actually tried to use it, some of which were required to do so for course participation, but many of which were not.

Of those roughly 400 students, uptake of our online social network for Psychology (which we named socialPsych) was tremendous.  Over just a few months, about 500 status updates were made, alongside roughly 4,500 posts in course discussion areas.

I implemented two experimental features to this social network that I am quite proud of and am to my knowledge the first to use such technologies.

First, I created a Certification Center.  In this area, students could take quizzes on course material from any course.  Quizzes were always 10 questions and drawn randomly from a much larger database of questions specific to each course.  For example, a student enrolled in social psychology could complete quizzes in social psych, quantitative methods, etc – any course currently being offered in the department.  But students were only allowed to take a quiz in any particular subject area once every 4 days.   We took advantage of many principles of casual gaming (sometimes called the gameification movement) to create a reward system for completing these quizzes.  Several levels of “mastery” were created, with increasingly difficult bars to reach in order to achieve them.  But when a student achieved a new rank (which they could never lose), a badge would appear next to their name in class discussion areas to provide a social reward for doing well.  For example, if the aforementioned student completed the social psychology quiz enough times to reach Mastery Level 3, a little blue ribbon would appear next to their name when they chatted in that classroom.  This system was ridiculously well-received.  Across those approximately 400 students, 113 (28%!) willingly chose to take optional multiple choice quizzes.  If you’re an educator like I am, you are probably shaking your head in disbelief right now – 28% of students willingly completed optional multiple choice quizzes that would never have an effect on their grades.  That’s absolutely amazing to me every time I think about it.  Especially fantastic is that simply spending time completing the quizzes exposes them to course material more than they otherwise would have been exposed – meaning they were more likely to learn something!

Second, I created a Mentoring System.  After achieving ranks, students could flag themselves as available to be mentors to students who wanted help.  16 students (about 4%) signed up to be mentors and 19 students (about 5%) signed up to be mentees.  And although those numbers seem relatively small, remember that these are students struggling who I would hypothesize would be unlikely to seek out help from their instructors – or possibly even their classmates, in person.  What a fantastic resource such a system would make – especially one that vets expertise automatically through the certification system!

I think this quote from one of our students on the post-test exam is what give me the most hope:

I beleive [sic] the best thing about social psych was the interaction you have with your classmates. ODU is a big university and everyone is always on the go it was nice to have a moment to ask people questions and hear encouraging words from other people.

Totally unsolicited positive virtual interactions between students.  Just what I was hoping for!  We even found a positive correlation between GPA and online social network usage.  And consider this one on community building:

i [sic] am a commuter student and only attend classes. Normally, I don’t socialize with other students. Social Psych Net [sic] provided the opportunity to speak with other students during the course, which I do not typically do. It also provided an area for students to ask each other questions. I think this site should continue.

Now having said all that, things are never quite as simple as they appear.  I’ll be trying to publish at least a couple of papers based upon the psychological theory that led to the creation of this system and an evaluation of its outcomes, and if you want more than that, you’ll just have to join our grant team.  That’s right – I want to use our pilot data from socialPsych to apply to one of two NSF grants, depending on who we get to join the team.  The deadlines are in January, so we’ve got some time, and I want to do it right.

My current goal is to get multiple sets of people involved:

  1. Universities, colleges or even individual departments that want to deploy the social network we develop and let us take some metrics to see how people use it and what can be further improved.   The more students that are involved, the more useful and valuable everyone will find it.  One of the negatives to socialPsych that students commented on was that they wished it was available year-round and to more students!
  2. Experts in areas outside of my own expertise (I/O psychology) that can contribute to the theoretical development of this system.  We’ll need (at least) gaming experts, sociologists, computer scientists, human-computer interaction specialists and so on to make this the best cross-disciplinary team we can, to make the very best system possible.  And if you think your expertise is needed but I didn’t list it here, feel free to contact me.

If you are a policy-maker in education, all you need to do is volunteer your university, college or even your department as a testing ground.  We’ll build into the grant all that is needed to run the technology and support it.  And in 3 years, if you still want to use it, we’ll be designing the technology to be as easily adaptable as possible, so that the transition from NSF-funded severs to your own will be as seamless as possible.  And if you want to run it on your own school’s equipment from the start, so that you have complete control over your students’ experiences – all the better.

So if you want to create community, improve learning, and take advantage of social technology that is here to stay (i.e. the Internet!), let me know ASAP to get in at the ground floor!

Have a look at the introductory video that we used to introduce students to the idea of socialPsych.

If you want to be a part of this innovative project, e-mail me at or call me at 757-683-4212.  Collaborators and institutions from anywhere in the world are welcome.

Edit: We are no longer taking new institutions onto this project, but we may do so again in the future. Please contact me if you might wish to participate in the future.

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. October 21, 2010

    I passed this on to my network. Best of luck!

  2. October 21, 2010

    That’s great – thanks George. We’ve got about 5 departments interested so far, but I am hoping to grow that number much larger.

  3. November 4, 2010

    Instead of building from scratch, what about app development for something like Facebook or Elgg? Might be quicker, reach more students, etc? Anyway, I’m at a Canadian university, and so probably not elgible for inclusion in an NSF, so I wish you the best of luck and look forward to hearing more about your experiments in the future!

  4. November 4, 2010

    Your department/institution can certainly participate! As far as I know, NSF only has restrictions on where the funds go – your institution can reap the benefits of the project regardless. If you’re interested, please contact me –

    We definitely do NOT want to use Facebook. Part of the resistance to this system that I hear from administration is that they do not want student data floating freely out on the Internet, outside of institutional control. So that is not an option if we want adoption at even a moderate rate.

    Elgg, however, is an option that we have considered – we may be able to use elgg as a base and create custom functionality to move from there. That will depend somewhat on our programming team, however (which is still not quite nailed down yet). If we decide that’s a realistic option, I will probably also reach out to the elgg developer base… not sure if they’d be receptive to such a plan or not.

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