Social networks as platforms to develop a reflective community of practice within a South African physiotherapy department

This project is being undertaken as part of my participation in the SAFRI/FAIMER programme. I'll be evaluating the use of a social network to facilitate the development of a reflective Community of Practice during 2010/2011. This project will also inform my first PhD objective, part of which was a survey to identify possible factors influencing students use of social networks as part of their learning activities.


Where I just dump stuff that might be useful for this project at some point.

The following is from an email from P.Schmidt for the NRF funding proposal I'm working on with Vivienne Use of sophisticated tools for social networking, including Facebook and mxit is widespread among South African youth and students. These tools have all the features necessary to implement complex learning activities. They are directly in line with the concepts of network building and information analysis outlined by Castells and considered in the National Plan. While students thrive in their use of social networking tools outside of the education institutions, institutional efforts to introduce e-learning technology often encounter student resistance, and require significant training and support services. Rather than bringing the students to the institutional learning locations, why don't we try to bring the institutional learning out into the open spaces where students are already developing and displaying many of the 21st century skills we want them to develop: the analysis of information, effective communication with others, the development of social networks, etc.

Possible research questions:

* Which sophisticated social networking technologies and tools are used by students? For what purpose? What are students' attitudes towards these tools? * What are levels of use and attitudes towards these tools among teaching staff? * What are successful examples and scenarios how these tools could be used to improve teaching and social learning, for example by running courses “in the open” on facebook (or similar non proprietary platforms) * What assessment practices take into account the social learning practices enabled by these technologies * What type of support and training is necessary to help lecturers implement these tools in their teaching and learning practices? * What evaluation frameworks will let institutions track the success (or challenges) of implementing social learning activities using social networking technologies over time?

Introduction and background

A traditional curriculum is based on an accumulated body of knowledge that has been acquired, collated and verified over a long period of time, with experts in a particular field being determined by comparing their assertions to those of the established canon. This method of acquiring knowledge isn't possible in a society where content is becoming available faster than the ability of any one individual to process. While the emergence of the internet and a fully networked society have ushered in a period of convenient access to vast amounts of content, this has often been misinterpreted as access to knowledge. While the distribution of massive amounts of data is certainly welcome, it misses the point that the power of the internet is not in being a content repository, but as a platform to facilitate communication through social networks and Communities of Practice (CoP). The internet has created a realistic opportunity to share and exchange learning experiences, not only beyond the walls of the classroom, but across oceans and continents. As a result of an increasingly connected global society, our acceptance of conventional wisdom is being challenged as the concept of “what knowledge is”, is being redefined as a negotiated outcome of social learning experiences that are tightly integrated within the network, rather than individuals. These ideas do not only force us to reconsider the traditional meanings of “curriculum”, “education”, and “teacher”. They also challenge us to find innovative ways of guiding students through a curriculum where memorising the prescribed content is less important than their ability to make meaning through knowledge sharing within their professional community.

What do I want to do and why? What do our students already know and do? What do they want to do? What are the larger consequences of this project?

This project will create valuable knowledge around the use of a social network to develop a reflective CoP within a South African university physiotherapy department, which may have implications for curriculum development both in this department and other allied health professions. The knowledge and insight gained from this study will also serve to inform future teaching and learning practice. Students will also develop much needed skills around the use of emerging technology to participate in a networked society.

In addition, another impact of this network would be to create a support structure for current postgraduate students in the department. The postgraduate co-ordinator has expressed a desire, based on student feedback (external link to UWC PG blogging project), to use an online environment in which postgrad students could share their experiences, challenges, resources, etc. I believe that this social network could fulfill that purpose, and we are going to move forward to create groups within the network, as well as having a workshop for all registered postgrads. I also hope that these groups and discussions between postgrad students can be public (within the network), in order that undergraduate students can experience some of the language and culture of “the tribe”,1) a concept I'm finding more and more useful in trying to understand the many challenges that our students face upon entry into higher education and the physiotherapy profession.

It seems clear from anecdotal evidence that our graduating students are not the confident, engaging professionals we want to be sending out into community service. I believe that cultivating a strong Community of Practice within the department will go some way to addressing this issue. With the strong interest in social networks like Facebook and MXit among our students, I'd like to investigate whether a social network has a role to play in developing a reflective community of practice within our physiotherapy department, and whether that CoP can provide a platform for our students to develop professionally and personally.

Why social networks? Because we don't think in a linear way. How can you demonstrate structure in multiple Word documents? You stick them all in folder and say “Here, they all belong together.” But our brains don't work that way. We can't be efficient when we try to construct meaning in straight lines. Wikis and other forms of social media free us from the constraints of up-down / left-right formats and allow us to present a flow of ideas in a more natural way. Also:

  • Students' learning experiences are not confined only to the classroom, online spaces are increasingly being used to create PLE
  • Social networks provide a platform for multiple channels of communication that are bi-directional and multimodal
  • There are tools within the network that make space for a diversity of learning and teaching styles
  • Tagging creates useful metadata
  • Content / data can be anonymised and analysed to create a better understanding of student needs and methods of communication between students and staff
Clean up this section and add more on the role of reflection in clinical education
What is the relationship between social media and social networks?

Research question

Do students and staff who participate in a social network as part of a blended approach to teaching and learning in a physiotherapy curriculum derive any educational benefits from participating in the network?

Ask yourself: Can it be answered? Does it measure something specific? Is it feasible to obtain the answer?


To determine if participation in a social network facilitates a change in teaching and learning practice in a physiotherapy department, as well as what the nature of the change is.


  1. To determine if social networks provide additional channels of communication between students and staff
  2. To determine if students use the social network to change their learning practices
  3. To determine if staff use the social network to change their teaching practices
  4. To determine if a social network network can be used to facilitate reflective practice in students and staff

Literature Review

This review of the literature will contextualise the study by establishing relationships between social networks as platforms to facilitate blended learning within a reflective community of practice to improve clinical education, using connectivism and social constructivism as underlying theoretical frameworks.

Clinical education

Discuss the important role of reflection in professional development, as well as the challenges that lie with this i.e. that reflection is not only hard to do, but that little space is set aside in a traditional curriculum. This is the main problem. This section can also highlight the need for educational reform in general, as well as provide alternatives. Make sure to include a short discussion on the UWC Graduate Attributes, and Teaching and Learning policies.

Social constructivism

Social constructivism is a theory of learning in which individuals learn through the social interaction with their environment, meaning that knowledge is not purely objective. In other words, the learner is an active participant in their personal learning experience, generating meaningful knowledge through interaction, and the “teachers” role is more one of facilitation.2)

The role of social experiences as part of the learning process is not a new concept (use older citation). Mott and Wiley (n.d.) state that “…learning is not a simple acquisition activity…” and relies as much on social discourse as it does on solitary study3).

Of particular interest is the use of emerging online tools & cloud-based services that enable distributed groups of loosely connected people to spread more ideas, more quickly than ever before (Katz, 2008, pg. 15)4). In considering the use of Information and Communication Technology in education, Pritchard (2007)5) has suggested that a constructivist framework be used, in which learning is viewed as a process of interaction between what is known and what is to be learned, is social, situated and is a metacognitive process.

Social media and social networks

Social media has been described as a collection of internet technologies that include wikis, blogs and podcasts, but Boyd (2006)6) suggests that any definition of social media must do more than describe a collection of online tools or technologies. It must include the social movement that enables people to interact with each other and with content dynamically, in a way that changes the nature of communication and collaboration. It is this conceptualisation of social media that holds the most promise as an enabler of change in higher education. Social media allows individuals and groups to collaborate, share, interact and engage with each other in near real-time, regardless of time or place, in ways that are fundamentally different than was previously possible (must elaborate on what these “different ways” are). It changes the web from a static repository of content to a dynamic platform for shared discourse and collaboration (the so-called second generation of the web, or “Web 2.0”), allowing loosely connected communities of practice to emerge and dissolve with the changing needs of it's members (Andersen, 2009)7). These online technologies, and the social and cultural norms they are disrupting (Wesch, 2008)8), form the background against which the need for educational reform should be viewed (this need for reform has not been established in this review yet). Mason and Rennie (2008)9) suggest that learning is an activity in which students participate in a socio-cultural context, rather than an individualised one. If learning is ideally a communal activity, we can hypothesise that online communities may be useful places for learners to engage more deeply with content and with each other. It seems clear that online spaces that facilitate social connections could be useful platforms on which engaged learning experiences can be built.

Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice (CoP) can be defined as “…groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”. Wenger (2006) stipulates that three criteria must be satisfied in order for a group to be called a CoP, and which can be developed in order to cultivate one. The first criterion is regarding the domain. A CoP is not merely a networked group of people. Rather, members must share competence or expertise in a shared domain of interest, which may or may not be recognised outside of the group. The second criterion is around the community. In the process of pursuing their shared interest, members must engage with each other and share resources and ideas in order to build relationships that facilitate shared learning experiences. A CoP requires that it's members learn together as a result of their interactions, but not necessarily that they work together or even that they have much in common. And finally, the third criterion is around the practice. A CoP requires that it's members are practitioners of a shared way of doing things (relate this to the notion of “tribes”), and not merely shared interest. Members share resources like experiences, time and stories that facilitate an improved practice (Wenger, 2006)10).

Additional resources:

Blended learning

The use of blending in higher education has been the subject of increasing interest over the past few years, with both students and educators reporting improved teaching and learning experiences (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008)11). Described as a combination of the best components of face-to-face and online approaches (Bourne & Seaman, 2005)12), blended learning attempts to provide a more engaged experience for students and educators. In doing so, it promotes interaction and collaboration in order to achieve higher order learning outcomes (Palloff & Pratt, 2005)13). To highlight the idea that learning is social, Oblinger (2005, p. 22)14) speaks of “co-learning” and the “co-construction” of knowledge, placing an emphasis on communication and collaboration, that ICT is well-placed to facilitate.


Social media are the newest and most innovative tools emerging in the online space, that have the potential to change the relationship between educators and students. However, there is a concomitant change in both pedagogy and curricula that is required. McLean (2003)15) describes how this change is often found to be unsettling for all stakeholders, and thus suggests that all staff and students are actively involved throughout the process of change. Should this project be successful in introducing a new tool for the practice of teaching and learning within the physiotherapy department, all of the relevant stakeholders will need to be involved in it's development and implementation.

Rowe (2008)16) highlighted several challenges to be overcome when considering the use of Information and Communication Technology in South African physiotherapy education. These include poor access to computers and the internet, low levels of digital literacy, and socio-economic factors that disadvantage certain groups of students from the outset (check the article to confirm these factors). If this project is to be successful, it must be implemented with care and deliberation, so as to minimise the cost and time required for some students to participate, but at the same time, to challenge all students and staff to engage with potentially new and exciting teaching and learning strategies.

Discuss change and conflict management. Why should we change? What factors influence change? What will happen if we change? How does the change affect all relevant stakeholders? Will there be any resistance to change?


What information is needed to answer the question? What instrument/s can be used to collect the information? Choose a method to collect, analyse and present the information. This section will describe the process of creating a social network, training staff and students on it's use, describing the assignments that were conducted within the network, the development of the post-assignment questionnaire, the time period in which the project will take place, and the details of how the project outcomes will be evaluated.

Research setting

The research will take place in the Physiotherapy Department at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

Population and sample

The study population will include all registered undergraduate physiotherapy students, as well as the staff within the department. The sample will include all those staff and students who choose to participate.

Research design

The study will make use of a cross-sectional survey conducted following each assignment, in order to determine students' experiences of using a social network as part of their learning. In addition, each lecturer who facilitated an assignment will be asked to participate in a structured interview to explore their experiences of facilitating in an online environment. The data obtained from the survey, as well as from the four interviews will serve to provide rich baseline information that will inform the development of a blended learning approach to teaching in the department.

Following the completion of the assignments, all students will be surveyed again, in order to explore their experiences of using a social network as part of an assignment.

Structured interviews
Use Babbie & Mouton to expand this section. Why interviews and not focus groups? What are the benefits? What are the disadvantages? How will I draw up the structured interview? The study will include four structured interviews for the lecturers involved in the assignments. The first two interviews will take place at the end of the second term, and will include the researcher, and the 2nd and 4th year lecturers who facilitated their assignments online. The third and fourth interviews will take place at the end of the third term, and will include the researcher and the 1st and 3rd year lecturers.

Questionnaire design

There is a lot to expand on here, possibly using Babbie & Mouton as a primary source to explore questionnaire design. At the end of each assignment, all of which will have been completed by the end of the third term, the researcher will conduct a survey of each class using a self-developed, self-administered questionnaire. This will help to determine the effectiveness of a social network to facilitate blended learning, as well as provide valuable information with regards changing teaching and learning practice within a South African physiotherapy department. The questionnaire will make use of both quantitative and qualitative questions to gain a deeper understanding of the participants' experiences using the social network. Quantitative data will be used to gather demographic information, and qualitative data will provide richer information around students' experiences.


Installation of the platform

Wordpress MU (version 2.9.2) was chosen as the base social networking platform, with the addition of the Buddypress extension (version 1.2.3). While other free, open source platforms were considered (e.g. Elgg and Ning), WPMU / Buddypress was chosen because the researcher has experience installing, configuring and maintaining Wordpress blogging environments. The domain was purchased, and directed to a server on which the the social network was installed, and which the researcher has full control and access to.

The following plugins were installed to enhance the functionality of the network, and to provide additional privacy settings. Plugins that have been struck out where removed when they didn't function as they were meant to, or their functionality was deemed inconsequential.

  • Absolute privacy - creates a closed social network that requires registration to participate. Registration can only be performed by a site admin
  • Akismet - Comment spam filter
  • BP group documents - Creates a storage space for members of various groups to share documents
  • BP group management - Enhances group management functionality
  • Buddypress Album+ - Adds photo albums to the network
  • Buddypress Announce Group - Allows the creation of a group that only an administrator can join, in which no other user can post, to be used to site-wide announcements
  • Buddypress Group tags - Allows groups to be organised by tags
  • Buddypress Like - Gives users of a BuddyPress site the ability to 'like' activities, and soon other social elements of the site
  • Group Activity Subscription - Emails users within a group whenever a member of the group posts a message to the group
  • Group wiki extension - Enables the creation of a wiki that can be edited by members of a group
  • Surveys - Enables users to create surveys within the network
  • Tweetstream - Synchronises user tweets into the Activity stream and back
  • Welcome pack - Automatically sends a welcome message to new users on their first login
  • Wibstats - Simple site statistics plugin
  • WP-polls - Enables the creation of short poll that can be placed as a widget in the sidebar
  • I'm still waiting for the completion of a chat plugin that will hopefully be ready during the course of this project

A guest user was first created (to represent a student, rather than the administrator) on the network to test various features to ensure that the social network was functioning normally and no anomalies were found. Students and staff within the physiotherapy department were then registered by the researcher as users on the network, and workshops for the 2nd and 4th year students were conducted during the second term. During the workshop, staff and students were introduced to the basic basic features of the social network, as well as receiving an introduction to the assignment, which will be completed either partially or completely within the network.


During the course of 2010, the researcher will assist other members of staff to conduct appropriate assignments, specific to each year of study, using the social network to either deliver a blend of learning activities, or to provide a support system for participants.

Meetings were held with the relevant lecturers for each assignment, in order to discuss how the social network could best be used to add value to each assignment, as well as to arrange dates for the various workshops. The assignments are normal components of the curriculum, and have not been changed in any significant way to enable participation in the network. Rather, additional components have been added to the assignments, using the network to enhance the experience.

In addition, the lecturer and researcher should have jointly decided on an appropriate assignment for the class, the details of which can be given to the students during the workshop. The initial steps of the workshop can then be tailored around the needs of the assignment.

First year assignment - reflection on the future curriculum
Following the department planning meeting in September, I was thinking about our high dropout rates of students during the first year. I was thinking that it might be useful to get an idea of what our first years might think about what the 3rd and 4th year students were experiencing. Introduction to those clinical experiences at this early stage might better prepare the 1st years for when their time comes. Also, it speaks to Becher's notion of the culture and language of tribes, and this experience might serve as part of the 1st year induction into this tribe. The 1st year assignment will be read the posts of 2nd-4th year students and to write their own reflections on what it felt like to read about those clinical experiences. In addition, they must comment on each others posts.

Second year assignment - disability and rehabilitation in communities and institutions
The second years will be split into groups and will visit various rehabilitation centres, where they will be expected to identify and engage with people with disability, using workbooks to guide them through the process. In addition, they are expected to share their experiences (which for many will be their first patient contacts) within the class by interacting with each other on the social network, using either a blog, activity stream or discussion forum.

Third year assignment - reflections on clinical experiences during clinical placements
The third year students were required to write blog posts of their reflections while on clinical placement during the 4th term. In addition to posting 2 blog posts, they were required to comment on the reflections of at least 3 other posts.

4th year assignment - implementing an intervention in a community sports team
The 4th years will be split into groups and are expected to visit a sports club within their communities. Through interviews and by conducting a survey / need analysis, they will identify a component of a sports team into which they can provide input. They will have to document their progress and report back on their findings. They will be expected to use the social network both as a support system within their own groups, but also as a class. In addition, they will use the network to share ideas and suggestions or advice with others.

Facilitating online engagement

Image taken from Validating a Measurement Tool of Presence in Online Communities of InquiryDuring each assignment, the researcher and other members of staff will provide input into the network using the Community of Inquiry (CoI)framework, developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000).17) In this model, which assumes that online learning requires the development of a community that is supportive of meaningful inquiry, three types of online presence are required. They include a social presence, where the copresence of teachers and learners to create an environment in which productive communication facilitates the achievement of shared educational objectives. The second type of presence is cognitive, which refers to an individual students engagement with the course content within the online network. The third and final type of presence is that of the teacher, who promotes interaction, and provides feedback and direction, especially when other forms of presence are lacking.18)

Make sure to include: Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge - Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice

Following a conversation with my supervisor, I realised that the network could also help us to break down barriers between staff and students, and that we could achieve this in part by “humanising” ourselves. I've been coming across this idea among students that lecturers are “lecturers” and that we lack some of the characteristics of human beings e.g. having families we love, experiencing intellectual challenges just like they do, etc. I'm going to try and address this by incorporating some components of a poster presentation I came across at HELTASA '09, which speaks about a humanisation model of enhancing social presence in online learning environments.19)

Data analysis

  • Quantitative and qualitative data from the post-assignment surveys of the students
  • Qualitative data from the 4 structured interviews of lecturers
  • Quantitative data from the network logs



  • Term 1: questionnaire design and installation of the social network
  • Term 2: 2nd and 4th year assignments are being run within the network, beginning immediately following a workshop
    • 2nd year workshop - 6 April
    • 4th year workshop - 9 April
    • Post-assignment surveys conducted on all 2nd and 4th year students
    • Post-assignment interviews conducted on the 2nd and 4th year lecturers
  • Term 3: 1st and 3rd year workshops and assignments running within the network
    • 1st year workshop (date to be decided)
    • 3rd year workshop - 27 July
    • Post-assignment focus groups conducted with selected participants, based on network activity
  • Term 4: data analysis and project writing up


An open source social networking platform that is free from licensing restrictions and cost will be installed on a private server to ensure that students and staff have full control over what happens to their data. This server has no running costs associated with it. The project will be run as part of the researcher's PhD project within the department, which has received funding from a variety of sources, including the National Research Foundation and university grants. Thus, any unforeseen costs that may arise during the course of the project will be covered through that funding.

Ethical considerations

As this project will fall within the domain of the researcher's PhD, ethical clearance has already been obtained from the faculty Higher Degrees Committee at the University of the Western Cape, the Senate Higher Degrees Committee, the Registrar of the university and the head of the physiotherapy department. The research will be conducted according to ethical practices pertaining to the study of human subjects as specified by the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences Research Ethics committee of the University of the Western Cape. Students and staff will be invited to participate in the study and informed that their participation in the project is voluntary, that they may withdraw from the study at any stage, and that there will be no negative consequences should they choose to do so. Prior to participating in the study, each potential respondent will receive an information sheet so that they can make an informed choice about participating. Participants will also be required to complete a written consent form. Anonymity and confidentiality will be ensured throughout the project, and no personally identifiable information will be gathered. The results of the study will be made available to the physiotherapy department. Assignments will be marked by the relevant teacher who conducted the assignment, and students will then have the opportunity to have all of their personal data removed from the network prior to the researcher analysing it.

Note: These ethical considerations pertain to the survey that will take place following participation in the social network as part of the requirements of the various modules that students take during their course. Participation in the social network will form part of the continuous evaluation component of a module (i.e. the assignment mentioned in the Method section), and as such, all students will have to participate. Participation in the class assignments that will take place within the social network will not be voluntary or anonymous, and students will not allowed to withdraw.






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Ntomboxolo Ndereya, C. & Nel, L. (2009). Enhancing social presence in online learning environments: a humanisation model. Poster presentation at the HELTASA Conference, University of Johannesburg
phd_cop_social_networks.txt · Last modified: 2010/09/15 12:14 by Michael Rowe