My interview as a guest on the podcast, A Dash of S.A.LT. (Society and Learning Today)
In late 2021 I was a guest on a fascinating podcast series hosted by Dr. Shelli Ann Garland. We had a broad and engaging discussion about connective learning, social media and digital literacy, to name a few of the topics we discussed. The episode was posted today, January 21, 2022:
S2 Ep26: How Do We Encourage Social Relationships and Human Connection in Online Learning?: A conversation on digital literacy and connected learning in the 21st century.
Ellen DeGeneres said, “Be open to learning new lessons, even if they contradict the lessons you learned yesterday.”
What if we assumed that students approach every course they take with prejudices that may affect their academic success? What can educators do to break through that “confirmation bias” to help students learn more effectively?
Assistant Professor Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College defines confirmation bias as “accepting information that reinforces a predisposition, belief or attitude.” I would expand that definition even further to describe confirmation bias as “an irrational prejudice in favor of preconceptions that we prefer to believe, even when they are incorrect.” Nyhan also points out that the reverse side of this is “disconfirmation bias—people tend to be unduly skeptical of information that contradicts some previous position they have, or point of view.”
It’s a common human failing to disregard facts and adhere to the information that reinforces what we already believe. People have sentimental, religious, political, ideological and psychosocial reasons for doing this, and our role as educators is not to judge this predisposition, but acknowledge it and be aware of how it can affect the students we’re teaching.
Here are 3 ways confirmation bias can impact eLearning, along with an approach that can help educators mitigate the effects of it. Educators can take these into consideration to help ensure their students have fewer impediments to learning.
1. Students May Presume That They Have An Exclusive Learning Style
While not an actual example of confirmation bias, this illustrates how educational folklore with no basis in formal research can create psychological barriers to learning. Many students have heard or been taught that each person has their own style of learning that helps them learn better. For example, some people will insist they are “visual learners” and then use that folklore to rationalize why they are having trouble learning from textbooks or audio.
In fact, recent research has shown us that many people have learning preferences that they choose because they enjoy a particular type of learning media, such as text, audio or video, but their preferences don’t mean that they are incapable of learning in other formats as well. It may only mean that they enjoy one learning style the most and will be more motivated if that learning style is presented. For educators, there is no pedagogical need to assess learning styles, but they can consider providing more options on eLearning platforms to enrich the learning experience. To find out more about this research, read “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” in the December 2008 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
2. If It’s An Instructor-Led Course, Students May Display Confirmation Bias Toward The Course Content Based On What They Know Or Think They Know About The Instructor(s)
In an eLearning course facilitated by an instructor(s), students are usually provided with an instructor’s bio and background. Of course, they’re not limited to that—students often Google their instructor’s name(s) to find out more about them. While studies have been conducted about instructors showing race and gender biases toward their students, student biases toward their instructor and/or the course designers can often impact the learning experience, even in the case of an online course.
Students who have racial or gender biases toward their instructor(s) or who disagree with the political, philosophical or religious beliefs their instructors seem to espouse, may become resistant to learning or even withdraw from a course on that basis, even if the course content itself is not an issue. Conversely, student confirmation bias may lead them to only seek out courses and instructors that seem to support their preconceived beliefs rather than attempting courses that may challenge their beliefs or expand their knowledge.
3. Students May Have Preconceived Ideas About The Course Content
Confirmation bias can negatively impact the way students perceive their course content. If they are strongly biased against some or all of the course content for personal, political, religious or ideological reasons, or simply because they were previously misinformed about the topic, they may consciously or subconsciously resist learning from the course. Or they may decide not to take the course or drop the course partway through.
While there’s value in aligning our educational goals with our core values, the drive to market and monetize eLearning may lead some students (or companies seeking courses for their employees) to over-consume bespoke eLearning courses—an education buffet that allows students to select the information they want to learn. However, if they self-select learning content based on their confirmation biases, they may not benefit from more balanced and comprehensive learning that has been designed by educators.
How Educators And Educational Content Developers Can Mitigate Confirmation Bias
Everyone brings their biases into their lifelong activities and experiences, including their education. The exercise for both educators and students is to become more self-aware and transparent about those biases so that we can declare them (even if only to ourselves) and ensure we are open to learning ideas that challenge our way of thinking rather than allowing our confirmation bias to “cherrypick” what we learn, thereby limiting the scope of our knowledge.
As an educator or as a creator of eLearning content, it may be important to consider the demographics of your students and be transparent about any biases your educational content may present, but also be willing to:
Challenge students in the course outline or introduction to be aware of their own biases for or against the content.
Engage in dialogues with students throughout the course and help them identify where their biases may be creating a resistance to learning or even leading them to abandon or withdraw from a course simply because they can’t reconcile their preconceived ideas with what they are learning.
There’s no value judgment in this approach—the goal is to foster open-minded learning with critical thinking skills that allow students to gain the greatest value possible from their learning experiences.
A Guide to the Social Learning Group Type for Facebook Groups
One of the largest and most influential companies in the world made its first strategic move into eLearning, and hardly anyone noticed. In April 2019, Facebook introduced a social learning feature for Facebook Groups that allows any group administrator to format the content into structured units so that groups can author and deliver courses to members.
This small but significant enhancement to the Facebook Group functionality and user experience may seem incidental, but it’s all part of the social media kingdom’s master plan. An April 30, 2019, article on Bloomberg.com, said “Facebook Inc. unveiled a redesign that focuses on the Groups feature of its main social network, doubling down on a successful but controversial part of its namesake app — and another sign that Facebook is moving toward more private, intimate communication.”
Even Facebook’s detractors have to admit that the company is crafty—it makes mistakes, but it operates strategically—so the new social learning feature in Facebook Groups is not a random foray into eLearning or a McRib-style marketing miss. Almost certainly it is a carefully considered move into the social learning trend, enabling Facebook Group users to author courses in a quick and dirty way without intimidating them with too many features. It’s a beta test without being in beta mode. The social learning functionality in Facebook groups is not meant for eLearning professionals as much as for the average group admin with little experience in instructional design and course authoring who wants to teach something that can be accessible via a private or public group.
For several years, people have been using Facebook Groups as part of their eLearning, but not as an eLearning platform itself. The last time I taught my four-week Social Media Strategy course at Royal Roads University, I asked students to create a private Facebook group to share content and promote discussions. Course developers also publish media such as videos on Facebook groups for their students. Facebook has been observing this uptake in eLearning and has received many suggestions from users about new features they would like to have added to Facebook groups.
It makes sense for social networks to support social learning in a more integrated, responsive and fully interactive way. That’s what Facebook’s social learning features are beginning to do, and we can expect that as the functionality becomes more sophisticated, professional course developers will start using Facebook Groups more frequently as a course authoring tool and learning management system.
There’s solid, this-decade research that shows how social media can be highly effective in powering social learning. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (1977) anticipated the rise of social media in the 2000s by proposing that people learn from one another through observation, imitation and modeling. Then in 2012-2013, social network analysis started emerging when researchers began to study people in online social communities such as Facebook as well as non-tech social networks such as clubs, families, friendship groups, hobby groups, professional associations and political parties.
How It Works
Facebook’s social learning format is easiest to use when setting up a new group, rather than trying to retrofit a thriving group. Facebook Help explains how the social learning options work:
A social learning group is like a regular group except:
Admins can organize posts into units and change the order in which they appear.
Group members can click I’m done to let the admin know they’ve interacted with the unit.
Admins can view group insights and see details on unit and post completion.
Step 1: Create a New Facebook Group
After you login to your Facebook profile (you need one in order to create a group), select the Create link in the blue bar at the top (beside the Home link) and create a group by following the step-by-step instructions. You’ll be choosing whether to designate your group privacy settings as Public, Closed or Secret. After you make this selection, your group will appear will mostly default settings.
Step 2: Select the Social Learning Group Type
Here’s where you’ll be able to select the social learning group type. Go to the …More button and select Edit Group Settings.
Next, select one of four Group Types, then select the Social Learning option. If you happen to select the wrong one by mistake, don’t worry—you can go back to Edit Group Settings and select Change Group Type.
Step 3: Select the Options You Prefer
You’ll see two options for the Landing Tab—the main tab that appears when people see the front end of your group. One is for Discussion and one is for Units. A Unit is a way of dividing, ordering and structuring all your posts. You can create as many Units as you need in your group and the Units can later be re-organized, too.
Basically, the Discussion option lets Facebook organize the order of your posts, usually chronologically, so you might prefer to select the Units option instead so you can manually choose how posts are organized and ordered in each Unit.
Other options on the Group Settings page include a Description of the group (essential!), a geographical location (optional), tags (important for Public groups to help people find your group when they are searching by topic or keywords) and add Apps (not many available yet).
You can also link an existing Facebook page related to the group or create a new Page, select a limited number of colors to use for the group theme (design elements) and select a custom web address so that the URL is more human-readable when you share it.
Most importantly, you can add new Social Learning Units to your group and use the Instant Games feature to allow members to discover Facebook’s Instant Games and help gamify your social learning (a little bit).
After you create each Unit, do NOT select Make This Unit Optional as you won’t be able to follow the progress of members as they complete each Unit.
You will also see additional options to Show Progress (to the member who is taking the course), Allow Members to Share When They Complete a Unit (if you think this is an option members would like), and Re-Order Units (if you need to do so).
Back to the main Edit Settings menu—there are other standard group settings such as Chat Permissions, Membership Pre-approvals, and Posting Permissions and Approvals, which can always be altered later.
Don’t skip the instructional design process just because it’s so easy to set up one of these social learning groups. Even with a simple course in a Facebook Group, it’s important to plan and implement your course using instructional design principles.
Step 4: Launch your Group and Share it With the Public or Invited Members
As you can see, even a fairly junior league LMS provides many more options than what you’ll find now in Facebook Groups, such as scoring and weighting, but the Social Learning format is interactive enough to allow users to indicate when they have completed tasks in each Unit and then enable the Admin to see their progress. And Facebook’s Group Insights provides additional metrics about Group activities.
Those who want to be early adopters and try the Social Learning format in Facebook Groups will likely be rewarded for their efforts because Facebook will be eager to listen to feedback from admins and will most likely add many more social learning features over time. You’re also engaging the mighty engines of social media by having your course embedded in the world’s most prolific social network.