Shouldn’t we being encouraging ‘social’ more?

Flickr Photo CC BY by DaveFayram

I’ve blogged a few times recently about the focus of my PhD — social networking in UG Medical Education. Many philosophers have considered actions a result of society. Durkheim’s classical work suggests suicide is a social, rather than personal, ‘phenomenon’. Further when we think of things like the Toxteth Riots here in Liverpool, the Occupy movement or indeed the London Riots a few years back, they are certainly social movements (with reports that social networking sites were used to coordinate elements of the latter). If so much of the world, including a seemingly personal action such as suicide, is actually a result of society, to what extent is education and ‘achievement’ (without wanting to philosophise over what achievement actually is or should be)? We see a lot of espoused theories in education towards social constructivist pedagogy, and plenty of mentions of Communities of Practice, but do we really think about how social relationships affect learning? It’s early stages in my PhD but I’ve come across a couple of really interesting articles that I wanted to put some words against. The concept of homophily refers to the ‘tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others’, and research into how students (in these cases UG Med students) form social networks (outwith the technology) demonstrates some interesting and significant patterns.

  • Homophily impacts academic achievement — we’re more likely to behave, and perform, similar to those people we are close with.
  • Studies of social networking generally find clustering by race and ethnicity (and I presume religious groups too). This is homophily in action:
“A student may use ethnicity as a surrogate for beliefs and attitudes, presuming — possibly erroneously — that because someone is a member of their own ethnic group, they hold similar values to themselves, and also presuming that people from a different ethnic group hold different values. (Woolf, et al; 2012, p584).”
  • When medical students include certain types of people in the personal learning networks, they perform better in summative assessments e.g. academic staff; students from subsequent years of study; or those professionals who they might meet whilst on placement (junior doctors, consultants, etc).
  • You would automatically think forming tight knit groups are a good thing for undergraduate students, but in the learning context, the information an individual node might come across is limited by the nodes they connect with, and with the concept of homophily, they may already have access to that information anyway. It is those people that ‘bridge’ these tight networks that perform better. This is Granovetter’s concept of ‘strength of weak ties’, as these nodes can help information flow between networks. Ultimately they have access to a broader range of information to learn from and apply — without them there wouldn’t be a complete network as the tight groups would be limited to themselves.
  • Social Capital is similar here — the more people that connect with me, is related to the amount of information I am open to.

So considering that, I’ve got a few questions:

  1. If there are such definite links between engaging in social networks and better performance, shouldn’t we be encouraging ‘social’ a bit more?
  2. Shouldn’t we encourage the breaking down of tight knit networks in favour of being a bit more open? This might even help issues of racism by encouraging integration in academic life (although I have no data to hand which suggests racism is active or otherwise in university life).
  3. We know the potential of technology to support social networking, so why aren’t we doing more to encourage students to take advantage of it? Least of all, how can there possibly by antipathy towards the use of social networks?
  4. Of course with encouraging the use of social networking sites, we must also educate students as to how to conduct themselves appropriately; how to safeguard; and how to develop a lasting professional identity. This happens in pockets across the sector. We need to do more.

There’s lots more with this came from… Peter @Reedyreedles References Granovetter, M. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360–1380. Woolf, K., Potts, H. W. W., Patel, S., & McManus, I. C. (2012). The hidden medical school: a longitudinal study of how social networks form, and how they relate to academic performance. Medical Teacher, 34(7), 577–86. Vaughan, S., Sanders, T., Crossley, N., O’Neill, P., & Wass, V. (2015). Bridging the gap: the roles of social capital and ethnicity in medical student achievement. Medical Education, 49(1), 114–23.

Originally published at on April 24, 2015.