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Educação em Revista

versão impressa ISSN 0102-4698versão On-line ISSN 1982-6621

Educ. rev. vol.34  Belo Horizonte  2018  Epub 06-Ago-2018

http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0102-4698187154 

Article

TEACHERS AND STUDENTS ON FACEBOOK: COLLABORATION AS A WAY OF POTENTIATING AGENCY

Fernando Rezende da Cunha Junior 1  *
http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3134-436X

1 Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.


ABSTRACT:

The aim of this study is to describe how the use of Facebook groups influence teachers and students to become collaborative agents. In order to understand how such process occurs, this article follows the Cultural-Historical Activity Theory principles (LEONTIEV, 1978; VYGOTSKY, 1987; ENGESTRÖM, 2015), and is methodologically based on the Critical Collaborative Research (MAGALHÃES, 1998). Data used in this study was collected from the newsfeed of six groups on Facebook, one group being composed by teachers and five groups with teachers and students, and from questionnaires that were answered by teachers and students in different moments. Data was analyzed following the socio-discursive interactionism (BRONCKART, 1999) and conversational analysis (KERBRAT-ORECCHIONI, 2006). Our results suggest that participants present an evolution in relation to agency and, due to the collaborative aspect of the research, it was possible to expand the activities beyond the initial research goals.

KEYWORDS: Collaboration; Online groups; Collaborative agency; Expansion

RESUMO:

Este estudo tem como objetivo descrever como o uso de grupos no Facebook colabora para que professores e alunos se tornem agentes colaborativos. Para compreendermos como tal processo ocorre, este artigo segue os princípios da Teoria da Atividade Sócio Histórico Cultural (TASCH) (LEONTIEV, 1978; VYGOTSKY, 1987; ENGESTRÖM, 2015) e está metodologicamente baseado na Pesquisa Crítica de Colaboração (MAGALHÃES, 1998). Os dados utilizados foram coletados do feed de notícias de seis grupos no Facebook, sendo um grupo de professores e cinco grupos de professor-alunos, e de questionários, que foram respondidos pelos professores e alunos em momentos distintos. Os dados foram analisados seguindo-se os preceitos do interacionismo sócio discursivo (BRONCKART, 1999) e da análise de conversação (KERBRAT-ORECCHIONI, 2006). Os resultados das análises sugerem que os participantes apresentam uma evolução em relação à agência, e que devido ao caráter colaborativo da pesquisa, foi possível expandir as atividades além dos objetivos iniciais da pesquisa.

Palavras-chave: Colaboração; Grupos online; Agência colaborativa; Expansão

INTRODUCTION

Communicative digital tools have shaped the way we interact with other people (ISHTAIWA & ABUREZEQ, 2015)2015, and are more and more integrated to our daily lives (VIVANCO, 2015). That was possible due to changes introduced by the so-called Web 2.0. As opposed to previous internet technologies, Web 2.0 allowed users to create and share content collaboratively on the web (ALBION, 2008; THOMAS and LI, 2008), that is, it enabled interaction between users.

Social Networking sites (SNS), like Facebook or Twitter, are examples of digital environments that enable such collaboration among participants. According to van Dijk (2013), such social networks tend to influence social and cultural norms, which justifies its use by teachers and students. Besides, Facebook enables, for instance, to create groups, which can be used for specific purposes (CUNHA Jr., van KRUISTUM, & van OERS, 2016). Since it is a known feature of Facebook participants, such technicalities of SNS may provide teachers the opportunity to create online groups for educational purposes (CHARLTON et al., 2012). However, the integration of digital technology does not occur naturally in a school context. According to Gomes (2015), there is a difficulty of the school to open itself to what is new.

In the last years we have observed many different studies about the use of digital tools for educational purposes, for instance, the use of podcasts (FREIRE, 2015), or about the implementation of information technology at schools (VIVANCO, 2015). In the case of Facebook, most studies are about undergraduate students (OLDMEADOW et al., 2012; ALAGOZ, 2013; LEDBETTER e FINN, 2013), or about undergraduate teachers (YEH, 2010; CHEN et al., 2011; HOU, 2015). Thus, there is still a lack of studies that approach teachers who are already in-service, and about students from other educational levels, such as secondary education students.

Consequently, this study aims at filling the gaps mentioned before, analyzing how secondary education students and teachers used Facebook groups for educational purposes. More specifically, we approach how participants used the groups on Facebook, and how such a tool enables agency of the participants, and how agency evolves over time. The use of Facebook groups provides the teachers a collaborative environment, enabling a joint knowledge construction (CUNHA Jr., van OERS, & KONTOPODIS, 2016). In order to understand the relation between agency and collaboration, as well as its evolution, it is necessary to describe our concepts of agency and collaboration, which will be done in the following section.

THEORETICAL BACKGROUND

Students and teachers as collaborative agents at school

Researchers from different parts of the world have studied how students and teachers become agents in the teaching-learning process (GUTSTEIN, 2007; KUMPULAINEN et al., 2010; EBRAHIM, 2011; GOODMAN e EREN, 2013; HILPPÖ et al., 2015; SANNINO, 2015). For those researchers, agency is an individual characteristic, and can be defined, for instance, as “the power subjects have to choose what comes next” (LINDGREN e MCDANIEL, 2012), or even as “the capacity an individual has to make the difference to a pre-existent state (GIDDENS, 1986). Such studies focus, for example, on how students improve their grades or how student become more engaged on classroom activities.

Considering that background, we understand agency as an ability subjects have to control their own actions, as described by Laitinen and her colleagues (2016), by freely and responsibly being engaged on the activities. Thus, in this paper we still consider the individual aspect of agency, since students can also use the Facebook groups to achieve personal objectives.

Considering the educational context as a potential collaborative space, such definitions of agency are not enough to explain the relations and interactions among students, and between teachers and students. Thus, as a way of complementing the notion of agency, we use the notion of collaborative agency. That concept, which proposed by Miettinen (2013), arises when two or more subjects from different areas work together to develop a new product or service that they would not be able to develop alone.

In this paper, as opposed to Miettinen, we understand collaborative agency as a collective ability, in which the subjects work collaboratively in order to find a solution for a common problem, and at the same time, they are able to transfer the solution to something beyond the scope of the original activity (LEMOS, 2017). However, it is necessary that the subjects - in our case the teachers and students - become individual agents. By becoming agents, students and teachers have the opportunity to collaborate with each other, and by collaborating they may envision a shared object, and not only the individual objects for the activity.

We can identify the emergence of collaborative agency in two ways. First, through the results of the activities, that is, how the initial activities develop and are potentially expanded to other contexts. Second, through linguistic markers, such as the use of pronouns and verbs in the first-person plural, which may indicate collaboration among the participants.

Critical Collaboration and Cultural-Historical Activity Theory

In order to understand how teachers and students collaborate with each other in the Facebook groups, and how they become collaborative agents during the teaching-learning process, this study is framed on the Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) (LEONTIEV, 1978; VYGOTSKY, 1987; van OERS, 2012; ENGESTRÖM, 2015). That framework allows us to understand how the context influences and affects the analyzed activities.

According to Leontiev (1978), every intentional human activity starts from a need, and is oriented towards an object. Since we are considering a school community, it is important for us to consider the different needs from the different participants. For example, the management team may have the need to use Facebook groups as a way of fulfilling the requirements from the Brazilian national educational guidelines (BRASIL, 2000), while students may understand the use of digital media in class as a way of bringing to school what they already use on their daily routine.

From a CHAT perspective, men create new tools or adapt pre-existing ones to perform activities, so that the tools mediate the activity to achieve the object of the activity (VYGOTSKY, 2001). In our research context, we consider the Facebook groups as a mediational communicative tool, which provides the participants with an environment with the potential to develop collaboration.

Together with the process of creation or adaptation of tools, the participants of an activity establish rules to be followed (ENGESTRÖM, 1999). However, since the groups on Facebook are new in the school context, its use may require constant adaptations, or even the creation of new rules. Considering that the activities developed by the teachers and students on Facebook groups are inserted in a context that stimulates collaboration among them, despite following the rules participants still have a certain degree of freedom to change them. Thus, by creating or recreating the rules collaboratively, participants feel themselves more responsible and engaged in the activities (CUNHA Jr., van OERS, et al., 2016).

In order to enable a collaborative environment to the participants, we followed the methodological perspective of Critical-Collaborative Research (CCR) (MAGALHÃES, 1998; NININ, 2006; LIBERALI e FUGA, 2012). For the CCR perspective all participants, including the researcher, are responsible for the development of the activities, so there is no imposition by any part involved. Thus, collaboration can be understood as a process of intentional participation, with discourses mediated by a tool, and as a way of joint knowledge construction (CUNHA Jr., van KRUISTUM, et al., 2016).

RESEARCH CONTEXT

This study is part of a research project started in July/2012 and had the participation of 43 teachers and more than 500 students of the two-last year of elementary education and students from secondary education. All participants were from public schools from the metropolitan area of São Paulo and from the countryside of Minas Gerais. We created two types of groups. First, there was a group only for teachers, in which they could exchange experiences on the use of digital tools with the students. Second, there were groups of teacher-students, which could be used according to the specific needs of each classroom, for instance, for reviewing content or to discuss what had been started in the classroom.

The initial aim for the group of teachers was to enable a communicative channel in a virtual space for teachers of different areas and places. For the groups of teacher-students, the focus was to improve communication between teachers and students, considering that most of the times the big number of students per class does not allow the teachers to interact properly with students. Besides, the use of an open online platform is an alternative to minimize the lack of access to digital tools at schools, considering that there are no digital tools at schools, but at the same time teachers and students are already connected to Facebook. Thus, this research used only devices owned by teachers and students, such as mobile telephones or tablets, and did not rely on any technological support from schools.

In order to follow what was done in each group of teacher-students, five teachers allowed the researcher to participate on them. In this study we will focus on how participants agency evolved either in the group of teachers and in the groups of teacher-students. Figure 1 provides an overview of how the research was organized.

Figure 1 Scheme of how we organized the group of teachers and groups of teacher-students on Facebook. Note that only ten of the teachers were represented in Figure 1

Participants

Group of Teachers (GT): From the 43 teachers that participated on the research, 18 were invited by the researcher, and the others were invited and added to the group by the teachers themselves. The group had 30 female teachers and 13 male teachers. All of them had graduation on their respective fields of teaching. There were 18 teachers younger than 30, 15 between 31-40, and 16 older than 41. On regard to teaching experience, nine teachers had less than 5-year experience, eight between 6-10-year experience, 11 between 11-15-year experience, and 15 with more than 15-year experience. All the teachers were teaching at public schools from São Paulo and Minas Gerais.

Groups of teacher-students: Students participating in the groups were between 14 and 18 years old. The groups were named according to the subject taught by the teachers, and will be referred to as G1-Biology, G2-Sciences, G3-History, G4-English, and G5-Portuguese.

Every teacher had the autonomy to choose how they would work with their groups and how they would select the students. In G1-Biology, G3-History, and G5-Portuguese, the teachers worked with only one class, while on G2-Sciences, and G4-English, the teachers invited students from different classes, but used only one group on Facebook. There were even cases of teachers who worked with more than one class and used one group on Facebook for each class. Table 1 depicts in more details how the groups were organized.

Table 1 General organization of the groups of Teacher-Students 

Group Subject Teacher’s age Teaching experience (in years) State of school Weekly classes Students per group Classes per group
G1-Biology Biology 26 5 Minas Gerais 2 22 1
G2-Sciences Sciences 30 8 Minas Gerais 2 220 7
G3-Históry History 26 5 Minas Gerais 2 33 1
G4-English English 30 9 São Paulo 2 77 3
G5-Portuguese Portuguese 34 10 São Paulo 6 33 1

Data sources

Data used in this study comprise posts from the GT, posts from the five groups of teacher-students, and a questionnaire responded to by students and teachers.

Posts

Posts from the GT comprehend the period between June/2012 to July/2014. In total, we analyzed thirty-six posts from that group. Posts from the groups of teacher-students are from June/2013 to July/2014. In total, 238 posts were analyzed. In order to get the posts from teachers and students, we printed a .pdf file of each group every six months, with all the posts and comments of each period.

Questionnaires

The questionnaire responded to by the teachers aimed at identifying the difficulties faced by them when using the groups. In addition, we tried to find possible solutions for their problems in order to improve the groups. The questionnaire was composed by eight questions and was sent to the teachers as a personal message on Facebook.

The questionnaire responded to by the students aimed at providing an understanding about students’ perspective on the use of the Facebook groups. The questionnaire was created using freeonlinesurvey.com, and sent to the students as a link by August 2013 and August 2014, and could be accessed from the groups of teacher-students. The questionnaire consisted of eleven questions, being six multiple-choice questions, three in which students could choose more than one answer, and two open questions.

Methods of data analysis

In this study, the posts from the groups were analyzed following the socio-discursive interaction framework (BRONCKART, 1999), and under conversational analysis perspective (KERBRAT-ORECCHIONI, 2006). Besides, we considered some multimodal features of the posts, as suggested by Kress (2003), as described on Table 2.

In order to analyze the posts, we used Atlas.ti, which enabled us to perform a qualitative analysis of the data. First, the posts were coded according to who started or responded to it (commented the post), as well as the number of people who “liked” or “saw” the posts, and the date in which each interaction occurred. It is important to highlight that we considered four aspects of a post: who posts, who comments, who likes and who sees. Each of these aspects requires a higher level of attention than the other. That is, posting demands more efforts, while seeing a post requires less. Such analysis enabled us to identify how the interactions among students and teachers evolved over time.

The other step of the analysis was to consider some linguistic aspects of the posts. First, we analyzed the use of pronouns, which enabled us to understand the enunciate responsibility (BAKHTIN, 1952), as well as the use of the first-person plural of verbs, which combined to the use of pronouns enables us to understand the evolution of participants’ agency. The responses to the questionnaires - both teachers’ and students’ responses - were analyzed using the same process described to the second step of analysis of the posts.

Table 2 Categories of analysis 

Posts
1. Who posts Teacher or student
2. Post commented by Teacher or students
3. Date and number Posts were classified according to the date and counted by period
4. Seen by and Likes The number of people who saw or liked a post.
5. Turns Initiative or responsive. Initiative are turns that start a new thematic content for discussion. Responsive are turns that reply another turn.
6. Thematic content Thematic content is the main subject that emerges from a discourse.
7. Enunciate responsibility enunciate responsibility indicates if a person feels himself responsible for an activity or if he transfers the responsibility to another person.

Ethical considerations

All teachers and students participated as volunteers, and their information were kept anonymous in this study. No names of students or teachers were used. In addition, the level of privacy of each group on Facebook was set as “secret”, that is, only the participants of the groups can see the posts or interact in the groups. Besides, an informed consent was given by the parents of students younger than 18. Finally, the Ethical Committee of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam approved this research.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

In order to observe how the participants became agents during the development of the activities, and how agency evolved over time, we divided the period of two years considered in this study (from July 2012 to June 2014) in four periods of six months. Those periods of time are referred to as Period 1 (from July/2012 to December/2012), Period 2 (from January/2013 to June/2013), Period 3 (from July/2013 to December/2013), and Period 4 (from January/2014 to June/2014). During Period 1 we have data only from GT, while the groups of teacher-students started their activities in Period 2.

From participants to agents

GT and the groups of teacher-students presented similar use patterns in the two first periods. Considering the number of posts per period, GP presented an increase in the number of interactions from Period 1 to Period 2. That increase could be observed from the number of posts and from the number of comments per posts. The reason for that was the start of the activities in the groups of teacher-students, which made the teachers to discuss more about the use of Facebook groups with students at GT.

According to Leontiev (1978), the need is an essential factor to human activity. Thus, when teachers started using the groups on Facebook with their students, they had a bigger need to discuss with other teachers what to do in the groups of students. Consequently, teachers of GT left the position of spectators in that group and became agents. However, such engagement of teachers at GT is compatible with the definitions of agency at the individual level, that is, as described by Giddens (1986), the participants started changing a pre-stablished stated of an activity.

The same process of increasing interactions could be observed in the groups of teacher-students. The number of posts changed from 24 to 94. The number of comments went from 22 to 127, and the number of likes from 47 to 170. Such increase in the number of interactions was justified by the students in their answers to the questionnaire. For instance, 50% of the students responded that they felt more engaged to the activities because of the use of Facebook groups, and that they could improve their academic performance, since the posts enabled them to deepen the discussions of what they had studied in class.

The increase in the number of interactions can also be understood as a first sign of agency from students. However, agency is still on the individual level, as described by previous literature (HAAPASAARI e KEROSUO, 2015; HILPPÖ et al., 2015). That individual level of agency can be proved by students’ lexical choices. By responding to the questionnaire “I improved my grades” or “I participate more in the group”, the use of the pronoun I may indicate the focus on the subject, and not on the group.

From individual agents to collaborators

During Periods 2 and 3, we observed a change in GT. With the increase of use of the groups of teacher-students, there was a decrease in the number of interactions. That occurred, according to the teachers of GT, for one reason: they had a limited time to use Facebook. Consequently, instead of discussing what they did with their students at GT, the teachers opted for giving more attention to the groups of students.

In that moment, we could understand that rupture from GT as a way of agency from teachers. When they realized that they would not supply the demand of the two groups they were participating, they opted to participate only in the group of students. Despite being an individual action, that is, from each teacher, teachers chose to collaborate with students.

Even though the number of posts in GT decreased, the teachers understood the use of Facebook as a way of enabling collaboration in the school community. For one of the teachers, “the use of Facebook would be possible at school if we {teachers} discussed with the students the way of using it”. According to Magalhães (1998; 2016), the teacher’s speech can be understood as a movement towards critical collaboration, since the rules of the activities would be stablished with the students, and not imposed to the students.

On regard to the group of teacher-students, there was a constant increase in the number of interactions from period to period. The number of posts and comments could prove such increase from students in each group. In the first period of the groups of teacher-students (Period 2), there was an average of two comments per post, while in the second period (Period 3) the average was six comments.

According to the responses of the questionnaire given by the students, the use of Facebook groups enabled more collaboration among students. One student responded, “if the teacher does not respond to our questions, the other classmates will do”. The use of the plural form in the second statement can be understood as a way of implicating the other classmates in the activity, as described by Kerbrat-Orecchioni (2006).

The students also understood the use of groups on Facebook as a way of collaborating with the students who were absent to classes. According to one of the students, “when I miss a class, I can see what happened at school because the other classmates post things in the group on Facebook”. Although he included and gave the responsibility to the classmates for posting in the groups, as suggested by Bakhtin (1952), the result of the action is still focused on the individual level (I can see).

Another advantage of collaboration in the groups of teacher-students was that the response time to the questions became faster, which according to the students also resulted on learning improvement: “I learn more when the other classmates reply. Sometimes they have a more interesting answer than the teacher’s!”

In this last case, we could understand that the group of teacher-students enabled a new organization of the teaching-learning context. By collaborating with each other, students detach themselves from the traditional teaching model, as described by Freire (1987), in which the teacher teaches, and students learn. By using the groups, they see knowledge as something constructed collaboratively, and not as something that is transmitted. However, even though students collaborated more with each other, agency was still focused on personal benefits, while collaborating with each other.

From collaboration to collaborative agency

As described in the two previous sections, we observed a process of change on the participants of this study. First, they change from spectators to individual agents. Second, they change from individual agents to agents collaborating with each other. However, there is still one last stage of this transformation process that requires further explanation: how the subjects become collaborative agents.

In the case of GT, we could observe the emergence of collaborative agency in two distinct situations. First, teachers who participated on GT expanded the use of Facebook groups, creating smaller groups to be used with their colleagues in their respective schools. Second, schools provided teachers time of their weekly meetings to work with the Facebook groups.

In the first example, the creation of smaller groups was possible due to the agency of all people involved in the activity. However, as proposed by Miettinen (2010; 2013), the object of the activity becomes collective, and is not individual anymore. When teachers propose the use of Facebook groups to their schools, the teachers needed to count on the agency of teachers who were not part of the group, so the new group could really work at school. That could be justified by the fact that it takes so much time to create a collaborative and trustful environment for the participants (Senge, 2009), and such a factor could be minimized when working with closer people, that is, only from a single school.

In the second example, when schools provided teachers with the meeting time, the school management team also shows itself as involved in a process to achieve possible transformations at school. Thus, we understand that there is a movement towards collaborative agency, since different stakeholders work collaboratively in order to reach a transformation of the context.

According to Magalhães (2006), transformations in the activities are possible only when stakeholders act collaboratively. However, transformations in school contexts tend to be very slow, as described by Parrilla (2004), so that they do not create excessive tensions among stakeholders, which may compromise the expected results.

In the groups of students, collaborative agency could be identified from two ways. First, from the increase of phrases using plural forms (either from posts or from the questionnaire). Second, from the expansion of the groups to other contexts.

The first case can be exemplified by extracts of the posts, such as “we have to work together in order to write this text. Who can help us?” Still from the questionnaires, some students emphasized: “we can watch videos that help us outside school”, “we can solve our doubts with the teachers or with the other students”, or even “the groups are good because we can use them at any time!”. The use of plural forms is, according to Magalhães (1998), an indicator that participants are engaged and compromised with the development and creation of a collaborative environment.

Regarding the expansion of the use of the groups, when students realized the potential of using Facebook groups for educational purposes, they invited other teachers to participate in the groups, or even, they created new groups, so they could work with all the curricular components with their respective teachers.

Such expansion, which we here describe as collaborative agency, was possible because, as previously mentioned, there was the participation of the management team, teachers, and students, so that the groups could become a space for performing school activities, either inside or outside school. According to Miettinen (2013), all stakeholders involved in an activity must present a certain level of commitment, so the activity can develop or expand.

Consequently, collaboration obtained through Facebook groups as a communicative tool could be expanded to the classroom environment. According to the students, after the use of Facebook groups classroom discussions became more interesting and dynamic, even in the cases that the students were not participating in the online discussions. There were even cases, as reported by the teacher of G1-Biology, that when he requested the students to research exotic plants, students found so many examples online that he had no time to discuss all of them in the classroom.

CONCLUSIONS

In this study, we demonstrated a process in which participants start an activity as mere observers and become collaborative agents of activities in school contexts. Among the factors that enabled such evolution, we can highlight the collaborative environment provided by the research setting, which was based on the CCR, as described by Magalhães and her colleagues (LIBERALI & FUGA, 2012; NININ, 2013; MAGALHÃES, 2014). That is because all stakeholders involved in the research context - from students to school management team - have voice, so the rules of the activities are created collaboratively, and not imposed to the participants.

In both type of Facebook groups used in this study, although used in distinct ways, they presented a similar expansion process. Such process can be better explained in Figure 2. In the case of the GT, when teachers realized the potential the group on Facebook had to be used for educational purposes, the teachers created new groups in their own schools and started collaborating with other teachers that were not participating in the initial research project. Moreover, the teachers relied on the collaboration of the management team, so they could discuss how to use digital media in the school context. According to Cunha Jr. (2017), such expansion and transformation of the research context are due to the emergence of collaborative agency (LEMOS & CUNHA Jr., 2017).

Figure 2 Expansion of the activities in GT and group of teacher-students. 

In the groups of teacher-students, as participants used the groups more often, students started collaborating more with each other, either online or in classrooms. Consequently, they decided to create more groups on Facebook so that other teachers could also participate.

Thus, we understand that the activity expansion to other contexts is dependent on the engagement and participation of all stakeholders. Therefore, the concept of agency as it has been described by previous literature (EDWARDS & ARCY, 2004; ANDERSON, 2010; BAHOU, 2012; FERYOK, 2012) is not enough to explain movements of expansion of activities as the ones described in this study.

Considering the school context as a potentially collaborative environment, it is necessary to consider theoretical aspects that supply the demands of such environment. The concept of collaborative agency, as proposed in this paper, aims at supplying such demands, since it encompasses the subjects (students, teachers and management team) as a unity, inside a given community. Consequently, the transformations obtained in a context that enables collaborative agency to arise may have a higher probability of being kept after the intervention in the school context is finished.

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Appendix 1. Questionnaire responded to by students

Received: October 27, 2017; Accepted: February 20, 2018

Contact: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1105, 1081 HV, Amsterdam|Países Baixos

*

PhD in Psychology and Education at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Departament of Research and Theory in Education, faculty of Behavioral and Movement Sciences. E-mail:<fernandorcjr@gmail.com>.

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