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Using social media affordances to support Ill-structured problem-solving skills: considering possibilities and challenges

Abstract

Educators consider the development of problem-solving skills in learners to be a primary goal of contemporary teaching and learning efforts. Yet, participating in problem-centered instruction is challenging for learners, and educators have sought different ways of supporting learners as they make sense of complex content. Social media applications are readily available for use by educators, which in turn provides many opportunities for these tools to support teaching and learning activities. While social media affordances offer educators exciting opportunities to support learners in authentic problem-solving contexts, these tools do not come without challenges, and little research has considered how such tools can specifically facilitate the development of learners’ problem-solving abilities. The purpose of this paper is to identify prominent educational affordances of social media and to explore how these identified affordances have the potential to support ill-structured problem-solving activities. This paper offers researchers and educators new directions for facilitating problem-centered learning when using social media.

Introduction

The potential of technology to enhance teaching and learning has long been debated as whether technologies fundamentally change teaching and learning processes (see Clark, 1983, 1994; Kozma, 1991, 1994). Arguably, technologies emerging and developing in the twenty-first century (e.g., social media) have evolved in profoundly different ways compared to previous technologies. Becker (2010) articulated the uniqueness of these evolutions: “The rate of change for newer, faster, and more ubiquitous ways to access communication technologies and the information now stored digitally continues to increase” (twenty-first century Clark section, para. 2). Simultaneously, the way individuals—especially youth—interact with technology as part of their daily routine has drastically changed (see Rideout et al.’s report from 2010).

Perhaps, social media represent one of the best examples of a technology that is “fundamentally different from, and more powerful than” previous technologies (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010, p. 60). Social media applications offer individuals “new structures” to connect with people they “admire” or “find interesting” (Boyd, 2015, pp. 1–2). In short, “social media is a phenomenon” (Boyd, 2015, p. 1), and their emergence “enabled an evolutionary leap forward in the social component of web use” (Obar & Wildman, 2015, p. 745). While the specific properties of social media are not necessarily “new, their relation to one another because of networked publics creates new opportunities and challenges” (Boyd, 2014, p. 11).

To strategically consider how contemporary technologies, like social media, are evolving and to determine value, many researchers have adopted an affordance-based approach—both in education (Jin, 2018; Xue & Churchill, 2019; Zawawi et al., 2017) and beyond (Chen et al., 2019; van Osch & Coursaris, 2017). By focusing on affordances (e.g., qualities emerging from user and tool interaction, Gaver, 1991), not only are researchers able to consider the collection of features of a given tool to distinguish it from other tools (Treem & Leonardi, 2013), but also, educators can be informed in their technology integration decisions.

However, cognizant of Clark’s argument, technology advancement alone is not enough to generate educational transformation. Ideas of what comprises contemporary employability have also shifted (de Fruyt et al., 2015). That is, recently, individuals are increasingly expected to complete “non-routine and interactive tasks” versus “routine operations” in the workplace (Neubert et al., 2015, p. 238). While many skills are important for the twenty-first century workplace (e.g., creativity, collaboration, information literacy), problem solving is generally acknowledged “among the most meaningful and important kinds of learning and thinking” (Jonassen, 1997, p. 65). To prepare students for future professional ill-structured realities, educators have focused on facilitating “authentic and active” learning experiences (Tawfik et al., 2019).

Nevertheless, facilitating problem-solving skills is challenging, and during problem-centered learning experiences, the instructor bears much of the responsibility for guiding students to successful outcomes (Tawfik et al., 2020). Likewise, students face challenges while participating in problem-centered learning experiences (Koehler & Ertmer, 2016). Some educators have explored the use of technology to support students’ problem-solving skill development (Koehler et al., 2017; Goeze et al., 2014).

Although affordances of emerging technologies, like social media, and the facilitation of problem-solving skills have been previously researched, limited efforts have considered the integration of these two areas to offer new insight into successfully facilitating problem-centered methodologies. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to explore how the affordances of a readily available and used technology like social media can support the problem-solving process. We first synthesize literature related to problem solving and social media affordances. Then, we provide specific strategies for facilitating problem-solving skills supported by social media affordances. We offer specific considerations necessary for intentional social media use during problem-center learning.

Problem solving

Problem-solving skills are generally recognized as an important outcome of twenty-first century education (Hesse et al., 2015; van Merriënboer, 2013). Problems are defined as situations “in which you are trying to reach some goal, and must find a means for getting there” (Chi & Glaser, 1985, p. 229) and are categorized in different ways to underscore unique features (e.g., well-structured, ill-structured, story, design; Chi & Glaser, 1985; Jonassen, 1997, 2011). The ability to solve ill-structured problems is considered an “essential competence” by contemporary standards (Eichmann et al., 2019), and these problems have been conceptualized as having ill-defined parameters, inflexible constraints, and many possible solutions (Jonassen, 1997).

Although most educators agree the development of problem-solving skills is a worthwhile learning outcome, implementing methods promoting such skills can be challenging (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014; Koehler et al., 2019; Stepich et al., 2001). To conceptualize the problem-solving process and support the development of these skills, specific models have been proposed to describe the process used for solving ill-structured problems (see Choi & Lee, 2009; Jonassen, 1997; Svihla & Reeve, 2016). These models focus on key processes and behaviors taking place while problem solving: understanding problem situations and contexts, considering stakeholder perspectives, generating possible solutions, using a rationale to support decisions, and implementing and evaluating selected solutions.

Table 1 captures several conceptualizations of problem-solving processes. In these models, specific steps are articulated; however, while some phases must precede other phases for effective problem solving (e.g., problem representation before solution generation), problem-solving phases are generally considered iterative and non-sequential (Kim & Hannafin, 2011) and have traditionally been grouped into two primary categories by scholars: problem finding (e.g., developing a clear understanding of a problem) and generating solutions (e.g., creating solutions addressing defined problems) (Chi & Glaser, 1985; Ertmer & Stepich, 2005; Eseryel et al., 2011; Law et al., 2020). By synthesizing these models, problem finding comprises three primary actions: (a) articulating the problem space, constraints, and stakeholder roles; (b) considering diverse perspectives of stakeholders and their responsibilities; and (c) locating additional related information, resources, and tools that deepen understanding of the problem, context, and stakeholders. The generating solutions phase comprises (a) proposing potential solutions; (b) determining the value of a potential solution; (c) justifying, communicating, and presenting a specific solution; (d) implementing a selected solution; and (e) adapting a solution. Additionally, monitoring (e.g., reflecting on understanding to “develop arguments to support their mental model of the problem space,” Jonassen, 1997, p. 82) is a phase crossing both problem finding and solution generation.

Table 1 Ill-structured problem-solving models

Learner roles and challenges while problem solving

The problem-solving processes captured in the models cover what learners should be completing as they participate in problem-centered learning experiences. However, previous research suggests novices do not always achieve desired results, even in intentionally designed problem-centered learning (Ertmer & Koehler, 2015). For instance, novices commonly spend limited time understanding a problem, skipping to developing solutions (Koehler et al., 2019; Ng & Tan, 2006; Stepich & Ertmer, 2009), list known facts without synthesizing the information into primary issues (Ertmer & Stepich, 2005; Law et al., 2020), “take available information at face value” without considering underlying principles (Ertmer & Stepich, 2005, p. 40), and fail to recognize relationships among issues (Ertmer & Stepich, 2005; Law et al., 2020). Some of these challenges result from novices failing to see value in framing problems and their inexperience with this type of activity (Law et al., 2020; Svihla & Reeve, 2016).

When generating solutions, novices ignore given constraints (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014; Ertmer & Stepich, 2005), tend to solve problems in a single step (Ng & Tan, 2006), stick to solution strategies they are familiar with (Law et al., 2020; Ng & Tan, 2006), address the problem space more deeply with support from an active facilitator (Ertmer & Koehler, 2015), fail to recognize relationships among solutions (Ertmer & Stepich, 2005), and offer rigid solutions (Ertmer & Stepich, 2005). Primary factors preventing effective problem solving include an individual’s “domain knowledge” and previous experience as expert “problem solvers have better developed problem schemas, which can be employed more automatically” (Jonassen, 2000, p. 69).

When regulating problem solving, learners experience challenges while both problem finding (e.g., fail to consider relationships, “prior knowledge,” and “emerging problem representations,” Law et al., 2020, p. 326) and generating solutions (e.g., adopt a linear approach to selecting a solution, Law et al., 2020). Finally, problem-centered learning is typically completed as a collaborative process, necessitating learners to develop skills in regulating the “collective activity” of the group (Häkkinen et al., 2017). As a result, collaboration can be challenging for learners as they struggle with managing differing perspectives and articulating a reasonable argument (Häkkinen et al., 2017; Koehler et al., 2020).

Facilitator role during problem-centered learning

Problem-centered methods (e.g., case-based learning, problem-based learning) can facilitate the development of problem-solving skills in learners (Koehler et al., 2019; Pease & Kuhn, 2011; Tawfik & Jonassen, 2013). In problem-centered learning, students analyze complex problems found in professional settings to gain vicarious experience (Stepich & Ertmer, 2009). To create an effective problem-centered learning experience, a facilitator’s ability to design, implement, and manage the learning experience (e.g., asking meaningful questions at the appropriate time) appears to be more influential than specific content expertise (Ertmer & Koehler, 2015; Leary et al., 2013). Implementing problem-centered methods is challenging for instructors as the facilitation process is non-linear and requires facilitators to provide an appropriate amount of support to learners (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014). However, effective facilitation of problem-centered learning includes: planning, implementing, and evaluating (Rico & Ertmer, 2015).

Facilitators must start with meaningful planning: selecting an appropriate problem or case on which to center the experience (Rico & Ertmer, 2015), mapping out the potential problem space (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014; Hmelo-Silver, 2013), crafting learning outcomes for the experience (Rico & Ertmer, 2015), and developing learning activities that prompt careful consideration of the problem under investigation (e.g., discussions, role-playing; Ertmer & Koehler, 2015; Rico & Ertmer, 2015). Additionally, as a collaborative experience, facilitators must intentionally structure groups and scaffold the subsequent collaboration (Häkkinen et al., 2017; Koehler et al., 2020).

At the core of problem-centered learning is collaboration occurring among learners and with the facilitator. Although intentional planning is necessary to establish the initial collaborative direction (Ertmer & Stepich, 2002; Kanuka, 2011), the facilitator must work in meaningful ways when the interaction is occurring to extend the problem space coverage (Ertmer & Koehler, 2015). Facilitators must manage the group’s collaboration, without dominating the conversation (Yew & Yong, 2014) and guide sensemaking through affirming ideas and prompting deeper consideration of key issues (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014, 2015; Yew & Yong, 2014). To bring closure to the learning experience, the facilitator should prompt students to share lessons learned relevant in future situations (Tawfik & Kolodner, 2016).

Finally, the facilitator is responsible for evaluating the resulting learning and developing measures representative of the problem-solving process (Jonassen, 2011). A combination of measures can provide a full consideration of a learning experience: peer evaluation forms for gauging collaboration, reflections and rubrics for self-assessment, mapped discussion of coverage of group interactions, and rubrics considering the development and quality of artifacts generated from the problem-solving experience (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014; Jonassen, 2011; Rico & Ertmer, 2015).

Educators use several strategies to support students’ problem-finding activities during problem-centered learning experiences: prompting students to consider problem elements, constraints, and stakeholders via guided discussions (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014, 2015, 2018; Koehler et al., 2019); asking students to consider examples of ill-structured problems and share their own (Ng & Tan, 2006; Svihla & Reeve, 2016); providing learners opportunities to consider multiple perspectives (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014, 2015, 2018; Koehler et al., 2019; Svihla & Reeve, 2016); prompting students to ask questions related to the problems (Svihla & Reeve, 2016; Zydney, 2008); and stimulating learners’ personal connections with authentic problems (e.g., working with a real client or considering a real-world problem; LaBanca & Ritchie, 2011; Svihla & Reeve, 2016).

When building learners’ skills related to generating solutions, educators have used many methods: providing worked examples (Jonassen, 2011), using libraries of success and failure-based cases (Tawfik & Jonassen, 2013), suggesting and evaluating solutions through collaborative discussions (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014, 2015, 2018), using questioning and “reflective toss” to prompt deeper consideration (Hmelo-Silver & Barrows, 2006), requiring peer or expert review for evaluating solutions (Demiraslan Çevik et al., 2015; Verleger et al., 2016), and requiring learners to generate multiple solutions to a single problem (Ertmer et al., 2019).

Social media

Social media have become an important mediator of human experience, social interaction, and environmental realities (Deaton, 2015). In recent years, educators have increasingly explored social media as a tool to facilitate teaching and learning (Brown & Green, 2015; Dennen, 2018; Dennen & Rutledge, 2018), which has simultaneously stimulated researchers to investigate social media’s role in teaching and learning (Raut & Patil, 2016; Selwyn & Stirling, 2016).

While no universally accepted definition of social media exists (Tess, 2013; Zhao et al., 2013), we define social media as internet-based technology supporting multimedia content (e.g., text, audio, video, still image, and animation) and interaction; includes synchronous (e.g., Zoom), semi-synchronous (e.g., WhatsApp), and asynchronous (e.g., discussion forums) communication; and promotes collaboration, information exchange, community formation, content creation, and self-expression (Boyd, 2014; Dennen, 2018; Zhao et al., 2013). Through mobile devices, people can use social media anytime and anywhere (Page, 2012). Greenhow and Lewin (2016) suggest social media have three typical features: (a) they highlight individual preferences and activity through profile pages; (b) they allow connections among users, between users and information, and between users and locations to be seen (e.g., checking into a location), and (c) they can be updated “dynamically” with embedded content (e.g., videos).

Some examples of social media include social networking sites (e.g., Facebook), blogs (e.g., WordPress), microblogs (e.g., Twitter), wikis (e.g., PBworks), social bookmarking and tagging (e.g., Diigo), media sharing (e.g., YouTube), electronic notepads (e.g., Evernote), collaborative word processing (e.g., Google Docs), idea management and mapping (e.g., Wridea), and animation tools (e.g., PowToon) (Koehler & Ertmer, 2016; Koehler et al., 2017; Scott et al., 2016). Social media tools are constantly being created and evolving (Boyd, 2014; Obar & Wildman, 2015; Tess, 2013). With several social media tools available, educators have many potential options for developing new skills and knowledge (Reiser, 2018).

To identify prominent literature on social media in educational contexts, we considered research published in top instructional design journals focused on learning experiences including social media as a key part of the process. This allowed us to capture the results of research related to the intentional use of social media to support instructional efforts and therefore, communicate the potential for individuals interested in using these tools to support the development of problem-solving skills in similar learning experiences. See Table 2 for an overview of findings from highlighted social media research.

Table 2 Description of social media articles

Challenges with integrating social media for educational purposes

Believing social media automatically improves education is misleading. Simultaneously, blaming social media for all problems of humanity is inaccurate. These extreme approaches to social media “assume that technologies possess intrinsic powers that affect all people in all situations the same way” (Boyd, 2014, p. 15). However, technology’s “pros and cons” create a complex interaction between people and social media (Boyd, 2014, p. 16). In educational settings, teachers must be aware of the benefits of each technology, as well as the disadvantages, as their use can create challenges for parents, educators, and scholars (Boyd, 2014).

First, social media feeds are constantly updated with member activity. This intense flow of messages, photos, videos, and links can be overwhelming for learners, leading to cognitive overload (see Hsu, 2015; Huang et al., 2013; Yen et al., 2015). Cognitive overload can especially be an issue when using social media to solve complex problems (Koehler et al., 2017). Second, learners using social media must discern quality as they locate information. Social media amplify the circulation of “misinformation (inaccurate information) and disinformation (deceptive information)” (Karvola & Fisher 2013, para. 1). Social media users can find “too much information, and (…) irrelevant, conflicting, outdated, and noncredible information” (Sin, 2016, p. 1794). As social media have shifted the role of users from consumers to producers of knowledge (Obar & Wildman, 2015), anyone can create content for self-seeking purposes. Students from middle school to college have difficulty determining the credibility of information shared online (McGrew et al., 2017).

Third, instructional social media use may lead to distractions for learners (e.g., students check Facebook notifications during class, Fried, 2008). Multitasking behavior is detrimental to students’ learning processes (Demirbilek & Talan, 2018; Karpinski et al., 2013; van der Schuur et al., 2015), as they attempt to engage with course and non-course-related activities simultaneously and increase their cognitive load (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013). Fourth, integrating social media for educational purposes creates challenges with managing boundaries between personal and formal spaces, specifically regarding student-instructor relationships (McEwan, 2012). Although social media offer instructors and students opportunities to build relationships, maintaining privacy is important (Owen & Zwahr-Castro, 2007). As social media preserve interactions and shared information (Boyd & Ellison, 2008), political views, religious beliefs, and personal activities potentially become available to an entire class, leading to feelings of confusion, discomfort, and embarrassment (McEwan, 2012; Owen & Zwahr-Castro, 2007). The blurry boundaries between what is private and public on social media can also create serious professional consequences for teachers exhibiting behavior deemed as inappropriate (e.g., posting pictures while holding a gun, Koehler & Besser, 2020).

Fifth, research suggests that social media use can have negative effects on users’ self-esteem, leading to depressive tendencies (Ozimek & Bierhoff, 2020). As young people view idealized representations of others’ lives on social media, they make comparisons to their own lives, leading to decreased self-esteem in some instances (Steinsbekk et al., 2021). Finally, teachers’ beliefs influence their intention to use (Sadaf et al., 2012; Teo, 2009) and integrate (Li et al., 2019; Teo et al., 2008) educational technology. If educators perceive the barriers to implementing social media (e.g., academic dishonesty, class disruptions, cyberbullying, O’Bannon & Thomas, 2014) to be greater than potential benefits, they are unlikely to integrate social media for educational purposes.

Educational affordances of social media

Social media applications are constantly being created, updated, and discontinued (Dennen, 2018). Although educators have many options when designing learning experiences, selecting the most appropriate tool can be challenging if teachers focus on each property of a given tool and miss a clear connection to their context or audience. To overcome these challenges, an alternative approach is to focus on the affordances of a given technology. Broadly, affordances have been conceptualized as “relations between the abilities of organisms and features of the environment” (Chemero, 2003, p. 189).

Considering the definition of affordance more deeply reveals that affordances for an object vary depending on the organism involved and a given environment: for example, a rock can provide shelter to an ant or serve as a weapon for humans (Gibson, 1986). Therefore, affordances are not “properties” of a given environment, but rather the relationships among these different components determine the affordances for an object in a specific situation (Chemero, 2003). According to Greeno (1994),

Gibson's intention was that the affordance is a property of whatever the person interacts with, but to be in the category of properties we call affordances, it has to be a property that interacts with a property of an agent in such a way that an activity can be supported. (p. 340)

Greeno used the term ability to indicate “whatever it is about the agent that contributes to the kind of interaction that occurs” (p. 340), discussed the intrinsic relationship between affordances and abilities, and believed establishing an affordance without determining the ability of the agent interacting with the environment is not possible. Additionally, he argued, “an ability depends on the context of environmental characteristics, or that an affordance depends on the context of an agent's characteristics” (Greeno, 1994, p. 340). Therefore, suggesting a car affords driving is inappropriate as this affordance exists in relation to a person who knows how to drive. For individuals lacking the ability to drive, cars do not afford driving but might afford transportation.

Finally, affordances are not dependent on the agent’s perception of the affordance or motivation to engage in an activity (Gibson, 1986; Greeno, 1994). Using social media as an example, Twitter affords publicity to musicians and connections between graduate students and scholars worldwide. Assuming both musicians and graduate students can write, they might use other tools (e.g., Microsoft Word) to compose songs and dissertations. The fact that a musician does not identify Twitter as a medium to publicize their new album or chooses not to publicize it on Twitter does not mean Twitter does not afford the singer publicity. However, if the singer chooses Microsoft Word to publicize their new album, publicity is unlikely because this tool does not afford publicity.

Considering social media affordances used by teachers and students in educational settings allows these agents to move past individual applications to focus on utility to consider and accomplish instructional goals. Across literature on social media for educational and communicative purposes, we located articles that articulated and defined specific affordances of social media versus talking about them in general ways (See Table 3). For instance, Xue and Churchill (2019) completed a systematic literature review related to the educational use of WeChat and analyzed the results section to identify specific educational affordances. In another instance, Rice et al. (2017) used prior research to create labels for and define social media affordances and then surveyed participants on their potential use.

Table 3 Articulated social media affordances

From selected articles, we studied and compared descriptions of different prominent affordances and grouped recurring ideas. Then, we noted any affordance identified at least three times across articles. From this examination process, we identified five prominent affordances: association, visibility, persistence, searchability, and identity creation. Across different social media applications, these affordances are embodied in different ways (see Table 4). We provide a definition of each affordance, consideration of how previous educational social media research relates to the defined affordance, and connections between each affordance and potential support for problem-centered learning.

Table 4 Comparison of social media affordances across different applications

Association

Social media afford learners opportunities to connect or associate with other individuals or information (Jin, 2018; Koehler et al., 2017; Manca & Ranieri, 2016; Tur & Urbina, 2014; Xue & Churchill, 2019). These connections and associations can potentially take many forms: interactions and collaborations between learners and others (e.g., peers, instructors, experts) and between learners and diverse contexts (e.g., informal, non-native); educational resource sharing in diverse and integrated formats (e.g., integration of platforms in one place—YouTube shared via Facebook for discussion); and interactions and resources shared with enhanced connections (e.g., geotagged photos can be located and discussed). While on the surface connecting learners to others and information does not seem novel, the way social media can potentially facilitate these interactions offers unique opportunities for negotiating learning experiences.

First, social media offer educators and learners ways to connect with authentic contexts (e.g., communicating with native speakers when learning a new language, Jin, 2018; Xue & Churchill, 2019), informal learning environments (e.g., connecting instructors and students through more casual means—news sources, podcasts, etc., Xue & Churchill, 2019), geographically separated experiences (e.g., “providing a Google Maps link to the actual location of the recorded event,” Cochrane & Bateman, 2010, p. 6), and hybridized expertise (e.g., contributions “of current and past learners, practicing professionals and other teachers, can encourage the development of social capital,” Manca & Ranieri, 2016, p. 504). Through these connections, experiences are not limited to the classroom, and learners’ awareness increases (e.g., language, resources, terminology, digital competence, Tur & Urbina, 2014). Second, many applications (e.g., Google Suite) allow users to invite contacts to collaborate (Zawawi et al., 2017) and support simultaneous access of resources and information to co-create and revise (e.g., collaborating via Google Doc, Bower, 2016). Collaboration via social media is also enhanced by combining information with learning resources: mixing “instructional material with information and knowledge sources that, produced elsewhere and available through several channels, influence the design and the delivery of the learning experience” (Manca & Ranieri, 2016, p. 504). Third, connections and associations via social media occur immediately (Xue & Churchill, 2019), with ease (with limited effort users can “spread information, whether by explicitly or implicitly encouraging the sharing of links,” Boyd, 2014, p. 12), and in many different formats (e.g., text, video, audio, Bower, 2016), at diverse times (e.g., a synchronous online meeting versus analyzing an asynchronous image in a discussion forum, Bower, 2016), and directly or indirectly (e.g., “directly via IM and e-mail plus interaction via avatars and indirectly through individual profiles,” Sutcliffe et al., 2011, p. 1056). Finally, the potential of amplification of associations, interactions, and connections is great when using social media due to openness and mass sharing: recording and broadcasting live events, using QR codes to connect to information, and creating RSS feeds (Bower, 2016; Tur & Urbina, 2014).

Association and the problem-solving process

The association afforded through social media creates formal and informal interactions among learners and with the facilitator during problem-centered learning. Perhaps, the most enhancing aspect of the association afforded through social media is the expansion beyond the classroom to offer learners and facilitators options for supporting and supplementing problem-centered learning experiences.

Problem finding

To articulate the problem space more effectively, both facilitators and learners can associate with others and information in strategic ways. For instance, as a common challenge for novice problem solvers is having limited experience with a problem context (Law et al., 2020), social media can situate a context to promote understanding constraints and stakeholder roles. Moghavvemi et al. (2018) found business students indicated they use YouTube for academic and work purposes (e.g., “to solve problems,” answer questions, “learn new things”), while Yildirim (2019) found that a Facebook group offered opportunities to math teachers for professional development (e.g., resources and instructional strategies, feedback on posed challenges, and brainstorming on teaching). Either through self-directed or instructor-facilitated methods, learners have access to a variety of resources, both human and informational, created by professional organizations, experts, news organizations, peers, and so on. These associations can help shape learners’ understanding of a problem space by more deeply understanding constraints, stakeholder roles, and diverse perspectives.

Solution generation

Association through social media provides learners new ways to propose and justify solutions and determine the value of a given solution, specifically through gaining alternative viewpoints and critical views from those with which they are interacting. For instance, Chen and Luh (2018) required industrial design students to upload sketches of their assignments to Facebook to gain feedback from not only peers but all their connections. Learners required to upload their work for a broader discussion achieved higher exam scores compared to the control group not using social media. Within a classroom setting, social media can “blend learning in an informal setting outside school” (Lau et al., 2017, p. 548). For instance, elementary learners in Lau et al.’s (2017) research indicated a wiki allowed them to extend their face-to-face connections with peers while collaborating. Similarly, a group of pre-service teachers used Google Docs to manage group collaborations while creating instructional solutions (Koehler et al., 2017).

Visibility

Social media offer individuals the chance to make visible “behaviors, knowledge, preferences, and communication network connections” (Treem & Leonardi, 2013, p. 150). For instance, when using social media, individuals can “view the number of likes, comments and shared links within each post” (Zawawi et al., 2017, p. 437), observe “activity of individuals, what they are doing, and the groups they belong to” (Sutcliffe et al., 2011, p. 1056), and track revisions made while creating content (Koehler et al., 2017; Sutcliffe et al., 2011)—gaining insight into peers’ participation. In addition, social media display connections that would take more effort to uncover (e.g., “Geo-tag original photos,” Cochrane & Bateman, 2010, p. 5). By seeing the “network diagrams, lists, maps, and other visualizations,” social media users can use these elements to inform how they connect and behave (Sutcliffe et al., 2011, p. 1054).

Visibility through social media is distinguished from other tool use and non-technology situations in multiple ways. First, the visibility of users’ behaviors and activities on social media has greater potential reach (Boyd, 2014). That is, in non-social media situations, while individuals may be aware of the actions of others, social media afford users insight into what is going on with someone with which no recent physical contact has been made or individuals with no existing relationship. At the same time, this visibility of user activity is automatic, as a function of the social media application (e.g., notifications of users’ activities or updates pushed to the feeds of other users, Rice et al., 2017), often unintentional (e.g., “interactions are often public by default, private through effort,” Boyd, 2014, p. 12), and influenced by previous use and interests (e.g., information customized based on user preference, Shane-Simpson et al., 2018, suggested connections or content based and use, Sutcliffe et al., 2011).

Visibility and the problem-solving process

Through social media, learners can use visibility to monitor their problem-finding and generating-solution efforts more closely. Learners can individually track their actions and progress or use cues from peers’ actions to consider different approaches and ideas. Collaboratively, learners can consider the building of ideas or group effectiveness. Across these instances, facilitators have access to individual and group processes that would otherwise be more difficult to uncover. This information can be useful for providing tailored support (e.g., just-in-time scaffolding) and assessments (e.g., considering growth and contributions).

Problem finding

To assist with effective problem finding, visibility allows users to investigate a problem in intentional ways. After completing a business communication course focused on developing students' social media networking skills (e.g., development of a personal learning network), students developed confidence to “research and find potential networking contacts” and introduce themselves “to someone in their network” (Anders, 2018). Additionally, within their class, these learners valued considering peers’ perspectives: “If they perceived another student as particularly credible or offering particularly relevant experience, they would seek out and read their blog posts” (p. 24). In both instances, the visibility afforded by the social media applications allowed the students to seek intentional connections and information to support their own development. Similar strategies could be applied to understand a problem space more deeply (e.g., contacting experts based on their activity to consider constraints and diverse perspectives; comparing how peers defined a problem to inform individual understanding).

Solution generation

As learners develop and consider solutions in problem-centered learning environments, visibility offers insight into how their peers are completing the process. For instance, undergraduate students enrolled in an ESL course used online discussion forums to develop their paraphrasing skills. From the visibility afforded from the discussions, learners could observe how their peers were learning writing skills: “Students witnessed peer modeling of not only paraphrasing but also reviewing of other students’ responses” (Tan, 2017, p. 1247). Reflecting on the visible behaviors, learners can build on their own ideas, leading to more effective solutions. In wikis, learners can collaboratively generate solutions, view a record of contributions, and revert to a previous version (Chu et al., 2017).

Preservation and searchability

Although preservation and searchability represent unique affordances, their close relationship makes considering what one offers without the other difficult. When individuals use social media, the content they generate or their communication with others “remains accessible in the same form” after any behavior or interaction has concluded (Treem & Leonardi, 2013, p. 155). As a result, social media offer users ways to keep a record of previous communication, content generation, interactions, and conversations. Because of this preservation, social media simultaneously affords searchability: “any inquisitive onlooker can query databases and uncover countless messages written by and about others” (Boyd, 2014, p. 12). For instance, social media preserve activity in many ways: communication forums organized by threads offer “reflective discussion and debate” (p. 772) that can be revisited following an asynchronous conversation, and repositories can be created to store and organize content (e.g., videos, images; Bower, 2016). This preservation creates a chronological record that can be shared to widen associations, searched to locate pertinent information for a given learning task, and explored to identify individuals that could lead to meaningful connections (Bower, 2016; Sutcliffe et al., 2011). Beyond promoting collaborative opportunities, content preserved via social media offers individual support during teaching and learning by providing a “digital trail of students’ thought processes that [enable] students to draw on peers’ ideas and critique in their explorative discovery processes” (Rambe, 2012, p. 140).

The preservation afforded by social media “enables interactions to take place over time in an asynchronous fashion” (Boyd, 2014, p. 11). While the preservation generated from social media use is linked to the individuals directly interacting, the availability of the preservation is widespread, largely because of searchability. For instance, while an e-mail conversation between two friends could be printed or forwarded to others, by default, the interaction is limited to only these individuals. However, many social media applications preserve interactions for individuals not directly involved with the initial act and allow both the creator and others to search the communication (e.g., Facebook affords users the option of searching other users’ timeline activity). Additionally, in another form of preservation, some social media applications share “memories” with users reminding them of previous activity (e.g., pictures, conversations).

Preservation, searchability, and the problem-solving process

As a result of preservation and searchability, learners can access, save, and tag resources to support problem solving and search social media applications later to revisit the desired information. These affordances are especially useful for supporting a digital schema of experiences and reflection, a key aspect of the problem-solving process. Additionally, instructors can take a closer look at the ideas being contributed to assess student progress and their own efforts in facilitating problem-centered learning experiences.

Problem finding

From preservation and searchability, learners can consider how others have defined and approached similar or related problems to the one with which they are interacting. Li et al. (2017) investigated LinkedIn users’ approaches to solving technical problems with laptops. Findings revealed users participated in a collaborative process of posing a problem, proposing ideas, discussing the value of proposed ideas, and finally, trying out different options. Learners have access to these preserved conversations and can essentially use these to inform their own understanding of the problem being investigated. In short, preserved, searchability conversations like this can serve as a case library in a sense, which can be an effective support for learners during problem-centered learning (see Tawfik & Jonassen, 2013). Yeo and Lee (2013) explored the use of blogs by elementary students to manage personal information. Some learners were able to locate, classify, and save digital resources not only for the immediate task but future tasks too. A similar approach can be useful for students in a problem-centered learning experience to help shape their developing problem-finding skills.

Solution generation

Unlike a face-to-face conversation, conversations via many social media applications (e.g., Facebook timeline, blog comments) can be revisited and used to improve future problem-solving efforts. For instance, learners participating in an online, case-based learning experience shared they revisited discussion posts multiple times, including observing the interactions and feedback between peers’ they admired and others and between the facilitator and peers to shape their future case analyses and discussion participation (Koehler et al., 2020). As part of their research to understand the role of blogs in supporting information technology students' learning, Asoodar et al. (2014) analyzed students’ comments posted on blogs, group chats, and forum entries to determine their level of cognitive engagement. As learners have access to the same records, they could review their blog activities, as related to a problem-solving activity, to self-evaluate their performance.

Identity creation

A key aspect of using social media requires users to create a profile including self-generated content, as well as information developed by others (Ellison & Boyd, 2013). Through profile creation and personal and collaborative use, a specific identity is created. Social media provide a collective environment of experience sharing where learners can interact with instructors, peers, and personal contacts to create strong bonds (Bower, 2016; Jin, 2018; Manca & Ranieri, 2016; Sutcliffe et al., 2011; Xue & Churchill, 2019; Zawawi et al., 2017). While cultivating a community using social media, instructors and learners have the opportunity to craft their identities as relevant to the learning task at hand (e.g., “a competent Chinese language user rather than merely a beginning-level learner,” Jin, 2018, p. 44) and in a safe space (e.g., “democratised communication” so students can voice concerns with the learning experience, Rambe, 2012, p. 140). Additionally, while generating social media content to prompt or demonstrate understanding and sensemaking, educators and learners can assume many different roles (Bower, 2016; Koehler et al., 2017; Sutcliffe et al., 2011; Xue & Churchill, 2019; Zawawi et al., 2017). With several options, both educators and learners can select tools aligned to a personal style to meet learning goals.

In social media communities, interactions and learning experiences can be co-managed through the use of notifications (Cochrane & Bateman, 2010; Xue & Churchill, 2019; Zawawi et al., 2017), and knowledge and skill acquisition can be co-evaluated through instructor and peer feedback (Cochrane & Bateman, 2010). As all these experiences take place in a community environment, they can offer an atmosphere of support leading to meaningful learning (Rambe, 2012; Zawawi et al., 2017) and a wider learning context “where learners and instructors share personal and professional interests and aspirations, thus mixing different contexts of learning and social and personal life” (Manca & Ranieri, 2016, p. 504).

Identity creation and the problem-solving process

Learners are not always prepared to participate in student-centered learning experiences (Koehler et al., 2020; Parkes et al., 2015). Additionally, social media offer learners the opportunity to craft an intentional identity situated in a specific learning experience: “Networked learning and ‘networking to learn’ helped students see themselves as professionals and helped them take a more self-directed and professional approach to learning” (Anders, 2018, p. 23). That is, with facilitator guidance, learners can create an identity allowing them to intentionally participate in a problem-centered learning experience as they problem find and generate solutions.

Problem finding

Svihla and Reeve (2016) argue, “in order for activities such as information gathering, ideation, and evaluation to constitute problem framing, the designer must take ownership of the problem.” By crafting a specific identity as a problem framer when using social media, learners can increase intentionality to enhance problem solving. At the beginning of a problem-centered program or course, learners can be guided to use social bookmarking tools, RSS readers, and blogs focused on emerging industry topics and strategies to inform their developing knowledge base (Koehler & Ertmer, 2016). Through these efforts, learners realize their interests, identify areas for growth, and shape a digital identity.

Solution generation

When creating solutions, learners can decide the specific identity they would like to assume as they collect data from peers and generate content (Bower, 2016), research existing resources individually before sharing (Zawawi et al., 2017), collaboratively construct an artifact with peers (Bower, 2016), and integrate multiple tools to manage a single learning goal (Bower, 2016; Zawawi et al., 2017). Research suggests that blogs implemented for instructional purposes can provide “a supportive environment in which critique, comment and constructive feedback” can take place (Garcia et al., 2015, p. 887). By completing these activities, learners gain practice with participating in collaborative activities–experiences likely representative of learners’ future professional endeavors.

Supporting problem solving using social media affordances

Educators and researchers should consider shifting focus from selecting specific technologies and instead identify relevant affordances that align well with specific problem-solving activities. By focusing first on the problem-centered learning environment and the specific roles of the facilitator and learners, instructors can then consider how affordances best serve instructional purposes, expand the learning experience beyond classroom walls, and benefit from the experiences, expertise, and interaction from others (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure1

Considerations for implementing social media into problem-centered learning environments

Affordance-supported problem finding and solution generation

To support problem finding and generating solutions, educators must first consider activities offering students practice with some or all phases of the problem-solving process. For instance, case-based instruction (CBI) offers learners the opportunity to independently analyze real-world problems before working “collaboratively to clarify and extend individual interpretations” (Ertmer & Koehler, 2015, pp. 69–70), commonly involves collaborative discussions to support sensemaking (Ertmer & Koehler, 2015, 2018; Koehler & Ertmer, 2016), and prompts learners to reflect on the analysis process (Koehler et al., 2019). Next, educators must consider how learners will engage with specific problem-solving phases during the selected instructional approach.

As previously discussed, when targeting problem finding, a common strategy educators use is prompting learners to consider and share examples of complex problems related to the problem under investigation (Ng & Tan, 2006; Svihla & Reeve, 2016), and one strategy commonly used to address generating solutions include expert or peer reviewing solutions (Demiraslan Çevik et al., 2016). After identifying activities to engage learners with targeted problem-solving phases, educators can identify affordances to enhance the learning experience (See Table 5). Finally, educators should consider how the specific affordance is embodied across different social media applications and select an application best serving the specific learning goal. Simultaneously, educators must consider the potential negative effects of using the selected social media application as part of the process and proactively address potential problems as much as possible.

Table 5 Affordance-based opportunities for supporting problem solving

The examples provided in Table 6 illustrate two different approaches to using affordances to support problem-solving skills during CBI. For instance, the problem-finding activity illustrates how the affordances of a single social media application (e.g., Facebook) enhance an instructional activity (e.g., considering problems related to ones in the case); while the solution-generation activity shows how several different social media tools (e.g., LinkedIn, Piktochart, Facebook, Google Docs, blogs, and wikis) can support a single instructional activity (e.g., peer and expert review). On one hand, limiting the number of social media applications involved while facilitating CBI seems reasonable; including one or two applications can reduce confusion and the cognitive load of students and instructors already dealing with complex topics.

Table 6 Overview of targeted problem-solving activities enhanced during CBI by social media affordances

On the other hand, using several tools may allow for instructors and learners to reach more creative outcomes, as each affordance is not equivalent across applications. For instance, the visibility afforded through Facebook allows users to see what their friends have shared, liked, and commented on, but it does not offer users access to a revision history of collaboratively generated work, as a wiki would. Therefore, when designing activities and selecting affordances to support instructional goals, educators must be mindful of how specific affordances are embodied in a given application to best serve their needs. Additionally, certain affordances lend themselves to specific instructional activities. For example, as social media afford preservation of content by allowing individuals to revisit previous interactions and content generation, reflective activities where instructors and learners can identify strengths, weaknesses, missed content, and growth are readily supported. Similarly, social media applications affording strong visibility allow instructors and students opportunities to assess learning outcomes.

Finally, an important part of the problem-solving process is monitoring one’s current understanding. The specific affordances available through social media allow learners to monitor their participation in problem-centered learning experiences in ways that would otherwise be much more difficult. That is, learners have countless opportunities to connect with individuals and content to serve their individual needs and goals, select appropriate applications to express understanding, locate individuals within the community to gain individualized support, and review previous contributions and activities to gain a sense of understanding.

As educators make decisions regarding integrating social media into problem-centered learning, focusing on affordances provides a new way of selecting tools meeting educational goals. Using this approach, educators can be informed as to how best support and enhance targeted problem-solving activities.

Conclusion

Educators are increasingly using social media applications successfully to achieve diverse learning goals. While supporting the development of problem-solving skills in learners using technology is not a new approach, social media offer new and exciting opportunities to educators looking to engage learners as they analyze complex problems of practice. To boost chances of success when facilitating problem-solving skills, educators should be intentional with integrating social media into teaching and learning activities: By selecting an effective problem-centered approach, targeting a problem-solving phase(s) paired with a meaningful strategy, identifying social media affordances that support the selected strategy, and considering challenges with the selected social media and the role others can play in the process, learners’ problem finding, solution generation, and monitoring can be supported in meaningful ways.

More research is needed to explore the possibilities of implementing social media to support and enhance problem-centered learning experiences. Arguably, many more effective examples exist in the literature than are efficiently located. For instance, as learners are developing their language skills or drafting industrial design drawings, these illustrate specific examples of problem solving. However, the skills being targeted in these investigations are not labeled in this way. Additionally, to explore the impact of affordance-based approaches on learners’ problem-solving skill development, researchers should compare environments enhanced with social media affordances with other types of support (e.g., non-digital scaffolds, other technologies) and consider how different affordances support specific types of problem-solving behaviors. More research is also needed to examine how educators make decisions around selecting social media affordances while managing challenges when supporting problem solving and to investigate how to best support and train educators to successfully use social media affordances to support the development of problem-solving skills.

As with other innovations, the emergence of social media has come with specific challenges. Arguably, many of these challenges result from users’ inability to effectively manage the power resulting from social media affordances. Although educators must be mindful of the challenges inherent to integrating social media, social media afford possibilities worthy of investigation: association, visibility, preservation, searchability, and identity creation. By implementing these tools as part of the problem-solving process, instructors can simultaneously help learners develop their digital literacy skills to be successful users of social media for academic purposes and to effectively navigate their future personal and professional lives.

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Koehler, A.A., Vilarinho-Pereira, D.R. Using social media affordances to support Ill-structured problem-solving skills: considering possibilities and challenges. Education Tech Research Dev (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-021-10060-1

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Keywords

  • Educational affordances
  • Social media
  • Problem solving