Social Networks and High Impact Learning: An Analysis of a Short-Term Study Abroad Program

India Luxton


What makes learning impactful? How can we harness the power of social networks in course structure to better support student learning and engagement? Numerous researchers have found that social networks provide robust and accurate depictions of actual learning processes and social networks. Besides learning, social networks provide substantial social support, a sense of belonging , and reinforce identity and recognition. Although existing literature highlights the importance of social networks in student learning and well-being, more research is needed to examine how program structure and facilitation shapes social relationships and ties amongst students. This study uses a mixed method approach to explore the relation between the structure of a 12-day study abroad program and the learning/social networks of students. Using ethnographic observations, interviews with students, and social network analysis, we investigated students’ experiences as participants in the program, their perceptions of learning outcomes associated with their participation, and the role of social networks in the learning process. This study also provided the opportunity to investigate both the learning outcomes of short-term programs and how high impact learning practices (HIPs) were utilized in the program to facilitate student engagement. The social network diagrams exemplify the change in social support and learning networks after a period of twelve days, while the interview and ethnographic data speaks about student perceptions of program outcomes and learning strategies. The results highlight the change in student networks during the duration of the program and student reported outcomes of their learning. The results also suggest that the implementation of three HIPs in the program, which were applied learning, project-based, and cultural-learning, drive the change in student network density. The findings suggest that 1) HIPs are a necessary component of education abroad programs, 2) social support networks are a necessary component of student learning, and 3) most importantly, program structure, rather than length, is fundamental to developing strong ties. This study has important implications for better understanding the relation between program structure, student social networks, and student learning.

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