Teachers purposefully build relationships with peers in the physical learning environment to learn from them. During the COVID-19 pandemic, opportunities for networked learning were limited as teachers had to stay at home for long periods to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Although researchers have suggested that e-learning environments (eLEs) be designed and developed to provide teachers with opportunities to establish online learning communities long before the pandemic, the sudden closure of schools due to the pandemic caught teachers off guard.
Thousands of individual teachers have joined Facebook groups since 2004 to build relationships with and learn from one another, but this tool was not designed for this purpose. Gesels.net was therefore designed and developed to serve as an eLE for South African teachers. Although individual teachers join both Facebook and Gesels.net, these tools have not yet been adopted by the staff of schools to establish schoolwide learning communities. One might argue that the teaching staff of a school would prefer Gesels.net, as this tool was specifically designed and developed for teachers, but research shows that the adoption and use of new technologies are impacted by the perceptions of the potential users. Therefore, the purpose of this simultaneously nested mixed-methods research was to measure and compare the teachers’ perceptions of Facebook and Gesels.net in order to recommend one of these tools to be used to establish a schoolwide learning community.
The teachers at a secondary school in Gauteng were invited to participate in the research. Two thirds of the staff had already used Facebook groups, but none of them were registered users of Gesels.net. The group was trained in using Gesels.net for learning purposes during a three-hour workshop. A self-designed questionnaire was used to measure perceptions of Facebook before the workshop commenced, and perceptions of Gesels.net were measured with the same tool at the end of the workshop. A four-point Likert scale was used to measure perceptions, and the quantitative data were statistically analysed and interpreted to compare perceptions of the two eLEs. During the workshop, semi-structured interviews were conducted on Gesels.net to collect qualitative data regarding the use of Facebook and Gesels.net. Quotes are used in this paper to support or contradict the findings of the quantitative section of the research.
The workshop was attended by 50 teachers, but 48 completed the questionnaire (96% response rate) and 40 participated in the semi-structured interviews (80% response rate). During the analysis of the quantitative data, three factors were identified and regarded as the dimensions of an eLE: usefulness, work expectation, and ease of use. As previous research suggested (Brady, Holcomb and Smith 2010; Staudt, Clair and Martinez 2013; Van Staden 2017; Van Staden 2019; Mohammed, Naidu, Al Harthi, Babiker, Balushi, Al Rawahi and Riyami 2020), both Gesels.net and Facebook were perceived as suitable eLEs. However, perceptions of two of the dimensions, namely usefulness and work expectation, measured significantly higher for Gesels.net than for Facebook. As the difference in perceptions of these two dimensions were found to be significant at a 95% confidence level, Gesels.net could be recommended as the tool to be used to establish a schoolwide learning community. Facebook was perceived as easier to use, but the difference in perceptions of this dimension was insignificant.
It was also recommended that the teachers be trained in using Gesels.net effectively, since negative perceptions of ease of use can have a negative impact on the adoption of these new technologies. Given that the teachers have indicated that they prefer using Gesels.net above traditional workshops for training, this training can be conducted on Gesels.net.
This research has important implications for practice.
Firstly, this group of teachers perceived Gesels.net to be more useful than Facebook, as well as providing them with better opportunities to improve their work. Although the focus is on this specific group of teachers, the findings can be generalised to similar groups of teachers.
Secondly, the suitability of Facebook as eLE for teachers needs to be reconsidered as this research was conducted before February 2021. Currently, cybersecurity specialists caution against the use of this tool. Facebook bought WhatsApp on 6 October 2016 (Etherington 2014). On 7 February 2021, Facebook set an ultimatum to WhatsApp users: either they grant permission that their personal information may be shared with Facebook, or access will be blocked until such permission is granted (Businesstech 2021). This implicates that WhatsApp users have to share their own personal information (such as telephone numbers) as well as those of their contacts with Facebook, even if they do not have Facebook accounts. This ultimatum needs to be taken into account when a school chooses a suitable eLE, since Facebook does not have sufficient systems in place to protect private information.
Since the introduction of Facebook, researchers have cautioned that Facebook does not put sufficient systems in place to protect the personal information of its users (Jones and Soltren 2005; Hull, Lipford and Latulipe 2011; Liu, Gummadi, Krishnamurthy and Mislove 2011; Tsay-Vogel and Signorielli 2018). The ultimatum has put the spotlight on the personal information collected by Facebook, and the possible negative impact on users if this information lands in the hands of hackers (Nyoni and Velempini 2018). Facebook users have identified three dangers of this information landing in the wrong hands, namely that the private information would allow:
- marketers and lawmakers to collect big data to compile a profile of each Facebook user, which can be used to harass Facebook users
- cyberthieves to commit identity fraud
- hackers and cyberthieves to surveil, harass and even bully Facebook users.
Currently, O’Flaherty (2021) – a cybersecurity specialist – suggests that Facebook users leave Facebook in 2021 due to three problems, namely that (a) enormous amounts of data about the users are collected, (b) the personal information of WhatsApp users are now also collected, and (c) Facebook users are followed across websites and applications to collect data to build profiles. According to St. John (2018), this is possible because websites and applications with a Facebook icon (like or share) or Facebook pixel collect data on behalf of Facebook. It is therefore meaningful to argue that in the future, teachers might demand that eLEs protect their personal information.
Keywords: ease of use; e-learning environments; emergency remote education; Facebook; Gesels.net; nested mixed-methods research; usefulness; work expectation