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The use of social networks to develop practice knowledge in undergraduate

physiotherapy students

Clinical practice is a challenging component of physiotherapy education, as it requires a


dynamic interpretation of situations using tacit knowledge. This can be developed by
sharing clinical experiences that enable knowledge to be internalised and that promote
critical and reflective thinking, placing less emphasis on memorising facts and more on
active participation. Social constructivism recognises that teaching and learning is
interactive, and that participation in a group facilitates collaboration where meaning is
shared. The use of social networks may improve communication and collaboration among
physiotherapy students and educators in order to enhance clinical practice.

This study was conducted among all undergraduate students in a South African
physiotherapy department in 2010, using a mixed methods model. A survey was used to
determine teaching and learning practices within the department, as well as students´
experiences and attitudes towards social networks. Each class was then given an
assignment related to clinical practice, to be completed within the social network. The
interaction between students and teachers within the network was quantitatively and
qualitatively analysed.

Students reported wanting additional channels of communication within the department,


and were supportive of the idea of using different approaches in teaching and learning,
including social networks. Emergent behaviour within the social network highlighted
unexpected outcomes, such as the formation of groups unrelated to the assignments
given, and personal expression from otherwise quiet students. Insight was gained into the
relative strengths and weaknesses of using a social network within physiotherapy
education.

Social networks may have potential to develop practice knowledge through reflective
discussion around clinical issues, but interaction must be facilitated to maximise the impact
of the engagement. There are implications for how, where and when clinical education can
be undertaken at the undergraduate level, and healthcare educators are encouraged to
explore emerging alternatives to traditional approaches.

Michael Rowe
Lecturer
Physiotherapy Department
University of the Western Cape
Cape Town
South Africa
michael@realmdigital.co.za