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The use of Social Networks to Develop Practice Knowledge

in Undergraduate Physiotherapy Students

Keywords: social network, practice knowledge, clinical education

It is generally understood that clinical practice is a challenging component of


physiotherapy education, as the therapist must review and re-prioritise problems in an
enterprise of active interpretation, making use of tacit knowledge in a context of meaning
that is often intuitive and hidden. However, practice knowledge can be developed by
sharing clinical experiences in a collegial environment that enables knowledge to be
internalised, develops problem solving strategies, and promotes critical and reflective
thinking.

In addition, the role of social interaction in the learning process recognises that learning is
not merely the acquisition of facts, and relies as much on discourse as it does on solitary
study. Clinical education must acknowledge the social and cultural context in which it
occurs, with less emphasis on memorising facts and more on active participation in a
community of practice. Clinical education is therefore not an individual process, but a
communal and social activity.

Social constructivism recognises the interactive component of teaching and learning,


where participation in a group facilitates a collaborative culture where learning and
meaning are shared. Participation in group discussion has been shown to develop problem
solving and reasoning skills, improve thoughtful and respectful communication, facilitate
deeper understanding by synthesising the ideas of others, and to encourage meaning
making through reflection. The use of social networks has been identified as one way in
which a social constructivist approach may be facilitated by enhancing communication and
collaboration among students and educators.

This study was conducted in a South African university physiotherapy department as part
of a larger project aimed at curriculum development. It sought to determine the role of
social networks in developing practice knowledge among 109 undergraduate
physiotherapy students. The study had three components to determine if participation in a
social network changes the teaching and learning practices of staff and students, and if
reflection through online discussion could develop a deeper understanding of clinical
practice. A mixed method survey was conducted to determine current teaching and
learning practices within the department, as well as students' experiences and attitudes
towards social networks. Following the survey, each class was given an assignment with
the aim of promoting discussion using the tools within the network. On completion of the
assignment, staff members and students were selected to participate in a focus group,
based on their activity in the network. The aim of the focus group was to determine the
impact of the use of the social network to stimulate reflective discussion around clinical
and educational experiences.

The results of the survey were analysed descriptively and found that students would like
additional channels of communication within the department, and were supportive of the
idea of using different approaches in teaching and learning. Emergent behaviour within the
social network highlighted unexpected outcomes, such as the formation of groups outside
assignments, as well as the level of engagement demonstrated. The focus group has yet
to be held, as 2 assignments are still running.

The conclusion is that social networks can be used to develop practice knowledge through
reflective discussion, but that 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.