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Sociology in Education and Science Laboratory working with vocational schools

The laboratory has been researching risk behaviours of adolescents for quite a long time. We have been using methods of social network analysis that allow us to track the changes in behaviours and relations of young people who study together.

We have just completed the 5th wave of the survey including 1500 students of 13 vocational schools in Saint Petersburg. We have been working with this group of adolescents for three years already. Every six months they fill in a questionnaire and get interviewed. We ask them about various areasof life: friendship and enmity, professional interests, relationships with parents, plans for the future, drinking practices, and even sex.

After every wave of survey we create a report for the colleges involved, demonstrating the changes that happen to the students. Laboratory staff were invited to a number of parent meetings and pedagogical councils, where they presented intermediate research results. Our goal is to describe and illustrate the dynamics inside the group, as well as determine the position of the college in comparison to other educational institutions.

This autumn we got a request from one of vocational schools asking us to hold a different type of presentation. We were invited to give a workshop for a group specializing on working with digital data. The curriculum in vocational schools is built quite differently. When it comes to ‘working with digital data’, we are speaking about operators who are in charge of input and output of information (in a post office or a bank, for example). However, we have found a way of making a presentation on the various possibilities of working with databases that is both interesting and engaging. Alexey Gorgadze and Daria Khodorenko delivered an exciting presentation on what can be done using open data, using the example of Vkontakte. Especially for the workshop, Alexey managed to find an official group of vocational school on Vkontakte and extracted data about the group subscribers and their friends.

Let’s be honest about it: the students showed up to the workshop because it was a mandatory class that they could not miss. The beginning of the workshop was sadly trivial: while one part of the group was on their phones, the other wanted to leave because the researchers ‘did not need them anymore’. However, when Alexey explained how the network approach can be applied to data analysis, the students started to get a lot more excited. Seeing them getting genuinely interested and engaged in the process was truly amazing. According to their master (someone like a class teacher at school), it is quite hard to get this group of students interested. The group had both their masters and teachers replaced multiple times, which resulted in them losing interest in their profession.

The first part of the workshop was theoretic and was dedicated to network analysis and its application. We have also presented successful cases illustrating how such studies are conducted and used. The second part was more practical: the students worked with Gephi using data on group subscribers and their friends extracted from VKontakte. The analysis results took the workshop participants by surprise: their masters were the biggest nodes in the network connecting the students. Another curious conclusion was drawn after Daria and Alexey had decided to apply the six degrees of separation theory to analyze friendship networks extracted from VKontakte. To their own surprise, workshop participants have discovered they are only one or two introductions away from the laboratory staff.

It was truly rewarding to see genuine interest and fascination on students’ faces and to get a lot of questions. This collaboration was a new experience both for us and vocational school students. What’s important is that we have received great reviews from the students and their group leaders. The workshop demonstrated a completely different level from the courses that are taught at vocational schools. According to the class masters, a workshop on network analysis could become a useful component of the main curriculum and help to improve teachers’ qualifications.

We have noted this new format of cooperation with educational institutions, and we hope to get more vocational schools involved in it next year.