The value of using social media tools in teaching and learning

by Chris Buddle

From Facebook to Twitter and blogs, social media tools are an integral and important part of society, and these tools are here to stay. Social media is about collaborating, networking, sharing and generating knowledge and content, and all of these features are of great value in the context of higher education. Today’s Universities have well-developed social media strategies, and use a suite of social media tools for various purposes including internal and external communications, recruitment, sharing research findings, and highlighting exciting student initiatives (this is reviewed in detail byDavis et al.).

Social media tools and technology are also making their way into the classroom, although the 2013 Pearson Report (Seama & Tinti-Kane 2013) indicates that its use in teaching lags behind other uses, and that “faculty are much more willing to embrace social media in their personal lives than they are to use it for professional or teaching purposes”. However, active proponents are quick to relate how these tools increase student engagement and have a positive influence on teaching and learning. Is there any substance behind these claims? Is there any evidence that social media has a useful place in the classroom?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that social media is commonly used in the University context. The majority of faculty (78.9%) feel that digital communication has increased their communication with students (Seaman & Tinti-Kane 2013) (although the same survey suggests that the majority are concerned that the same technologies can be a distraction!). Blogs and wikis are the tools most commonly used in classrooms, followed by podcasts, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter (Seaman & Tinti-Kane 2013).

Digging a little bit deeper, we find that there are some excellent papers in the peer-reviewed literature about the use of social media tools in the classroom, including an extensive review by Foon Hew & Cheung (2013). In that paper (which investigates K-12 as well as higher education), the authors state “…actual evidence regarding the impact of Web 2.0 technologies on student learning is as yet fairly weak. Nevertheless, the use of Web 2.0 technologies appears to have a general positive impact on student learning. None of the studies reported a detrimental or inferior effect on learning” (note: Web 2.0 is loosely analogous to ‘social media tools’). These are interesting findings: even though the evidence of positive effects on learning is somewhat lacking, there is a positive trend, and the distinct lack of evidence of negative effects is telling. Stated another way, social media tools may help in the classroom, and won’t hurt!

There are some detailed, quantitative case studies that have tested the value of specific tools in the context of the classroom environment in higher education. Junco et al. (2011), for example, used a controlled experiment to assess whether students using Twitter in the classroom had higher levels of ‘student engagement’ relative to a control group (engagement in this context is broadly defined, and includes active participation and investment in academic activities, co-curricular activities, and interactions with faculty and peers). Their results show that this social media tool positively affects student engagement, and students in the experimental group ended up with higher grades (Junco et al. 2011). The authors list the following benefits of using Twitter in higher education:

  • Helped with general communication about the course (e.g., details about assignments, class announcements, or due dates)
  • Improved contact among students and between students and the instructor
  • Increased cooperation among students
  • Promoted active learning whereby students’ experiences (inside and outside the classroom) were more easily linked to course materials
  • Helped to created a strong learning community among students
  • Increased participation by students, including those who would otherwise be intimidated by the lecture-hall environment

Quick Internet searches will yield many similar statements, and support the idea of using social media tools in teaching and learning. There are also countless great examples: from general ‘how-to’ advice, to specific examples involving different tools (e.g., podcasts,Twitter or Facebook). In fact, it’s refreshing (and reassuring!) to see that there is an overall sense of convergence in educators’ thinking that social media tools have an important place inside the classroom, and that they can help improve learning environments and increase student engagement.

Despite the generallypositive impressions about social media use in higher education, it’s important to recognize that not every context is appropriate for using these tools, not everyone should use them, and they should not be used carelessly. Schroeder et al. (2010)provide a good overview of the strengths and weaknesses of social media in higher education, and they report important concerns related to increased workload, quality of interactions, data ownership and assessment, among others. These concerns are mirrored by the Pearson survey: the majority of faculty are concerned about their own privacy, as well as the privacy of their students, and 60% of those surveyed felt that “others outside of class should not be able to view class-related content” (Seaman & Tinti-Kane 2013). Therefore, using social media tools in the classroom requires careful attention to these issues, and Universities certainly need to develop guidelines for the use of social media tools in the classroom. In addition, instructors must be savvy with social media technologies, etiquette, and ‘terms of use’ before introducing them into the classroom context.

This post has only scratched the surface, and there is clearly work to be done, more literature to read, and more examples to discuss! However, if one of the goals of teaching and learning is to support and improve student engagement, we should continue to explore the ways that social media tools may help accomplish this goal. These tools can help to create an important learning community, facilitate active learning, and improve communication among and between students and the instructor. These are fundamentally good principles in pedagogy, and given the prevalence of social media in our daily lives, faculty ought to consider (and certainly not dismiss!) the potential for using social media tools in teaching and learning.


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