The Report: Does social media have a place in formal education?

From its early days as a contact board for university students to its global takeover, is social media’s ever-expanding influence to include formal education welcome? Charley Rogers finds out.

What’s the issue?

The University of Birmingham has created a free course to help teachers understand how young people use social media.

The course – Optimising Social Media for Youth Health and Wellbeing – will focus on the impact of social media on mental health and wellbeing, but will also help teachers use social media as a learning resource and design a social media curriculum. The curriculum will then be published in a book at the end of the year-long course.

Social media is often raised as a key issue in safeguarding or data security discussions, particularly when referencing young people and education. And whilst wellbeing is a key topic for consideration, there is also a possibility for social media to be used as a genuine learning aid, especially for subjects that are engaged with topical issues, such as politics.

So how can educators harness social media for learning, and what are the challenges that come with using such an expansive online tool?

Social media platforms can be a source for support for teachers

Who uses social media?

According to a report from We Are Social and Hootsuite this year, Digital in 2019, there are currently 3.484 billion active social media users (45% of the total global population). This number has grown by 288 million (9%) from January 2018–January 2019.

The report showed that in the UK, a huge 67% of the population are active social media users.

When it comes to age demographics, the same report shows that the largest groups to engage with social media are 18–24-year-olds (approx. 27% of users) and 25–34-year-olds (32% of users). And they’re using it for all sorts of things. A recent article from adweek.com reported that Gen Z-ers are using social media for everything from news, to study materials, to photography.

In terms of social networking’s global popularity, the Digital in 2019 report shows that Facebook comes out top for monthly active users (MAUs), followed by YouTube and Instagram. Reddit comes in at seventh, and Twitter at eighth. These rankings don’t include messaging apps such as Whatsapp, which are also growing in popularity.


The Breakdown

  The University of Birmingham has launched a free course for teachers called Optimising Social Media for Youth Health and Wellbeing

  The course will result in a social media curriculum

  According to the Digital in 2019 report from We Are Social and Hootsuite, there are over 3 billion active social media users in the world

  Gen Z are using social media for everything from news to study materials

  Senior lecturer in social media and digital society at the University of Sheffield Paul Reilly uses Twitter for content curation: “Some of my students were actually getting involved with co-curation. So they were sharing resources with the hashtag too, and feeling a sense of involvement.”

  “It is important that we educate students about the implications of having an online presence, irrespective of whether they are using online spaces for social, learning or professional reasons.” – Sue Beckingham, principal lead in computing, Sheffield Hallam University

  Social media is also a useful tool for teachers, especially in sharing best practice and supporting one another

  “You wouldn’t put [pupils] in for a GCSE exam without giving them any preparation for it. [Social media is] exactly the same.” – Vikkey Chaffe, community manager, The Key


Does it have a place in formal education?

Although platforms such as YouTube and Reddit are popular with young people looking to learn something new, whether that’s how to apply makeup or how to change a laptop screen, can formal education also utilise its power?

Paul Reilly, senior lecturer in social media and digital society at the University of Sheffield, certainly thinks so. He says: “I think the big thing in terms of my use of Twitter, looking at that specifically, is really being able to curate resources.” Reilly uses the platform in his classes that relate heavily to current news and politics, and has in the past created class hashtags to allow his students to keep up on developments via Twitter. He says: “One of the things I certainly find, is that in a 12-week course, various things will happen. I think this process is very specific to courses which address contemporary issues or things that are going on at the time of teaching. It’s a way, perhaps, of highlighting to students that they should be aware of the world around them.”

Having access to a class hashtag and being encouraged to stay up to date with the topic at hand can even empower students to take the lead in finding their own resources, says Reilly: “Some of my students were actually getting involved with co-curation. So they were sharing resources with the hashtag too, and feeling a sense of involvement.”

However, social media use shouldn’t be compulsory, Reilly says, and when he does include hashtags and social media in his teaching, students don’t get graded on it. “I don’t assess it, and I think that’s a whole different conversation – about whether or not you should force students to use social media – but I find in some of my classes, students have voluntarily done it. Certainly not the majority, but some.”

Sue Beckingham, principal lead in computing at Sheffield Hallam University, agrees: “The use of social media should always be a choice. Students may choose to set up accounts with pseudonyms and avatars if they have reasons whereby they do not want to be identified.”

You can’t ban technology from the world. What we need to do is teach children how to use social media responsibly.  Vikkey Chaffe, community manager at The Key

Security and privacy

As with all online tools, the use of social media does raise concerns around the security of the user, especially when they are a minor. The BBC has even released a new app, Own It, to help young people navigate the online world, including helping them consider their words before posting comments on social media.

Alice Webb, director of BBC Children’s and Education, said: “The digital world is a fantastic place for people to learn and share, but we know many young people struggle to find a healthy online balance, especially when they get their first phones.”

Data security is also a concern, and Beckingham suggests that education has a huge role to play here: “It is important that we educate students about the implications of having an online presence, irrespective of whether they are using online spaces for social, learning or professional reasons.”

The government’s Online Harms white paper, published in April this year, also addressed the importance of staying safe online, and the variety of ways in which people may encounter ‘harms’ in the online space. Data from the white paper revealed that 14% of adults said they were worried about strangers contacting children online, and 24% were concerned about the use of the internet for child exploitation. Beckingham added: “It is very important that students are educated about [responsible social media use]. Learning how to stay safe online, what not to share and how to adjust security settings are important skills to learn.”

There are currently over 3 billion active social media users across the world

What do adults need to know?

So, should there be dedicated social media studies in schools? Or should social media be eradicated from the classroom altogether?

Minister for school standards Nick Gibb is in favour of the latter, telling the BBC in February that “While this is clearly a matter for the head teacher, my own view is that schools should ban their pupils from bringing smartphones into school or the classroom.”

This is a contentious issue within education, but is teaching responsible use of technology, and social media in particular, a more effective approach? After all, there is no getting away from the increasing digitalisation of the world.

Vikkey Chaffe, community manager at The Key and former schoolteacher, is an advocate of teaching responsible social media use. She says: “You can’t ban technology from the world. And even if children have been banned, then they try and find some way around it. What we need to do is teach them how to use [social media] responsibly, and teach them to start taking care of themselves.”

Young people’s wellbeing, as well as their critical thinking skills, are bound up in these lessons, says Chaffe. She added: “You wouldn’t put them in for a GCSE exam without giving them any preparation for it. It’s exactly the same.”

But it’s not only students that can learn from social media…

Chart via Hootsuite/We Are Social Digital in 2019 report

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How does social media benefit teachers?

Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can also be useful learning tools for educators. As well as using it to complement their teaching, many teachers take to social platforms to share best practice and offer support to fellow educators.

In her previous role as a school leader, Chaffe set up a Facebook group to support fellow educators, called Primary School Leaders. Now run as part of her role at The Key, Chaffe has seen an immense need in the group for teachers to support one another.

She says: “When budgets are so tight, you can’t afford to let teachers come out of the classroom, because you can’t cover them. So having somewhere like Primary School Leaders, where they can support each other, on their phones at home, when they need it most, is essential. It’s incredibly lonely, being a school leader.”

Sophie Wardle, a primary school teacher in Manchester, also uses social media to support her teaching. Wardle favours Twitter, and has found the platform to be a useful resource in the short time she has been using it: “I only started using Twitter this summer. I run our school’s social media pages and thought I would make a professional page for me to get ideas and share them.”

Wardle explained that she has gained useful teaching ideas from the Twitter community, and although she believes that structured CPD is still required, “the rapid growth of online networking is great, and amazing to be a part of”.

Chart via Hootsuite/We Are Social Digital in 2019 report

What happens next?

Although largely still considered an ‘unofficial tool’, it is impossible to deny the impact of social media on our lives, and especially the effect on young people. As both Chaffe and Reilly commented, it is useless to ignore the role that technology is playing in the world, and in terms of an educator’s role, Reilly says: “One of the things we need to be more aware of, is our responsibility as teachers in how we guide students, how they source information, verify it, assess its credibility, and use it.”

However, all of the educators I spoke to were keen to reinforce that social media is not a replacement for traditional in-person education, but a supplementary tool. As Reilly says, “We have to look at this more holistically, in terms of why we need to maximise face-to-face contact, and how to use digital technology appropriately and strategically alongside that, rather than instead of it.”


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