Is social media the new common room?

Today’s students see technology as fun, not an add-on. Nicola Yeeles examines the value of social media in higher education

According to recent research published by the Higher Education Academy, universities need to maintain “intense involvement with social media” in order to have a voice in young people’s preferred channels of communication. So what’s new? Universities have long engaged with prospective and current students and alumni through Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn – according to theunipod rankings, the University of Oxford enjoys three Twitter followers for every one of its current students.

What’s new is the debate about the value of social media for education. Answering a poll with a tweet might be more fun than putting your hand up, for example, and having a debate on a Facebook group might feel more current than a conference call. But is that a reason to use it, and to encourage its use? Surely education is all about that relationship between tutor and student, student and peer. The long hours in the lab or library, absorbing information and being inspired to try new things.

The evidence for or against using social media for learning is as yet fairly weak with most research showing that while there is not a necessarily positive effect, web 2.0 can prove useful and at worst, won’t hurt. However, there are emerging voices of real enthusiasm. Take the research of Rey Junco, associate professor of education at Iowa State University, which shows that, “If students talk about a class topic on social media not traditional educational platforms like Blackboard, their discussions in class become richer.” His work is supported by a number of other studies that show the benefits of encouraging conversation on social media outside the classroom.

Given the limited education research, it’s wise to source evidence from elsewhere – from fields like media and psychology for example, where it’s been shown that online social network users are three times more likely to trust their peers’ opinions over advertising when making decisions (Juniper Research 2007). Taken in an education context, that could translate as considerable opportunities for peer-to-peer learning. In fact the HEA report, which surveyed six institutions, found that “potential students frequently used social media sites to obtain more information about universities and courses, ignoring (it was widely believed) official sources of information.”

Building on this work, it’s clear that there are also pockets of good practice which do show positive outcomes for students. In 2014, the University of Liverpool delivered a postgraduate module via Twitter. Although tweeting lecturers may attract media interest, in fact it’s blogs and wikis most commonly used in university classrooms, followed by podcasts, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter (Seaman and Tinti-Kane 2013).

And sharing resources is frequently done through one of the many social bookmarking sites such as Karla Youngs at Jisc Digital Media, said: “Given a variety of media presenting the same information, many people will choose video – and they will enjoy acquiring the information that it presents.” One reason for lecturers to stay social is to share such content easily. For reflective learning, blogs can make simple journals or eportfolios, either within Moodle or external services such as WordPress. When developing texts or ideas, wikis can facilitate collaborative development of texts through Moodle wiki or Workspace.

Nevertheless, there are some hurdles to be overcome before social media for education becomes ubiquitous. In the words of Professor Junco: “As educators in our society we need to teach students how to use these platforms and how to engage civilly in a new type of community.” Both learners and staff need to have the digital literacy skills to find each other online, and access to the internet to pursue those discussions.

For a start, today’s undergraduates need to understand what’s appropriate, and how their digital footprint might be accessed by a future employer as part of their recruitment process. At the University of Nottingham students studying medicine attend an interdisciplinary lecture on social media and patient confidentiality. Professional standing and reputation are key parts of the use of public platforms. One answer could be increased efforts to improve digital literacy perhaps through solutions such as Fluency, a digital education start-up which won the University of London Computer Centre’s recent pitchfest.

There’s also the question of access, not just for home students but because particular sites may be blocked in other countries: for example, Chinese learners accessing the internet from their hometowns will find themselves unable to access certain websites, such as the occasional Wikipedia page, or, Google + Facebook and YouTube.

There’s no doubt that social media can provide more rapid access to peer learning opportunities. But are we losing the art of the curated discussion, where a lecturer can steer and inform students? Kathryn Chedgzoy, alumni relations manager at the University of Birmingham, has a different take: “We have to be careful with social networking tools because they are, in essence, user-driven. You can overstep the mark and become far too controlling and that takes away the power of what the tool is. The greatest power is when you have peer-to-peer interaction.”

So instead, lecturers frequently engage with students over Twitter and blogs with provocative questions or support with queries, using hashtags to curate group discussions. Instead of being enclosed behind the wall of a private group, social media can be a route for those currently in education to widen their engagement with a broader range of academics, professional communities of practice and the media, than would otherwise be possible.

Savvy educators know that the 18- and 19-year-olds currently in lecture theatres and labs were born digital. For these students, technology is fun, not an add-on. Harnessing this new world to help students learn can only benefit their levels of motivation, and our teaching outcomes. So perhaps it’s time to turn the spotlight on teaching and learning and ask: why is social media for education still considered innovative? If today’s students are hanging out in digital common rooms, shouldn’t our lecturers be there too? 

If you’re looking for inspiration on teaching and learning via Twitter, look no further than these tweeting lecturers…

@RunningMadProf is Tom Solomon, neurology professor at Liverpool University – in a recent lecture for 400 first year life science undergraduates, he used Twitter so that the students could ask questions, make comments, and interact, commenting that it was “good fun, and quite informative.” 

@Leah_EEE regularly interacts with learners about everything from lost property to homework assignments. Behind the keyboard, she’s Dr Leah Ridgway, lecturer in electronics and engineering at the University of Nottingham.

@kfreberg is University of Louisville professor Karen Freberg, whose courses on social media are highly visible online through Twitter and her own blog. 

@MsEmentor or Ms E-mentor is the online persona of Dr Rosie Miles, senior lecturer in English at Wolverhampton University. She encourages her students to share thoughts online, with hashtags to bring together each cohort and module.

@s_j_lancaster is Simon Lancaster, professor of chemistry at the University of East Anglia. Simon is very active in engaging with his peers and teaching via Twitter; he won the Royal Society of Chemistry Higher Education Teaching Award in 2013 for effectively blurring the boundary between online and classroom learning.