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Social Media in Higher Education by Michael Masterman and Andrew Wilson

Page history last edited by Michael 11 years, 1 month ago

The opportunities and challenges of social media as a learning resource in higher education


For our group literature review we have chosen the topic of ‘social media as a learning resource in higher education’. Our chosen pieces of literature for review focus on both the opportunities and challenges faced by educators when using and integrating a learning resource into existing learning methods.


Michael will be reviewing the opportunities of the topic and Andrew the challenges, but before beginning our review we first briefly looked at the definition for social media.


What is Social Media?

Social media first came into being with the birth of the web 2.0 concept which saw websites change from not just delivering information but also allowing people to interact about the information being delivered.


In essence social media has reproduced online the social meetings and discussions that people have either in person or over the phone. Social media is different to other forms of media, such as newspapers, because of the instant interaction and reaction it offers.


In general there are several types of social media that, according to (http://webtrends.about.com/od/web20/a/social-media.htm), fall into the following categories, 

  • ·       Social Bookmarking. (Del.icio.us, Blinklist, Simpy) Interact by tagging websites and searching through websites bookmarked by other people
  • ·       Social News. (Digg, Propeller, Reddit) Interact by voting for articles and commenting on them
  • ·       Social Networking. (Facebook, Hi5, Twitter, Last.FM) Interact by adding friends, commenting on profiles, joining groups and having discussions
  • ·       Social Photo and Video Sharing. (YouTube, Flickr) Interact by sharing photos or videos and commenting on user submissions
  • ·       Wikis. (Wikipedia, Wikia) Interact by adding articles and editing existing articles


The term social media can also go by the names of social networks or even social networks sites (SNSs), but in the end all refer to the same set of tools listed above.


The opportunities of social media as a learning resource in higher education

The following section will review the opportunities available to institutions and academics when using social media tools as a learning resource. 



The opportunities for the use of social media within education may seem almost endless, in this section one will discuss some common themes from the research discovered, alongside highlighting specific social media technology and its benefits to higher education.


This section of the critical review is based on five pieces, two of which, Ebner (2009) and Junco et el (2010) relate to specific social media micro blogging site Twitter and the positive impact of higher education, the three others; Cheston et al. (2013), Davis et al. (2012), Zaidieh and Jalal (2012) are more balanced, although I have chosen to highlight the opportunities within them.



Ebner (2009) concludes that the use of micro blogging web 2.0 social media tools can aid to the interaction of participants/students at live events and even large lectures and there are two important reasons for that, increased possibility of feedback and less apprehension from people to interact when in large group scenarios. This conclusion is not only relevant in education; the use of micro-blogging sites for interaction with live events has become increasingly popular modern society, especially in the entertainment and music industries and this will have a bearing on the way students want to interact with their educators and also the way educators may choose to interact with students.


Further conclusions look at the possibility of enhancing the learning experience for participants that are not able to attend an event or lecture by allowing interaction and engagement opportunities irrespective of location and or social status Ebner (2009). A number of social media technologies allow this type of interaction; not only social networking tools, wikis and social sharing (videos and pictures) sites allow this and are already being used extensively in higher education, having first hand experience of this I see it as a benefit and also a huge area of opportunity. 


A systematic review of social media in medical education by Cheston et al. (2013) discovered in that social media tools provide more opportunities for feedback, again we can see the opportunities here are limitless and the student experience improvement available to institutions via these mechanisms have been identified by Davis et al. (2013) we must be aware of the workload pressures that must increase, this is discussed in the challenges section in more detail.


Both the challenges and opportunities of social networking in higher education are discussed by Zaidieh and Jalal (2012) but once again they conclude that the opportunities for connection within and outside the institution are one of the key opportunities, Ebner (2009) suggests there is still not enough solid evidence as to whether the use of social media technologies enhances student interaction or even grades, Junco et al. (2010) conducted a very thorough experiment on the use of Twitter in higher education and concluded that engagement and grades were improved by using the tool, but they do state that this has to be done in relevant ways. This may seem obvious but I think it is a valuable point to make, a number of these web 2.0 social media technologies are being solely used because they have become ‘popular’ in society, where as in fact it can only benefit higher educational as part of clear pedagogy of a unit or course.


Flexibility, repeatability, convenience and accessibility are the four areas in which Zaidieh and Jalal (2012) identify as opportunities, especially in the distance education area, they also highlight the volume of technologies that fall into the social media bracket, most of which some academics have been using successfully already without labelling as social media tools, we touch on this a bit more in the challenges section but it must be seen as an opportunity due to the familiarity aspect. The four areas are key to any higher education learning cycle and upon realising the types of social media technologies available to educators one can could argue that elements can be in no doubt be enhanced by the use of this type of technologies.


Repeatability is a huge opportunity in my point of view, especially in higher education as the shift changes to the learner being more in control of his or her learning, social media tools allow learners to revisit things over and over, not as easy or even possible in the traditional environment. This is mirrored by the research of the use of social media in medical education, Cheston et al. (2013) and the benefit of the tools in helping to promote active learning. Davis et al. (2012) also consider this to be an important opportunity alongside increased connections between other students, student involvement and integration. Although they do suggest that this integration differs greatly whether on campus or off (distance learners) and this is an interesting point which does require further investigation and research, as no concrete conclusions have been discovered in my research.


The development of social relationships is another area that appears in most of the literature around this subject Davis et al. (2012) discuss this in relation to specific under-represented groups but I believe that this has wider implications by ensuring that relationships are not only maintained but developed, both internally and externally of the institution.


The use of social media technologies and medical education is of personal interest and it could be suggested as an area that has developed a lot of scepticism due to in the main part privacy concerns, Cheston et al. (2013) have however suggested that this was not concern in the studies they investigated they also conclude that this is an exciting opportunity and that social media use is a worthwhile topic for further scientific study. This in itself is of huge importance as it identifies once again the potential importance of social media and how it compares to more traditional methods especially in the notoriously complex area of medical education, this I believe can allow for deeper exploration and without doubt more concrete conclusions.



Although presented here there are a number of opportunities for the use of social media in higher education there is also an understanding that there is limited research as to the specific correlation between the use and an visible improvement of engagement or grades, the opportunities are indeed available but they must be used as part of pedagogy within an environment that is suitable.


A number of social media technologies are already being used successfully in higher-education to aid student interaction and engagement, I have discussed some of the more ‘known’ social media tools and the opportunities they offer, but we must not forgot the wide variety that are already out there and being used successfully and innovatively.


One does not underestimate the limited amount of high quality research that is available in this relatively new area of interest, although one does suggest with the gaining popularity in the wider community more and more research and evidence towards the tangible benefits of social media in higher education will and should be addressed in the near future.


The challenges of social media as a learning resource in higher education

The following section will review the challenges faced by institutions and academics when using social media tools as a learning resource.



After searching well-known library databases and the internet in general I have chosen four articles and one website as the basis for this review on the challenges of social media as a learning resource.


The sources by Baran (2010) and Moran et al. (2011) are based on studies that have been conducted around the use of social media in education. The remaining sources by Weber, Picardo (2011) and Zaidieh and Jalal (2012) are not directly linked to any particular piece of research but instead draw together themes from other pieces of work to discuss the topic of social media in education.


The sources by Moran et al. and Zaidieh and Jalal (2012) are balanced pieces of work which focus on both the benefits and challenges of the topic, whereas the remaining sources focus more on the challenges and barriers of using social media as a learning resource.  


Overall I feel the literature sources are well presented and are based on actual studies carried out around the topic of social media use in education. Obviously the outcomes of the studies have highlighted the challenges around this topic, but that does not necessarily make them negative pieces of work.



When looking into this topic the question of what social media meant and the tools classed as such kept coming up. At the start of this review a definition of what social media is given in order to help clarify the online tools that make up social media resources. This definition is clearly not widely recognised as the evidence Moran, Seaman, and Tinti-Kane (2011) present shows that many higher education institutions (HEIs) use tools such as wiki, blogs and video, but when asked they did not count these as social media.


I agree that more often than not it is the likes of Facebook and Twitter that are classed as social media tools, whereas all Web 2.0 should be considered as such. So although in this instance lecturers do seem to be using social media tools as a learning resource, they do not realise they are and are not building on that success by exploring other newer tools.


In fact, as Picardo (2011) along with Moran et al. (2011) discuss that lecturers often show great reluctance and scepticism toward the adoption of social media tools within their teaching, with many expressing their concerns about how much extra time is required and whether it is worth investing that time. Picardo also goes on to talk about how many faculty members feel social tools and superfluous and disruptive, as well as students seeing the internet as their territory.


From my own experience I have come across these same arguments and I have actually been the person tasked with trying to overcome them. So although I agree that they are valid arguments for the moment, there should be a tide change in the near future as the new wave of academics rolls in.


To try and gather some hard evidence on the use social media with her teaching methods Baran (2010) conducted a small scale survey on the use of Facebook as a formal instructional environment. She looked at all aspects of interaction; student-content, student-student and student-teacher. Although the study was only small and had some positive outcomes, it also highlighted a number of issues that could cause significant challenges if scaled up to bigger classes. 43% of the study indicated that they would have preferred a face-to-face interaction over Facebook, with 72% of study remaining undecided over whether Facebook offered a high value teaching experience.


As this small scale study shows the student-student dimension was ultimately the most successful as students aren’t yet willing to embrace social media tools such as Facebook for formal teaching and assessment. This is something I agree with as Facebook is not designed to be a learning management system (LMS) and therefore cannot handle the processes required by such as system. Although Facebook can clearly be used as a tool in the learning methods toolbox it does have its limits, this is something the founders of Edmodo (http://www.edmodo.com/) felt before they set up their dedicated education focused social platform in 2008.


More personal challenges that can be caused by social media tools when used as a learning resource is summed up by Weber and Zaidieh and Jalal (2012). They argue that privacy is compromised by the use social tools and that cyber bullying and rogue ‘friendships’ can also have very negative impact. They also suggest that the use of social media tools can actually encourage students to waste time as they are already in the environment that causes most distractions.


Picardo (2011) also goes onto suggest that access to such online tools can exclude some that don’t have the sufficient technology requirements. He also talks about copyright and security issues with social tools arguing that LMS’ are far more secure.


The points raised about the personal challenges that could be caused by the use of social media tools seem valid to me in a general context, but within higher education I’m not sure whether they would all apply.



The challenges and barriers to using social media as a learning resources that are highlighted in the selected literature are what I would except to find and what I have had also experienced. However, although the evidence presented tends to be labelled as challenges or barriers, that does not mean to say the authors are naysayers and opposed to the use of such tools. They are simply providing a balanced view to the topic and by doing so helping people understand and how to avoid any potential pitfalls.


One key outcome from doing this review for me is the notion of the term social media tools needs to be expanded. The evidence would suggest that in the current populist view only the likes of Twitter and Facebook are classed as social tools and as such is damaging the good work being done by social tools such as wikis, blogs and video.


Overall I feel the arguments presented by the authors about the challenges and barriers that one could face using social tools as a learning resource, are valid and have evidence to substantiate them.


Final thoughts

As is often in life there are opportunities and challenges to be encountered when introducing new methods in established working environments like higher education. We have presented both of these and discussed them in relation to our own personal experiences and background.


As with all new technology, time will also tell – out with the old and in with the new. Social media is here to stay in one form or another, the growing use of it in our everyday lives has ensured it also has a part to play in higher education, whether it benefits or burdens will be up to the educators, institutions and of course students.



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