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Build informal learning, maintain psychological involvement and increase interaction with social networks

How can social networking tools support online learning?

If you watch television or listen to the radio, it’s likely you hear Facebook or Twitter mentioned regularly. The growth of these social networking services by global users is astounding – Facebook alone has 864 million daily active users (Facebook, 2014). Social networking services (including LinkedIn, Google+ and others including Instagram) offer users the ability to publish a profile about themselves and connect with others online based on interests, activities, and real-life connections (Wikipedia, 2014). These services also allow users to see connections made between other users and to exchange user generated content, resources, media and more.

One of the reasons these services are so popular is that they are incredibly powerful psychologically – they serve individuals’ need to belong and to present the idealized self. According to Psychology Today users of Facebook experience a flow state, in other words, they are not passive and they are not stressed, they are simply flowing through an experience they want to repeat (Mehta, 2012).

Why are social networking tools beneficial for for learners?

Social networking tools can benefit learners by:

  • increasing informal learning opportunities,
  • maintaining psychological involvement,
  • building community, and
  • increasing interaction.

Faculty and students can both learn from and share with a global information network via social networks. Educators often use the term Personal/Professional Learning Network or PLN to describe the ways that they use technology and networks to learn – making connections with the intention of learning from them (Wikipedia, 2014). Social networks can play an important role in personal and professional learning as users actively construct their profile and create connections.

Users of social networks can access a stream of information or ‘feed’ which provides updates from connections. Although the users may not interact with everything in the stream, they are able to keep an ambient awareness of their connections and maintain psychological involvement with communities of which they are a member (Heiberger & Harper, 2008). Through status updates and interactions (such as Likes on Facebook or Favorites on Twitter) users express social presence and identity.

Because of this, social networks can be beneficial in building community among learners, supporting peer-peer interactions and creating a sense of membership and social connection at a distance (Rennie & Morrison, 2013). In addition, social networking interactions are often low investment for participants consisting of reading short messages, passing over those that are not relevant, and briefly responding when it is convenient (Margalit, 2014).

What do we know about social networks as a learning tool?

Although each service is different, there is already a substantial amount of information about social networking use in education.

According to 2012 surveys in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Faculty Focus, nearly 85% of faculty have a Facebook account and approximately 70% of students in higher education are on Facebook every day. Despite these overwhelming numbers, research indicates some Facebook use is tied to student success but more Facebook does not equal better academic performance (Junco, 2011).

Research on Twitter as a learning environment indicates integrating Twitter into instruction can significantly raise student GPA and engagement when used correctly. According to the study “Putting Twitter to the test: Assessing outcomes for student collaboration, engagement and success” (2012, Junco, Elavsky and Heiberger) the following practices are recommended to achieve similar results:

  • Professors must participate.
  • Twitter is integrated in educationally relevant and pedagogically sound ways.
  • Twitter use is required, not optional.

Research basis for adult learning is evident, especially in a global context (2013, van Treeck & Ebner). MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses, often use Twitter as a communication system for both facilitator and learner sharing, as an effective venue for sharing updates, conversations, course products and peer feedback.In summary, the methodology for using social networks in instruction plays a role in learning effectiveness.

Affordances of social networking tools

Social networking services enable users to:

  • Follow others, such as those who share their discipline, influential thinkers, and professional organizations
  • Participate in and have access open conversations through hashtags and public commenting
  • Publicize their work and document their efforts, from the small steps of an incremental process
  • Share status updates including resources, tips, reminders and updates
  • Ask questions, crowdsource and receive information and feedback from others

Imagine your learners responding to a simulated client, customer, or colleague with their own media creation.

Selecting Social Networking Tools

  • Communication and Privacy: Are there options for closed groups or is everything open? Can learners participate without ‘friending’ others?
  • System compatibility: Will the tool work for users on the operating systems and devices they use (ie: Mac, Windows, Android, iOS)?
  • Identity: Does the network allow for pseudonyms? Are users encouraged to use their real names? Will products from the learning be associated with the learners publicly?
  • Accessibility: Are the tools being considered accessible?
  • Support Resources: What types of tutorials and supporting documentation is available for the tool?


For the purposes of this series, specific tools are recommended. Of course, there are many tools that could be used; however, we’ve chosen to highlight tools that are most popular with online educators in our community.

  • Twitter is a microblogging tool and social networking service where users communicate in short messages of 140 characters or less. Users can interact with others via hashtags and locate tweets through search. They do not need to ‘friend’ each other to communicate and can easily use the site with a pseudonym. More resources are available regarding Twitter in Workshop 1.
  • Facebook is a popular social networking service where users typically use their real names and connect with people they know (relatives, coworkers, classmates, etc.) as ‘friends’ to share personal updates, photos, and stay connected to others. The service includes a number of features for interacting with ‘non friends’ including Groups for Schools and Pages. Using Facebook requires setting up a profile and timeline as well as making many decisions about who you share with.
  • Instagram is a photo sharing social networking service available through mobile apps. Users submit photos and use hashtags to tag and locate images, events, and more. Review the Getting Started resource or download the app to explore.
  • LinkedIn is a social networking service built around professional connections. User profiles are a resume of employment history, professional recommendations and endorsements by connections. LinkedIn provides both members only and open groups as well as blogs, job search tools, and company profiles. Recorded webinars are available for learning more.
  • Google+ is a social networking service provided by Google. Although it is rumored to be the “Walking Dead” of social networking services, it provides powerful closed groups called Communities and is integrated with YouTube and the meeting and collaboration tool Google+ Hangouts. Learn more about Google+ and watch this video to see it in action.

Use Scenarios

In addition to the ideas presented above, here are a few popular methods for using social networking tools in online education.

Learners can:

  • Contribute to in a course backchannel to decentralize the role of the expert and make lectures more interactive
  • Create an online study guide by posting tweets during an activity and then aggregating them using Storify
  • Respond to pre and post learning study questions/prompts easily using social networking tools
  • Refine writing/summary skills (develop clarity in expression, practice summarizing ideas)
  • Identify, follow and interview experts.
  • Practice communicating in a different language.
  • Personify fictional/historical characters or fake personas in satire or seriousness
  • Report field experiences incorporating data, photos, video, location
  • Collaborative to solve a problem or craft a narrative created (ie: creating a thesis statement, translating a poem)
  • Evaluate data within Tweets and conversation (older, newer, widely circulated, less circulated, by location, topics, language, syntax, hashtags)
  • Create data collection instruments or polls to gather data in social networks
  • Analyze conversations in social media (of industry communication, of sentiment within conversations, by creating concept maps and visualizations, through identify relationships such as cause/effect, between individuals and groups)
  • Groups on Facebook can be Open, Closed or Secret. They allow users to share events, discussions, photos, videos, links and documents with those who are not ‘friends.’ Students can share projects and receive likes and feedback from peers. Groups are an excellent choice for courses, programs, cohorts and learning communities. Facebook makes it easy with Groups for Schools. Look at Baum’s Ladder of Engagement strategy for ideas on how to integrate this with instruction.
  • Pages allow users to engage a larger community. Users can Like the page to receive notifications and share comments. This is a great option for a faculty member to present an identity as a public figure but also works well for promoting an department or program. Users can send private messages to Page administrators. Groups of students can collectively administer and publish to Pages to the world to collectively publish a magazine or news resource.

What about your suggestions? How are social networks supporting your instructional design and/or online teaching?

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