How social media is changing education

Social media permeates today’s society with millions of us engrossed, some would argue to the point of unhealthy addiction, in the latest happenings via apps such as Facebook and Twitter. Facebook famously had its origins in Harvard University before extending to other colleges in the US, so it is perhaps appropriate to look at the role of social media in education today, a decade on from its beginnings in the bedrooms of Mark Zuckerberg and his college friends. Using a computer

According to usage statistics gathered earlier this year by Ofcom, 66% of all adults aged 16+ have a profile on at least one social networking site, and though the report doesn’t break down these figures by age group, it’s reasonable to assume that among those of university age, that percentage could potentially be much higher. We know that universities and other education providers have responded by increased use of social media marketing to showcase their courses and attract students, but are they harnessing the full power of the medium to engage and interact with those same students once they begin their studies? Does social media have a place as a teaching tool or is it simply a distraction?

It seems that some lecturers are indeed beginning to tap into the potential benefits of social media in education. Many faculties and societies have attuned to the fact that 75% of students admit to being on Twitter “all the time” (Source: and are using the micro

-blogging site as a forum to share content, encourage debate and answer queries, with some even setting up hashtags for individual courses to create online discussion communities for their students. Indeed, the latter is a strategy believed by some educators to provoke more thoughtful responses from students - the idea being that when they know their comments can be read by the peers and not just by their lecturer they not only consider what to say more carefully but pay more attention to how they write it and take more care with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

But could social media play a more central role in university education? For a clue as to what the future may hold, we can look at the lead taken by distance learning models which in some respects have got ahead of the game when compared to their campus-based counterparts. Distance learning providers are obliged by the very nature of their courses to keep pace with any trends and technological advances which promote communication with students and enhance the learning experience. Early data from some of the most successful MOOCs indicates that student participation is greatly increased when social media platforms are integrated with the learning programme, and at the same time, student

drop-out rates are reduced. While MOOCs may be a relatively new phenomenon, these early indications suggest that the introduction of social media can have a very positive influence, one which universities can perhaps ill afford to ignore for long.

Connecting with the world

Learning management systems such as Moodle and Blackboard have become immensely popular in universities in recent years as a means to distribute lecture notes and other course information, as a portal for students to upload assignments and check them for plagiarism, and as a chat forum where students can communicate with their lecturers, and with each other. Both platforms allow for easy integration with social media services so that lecturers can push content automatically to apps like Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. With 7 out of 10 people now owning a smartphone, and social media usage accounting for over 30% of online smartphone activity, this is a communication channel that lecturers simply can’t afford to overlook; though perhaps the greater challenge will be in selecting the frequency and volume of information they want to share in this way – too much and they risk effectively ‘spamming’ their audience, too little and they fail to engage them. As with all things, finding the right balance will be the key to success.

Since it was first imagined back in those Harvard rooms just ten short years ago, social media has exploded and has transformed the way we interact with one another – first of all on a personal level, and then on a business level, with marketing experts quickly seeing the commercial opportunities offered by an instant, direct communication link with their existing and potential customers. The possibilities for social media in education are equally exciting. Universities don’t even need to convince students of the value of social media – the students have already been won over, so it makes sense to talk to them in the online world they already spend most of their time inhabiting.  

BBC Active’s videos can be used in education and training and uploaded to learning management systems, with the correct licence, providing an engaging way to educate university students.