Leveraging Social Media for Education

By Cait Etherington
March 05, 2018

A new Pew Research Center study suggests that social media use continues to increase among adults of all ages, but can social media be used to support more than personal communication and entertainment? Some recent studies point to the potential use of social media for education, and specifically to how one might use social media to support students’ sense of social connectedness. But personality type and age appear to be important factors, suggesting that some learners may benefit from the incorporation of social media more than others.

Social Media Use Still on the Rise

According to a Pew Research Center study released in early March, social media use among adults continues to grow: “Facebook and YouTube dominate this landscape, as notable majorities of U.S. adults use each of these sites. At the same time, younger Americans (especially those ages 18 to 24) stand out for embracing a variety of platforms and using them frequently. Some 78% of 18- to 24-year-olds use Snapchat, and a sizeable majority of these users (71%) visit the platform multiple times per day. Similarly, 71% of Americans in this age group now use Instagram and close to half (45%) are Twitter users.” Notably, while older adults continue to report higher social media use, social media still appears to be a primarily young person’s world: with 88% of 18- to 29-year-olds indicating that they use any form of social media compared to only 78% among those ages 30 to 49, 64% among those ages 50 to 64, and 37% among those 65 and older.

The study also highlighted the addictive nature of social media platforms. It found that “the share of social media users who say these platforms would be hard to give up has increased by 12 percentage points compared with a survey conducted in early 2014.” A somewhat contradictory finding, however, states that a majority of users (59%) still believe that it would not be hard to stop using social media sites, including 29% who say it wouldn’t be difficult to abandon social media at all. However, it is important to bear in mind here that when it comes to social media addiction, there are also some notable age differences. As reported by the Pew Research Center, “Roughly half of social media users ages 18 to 24 (51%) say it would be hard to give up social media, but just one-third of users ages 50 and older feel similarly.”

Leveraging the Addictive Nature of Social Media for Education

While social media is clearly more addictive for some demographics than others, educators and trainers have been wondering: can the addictive nature of social media by leveraged to support learning?  For at least some optimistic researchers, the answer is yes.

According to the Pew Research Center, Facebook remains a dominant social media platform. Presumably, the platform’s longevity combined with its ability to be used to facilitate many different types of communication accounts for its sustained popularity. Indeed, a recent study by Casimir C. Barczyk from the Department of Managerial Studies at Purdue University and Doris G. Duncan from the Department of Computer Information Systems and Accounting at California State University suggests found that previous research claims that social media, especially Facebook, “has the capacity to enhance student engagement and satisfaction” do appear to hold true.

In their study, students at two universities located in California and Indiana were encouraged to voluntarily participate in the Facebook component of six different business courses in the fields of accounting, business law, human resource management, compensation, training, and organizational staffing.  Despite the different subject matter, the classroom style and pedagogy of the instructors were aligned. As stated in the study, “The instructors agreed on a uniform teaching protocol so that presentation of the courses was consistent and similar.”  As Barczyk and Duncan report, “It appeared that Facebook, more so than BlackBoard, facilitated student interactions and had a positive influence on their sense of connectedness. Students in some teams used Facebook for other course work and discussions, even beyond their assigned projects.” Notably, students in the control group were enrolled in non-Facebook-enhanced courses. While they still collaborated with each other in face-to-face meetings as well as via telephone and email, their level of collaboration was not as deep.

Barczyk and Duncan’s study did discover, however, that social media may not offer the same benefits to all students. Both personality type and age appeared to further impact whether or not students reported a higher sense of social connectedness in courses using Facebook. Not surprisingly, older students were less likely to benefit. This may suggest that while social media holds the potential to be leveraged in educational contexts, especially with younger students, it may hold less potential to be successfully leveraged in continuing education and training contexts.