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Social Media and Social Learning

by Jon Reed - social media lecturer and author of Get up to Speed with Online Marketing (FT Prentice Hall, 2010)
21 May 2012


Social media, in most business discussions, tends to mean social media marketing. However, one of the greatest long-term legacies of the social media revolution is likely to be in education. Online learning has been around for a while now. Particularly when applied to distance learning programs, this used to mean logging on and learning in isolation. But learning happens with and through other people - by participating in a community rather than simply by consuming information. In the last few years the availability of social media tools and technologies - plus their wide take-up and mainstream use - has enabled the essential social elements of learning to occur online. Social learning has come of age.


The great advantage is that today's students are already familiar with social media. Facebook and Twitter are second nature to them. This makes it easier to engage with students on these platforms where they already spend their time. Ways in which social media tools can be used in education include:


  • Twitter- useful as a back-channel for discussion at lectures, talks and conferences. When used with an official conference hashtag, the discussion can easily be followed in real time - whether or not students are physically present at the event.


  • Video- remember when learning technology meant switching on the TV and leaving the classroom? Now video can enhance the learning experience in a much more efficient way. Include YouTube clips in your presentations, or refer students to relevant videos to watch later. Better yet, set up a YouTube channel for your course, and 'favourite' videos you think your students will find useful as a way of curating content. TED Talks is a great starting point.


  • Podcasting- whenever I lecture at City University, London, my lecture is audio recorded and uploaded to the course Learning Management System (LMS). Putting audio or video of lectures on a LMS enables students who were there to review material, those who weren't to catch up, and distance learning students to join in. If your university has an iTunes U account, you can also upload your lectures there to reach a wider audience. Search the iTunes store for podcasts in your subject area too - there is a lot of academic material on iTunes, including journals who produce regular podcast episodes tied to their publication schedule. A great example of this is the Nature Podcast.


  • Facebook- Facebook groups can be effective for facilitating peer-to-peer communication and collaboration on project work, or to enable alumni to keep in touch after a course. Closed groups especially can help past and present students network and share tips in a competitive job market, for example about internship opportunities.


  • Pinterest- a new social media tool, but one that is already being used in the classroom, particularly where there is a visual or design element to the course, such as to create mood boards without the need for scissors, paper and glue.


However, student familiarity with these tools also makes it possible to integrate social learning tools into a LMS, with many of the features students find on Facebook or Twitter - such as social profiles, avatars, chat, groups and activity feeds. For example, Pearson LearningStudio partnered with Columbia University to create a social learning interface that students felt comfortable using - and it kept all conversations in one place instead of six possible locations. These tools facilitate collaborative learning through real-time discussion - and also result in a high level of engagement and discussion among students. They become more informed, gain a wider perspective, and are able to make better decisions by engaging with each other. Student participation via social learning tools also provides valuable feedback to help shape the course.


Like social media marketing, social learning relies on engaging people with quality, relevant content aimed at a specific niche audience. In the case of a student audience focused on a specific academic niche, that content is disseminated, discussed and shared online - but this may be on a LMS rather than a public social network; and marketing 'calls to action' are replaced by educational 'learning outcomes'.


If you previously thought of social media simply as a medium for individuals to keep in touch with friends or for businesses to market themselves - or even as an unwelcome classroom distraction - think again, and think about how you can use it in your classroom. The challenge for lecturers is to make the content ever-more compelling - but also to make the learning process more relevant to their students' learning needs.