Using social media in education, Part 1

Opportunity, risk, and policy


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Universities and colleges increasingly are using new communication technologies to produce innovative teaching methods, thus improving relationships with staff and students. Much of this innovation is centered on social media spaces and concepts. We will discuss both the opportunities and risks of this media in detail in this article.

Social media literally means media spaces that are sociable in some sense and therefore encompasses many Web 2.0 spaces (see Related topics). Web 2.0 is a "read write" medium, where users can contribute their own material and creativity as opposed to the "read only" web where users engage passively with others' content. Like Web 2.0, social media tools are collaborative and include some form of user generated content, personalization, and some form of social interaction that lends them creative, playful qualities with huge potential for use within academia.

Many of the most significant social media tools are still very young (see Figure 1 for timeline), but the concepts of social networking, online video, and blogging go back to the earliest days of the Internet. Indeed, educators and library professionals were quick to see the value of blogs as they appeared, partly as a mechanism to bypass complex or slow institutional website-updating processes. They are also a way to reach out, to share news and reflections with colleagues and students both within and beyond institutional walls.

Figure 1. Some key social media sites and their year of launch
Some of the key social media sites showing their year of launch
Some of the key social media sites showing their year of launch

As the first social networking sites emerged, combining the functionality of bulletin boards with personal profiles and instant messaging tools, students were early adopters using the sites like FriendsReunited to maintain existing friendships and to establish personal support networks. Friendster extended the idea of what these spaces could do, and by the time Facebook launched (for those with university email addresses), students were well prepared to experiment, socialize, and share their networks online. Some librarians and academics followed students into these spaces, sharing practical information and trying these new forms of engagement. Now with the widespread use of tools and technologies like YouTube, Twitter, blogs, wikis and Facebook, social media is used for teaching in higher education.

Students remain ahead of the adoption curve (see Figure 2) of social media users in various higher education groups. While many, most notably Marc Prensky (see Related topics), attribute this to generational factors, it is also true that students are more highly motivated by the need to find and bond with new peers and potential social groups. Many find participating in a new online space a relatively low stakes issue of experimenting and exploring the spaces that work for them, or that their friends use. Academic staff have been slower to find their feet, but the success of pioneering colleagues in communicating and engaging students in their work, or gaining professional advantage through social media spaces, has helped drive change and, in some cases institutional leadership. In 2004, Warwick University was one of the first UK universities to introduce an institution-wide blogging platform (see Related topics) encouraging staff and students to share professional or personal reflections in a trusted branded public space. Rolling out blogging tools and support across the university has led to a creative, thoughtful, and lively culture of blogging within the university including a rapid turnover of very high quality content.

Figure 2. Percentage of social media users in U.S. and UK higher education groups.
Percentage of social media users in various higher education groups

Note: U.S. statistics are from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. UK statistics are from the Oxford Internet Survey. See Related topics for more information on both.

Ambitious institutional strategies such as Warwick's are now more commonplace as social media becomes part of core communication, teaching, and research practice in higher education. Admissions and alumni staff are leading the way, adopting sophisticated social media strategies to ensure they meet or exceed the expectations of both prospective and recently graduated students and engage with them in social media spaces. Facebook pages are often the hubs of this activity and U.S. colleges, including Arizona State and Columbia College Chicago, have started to use a customized "Schools App" (see Related topics). This is a Facebook application that encourages prospective students to connect to the college community through a "Facebook within Facebook" that provides a specific college-related content stream long before those prospective students step foot on campus. LinkedIn is also increasingly becoming the preferred space for connecting to alumni with universities, including the University of Exeter (see Related topics), setting up or supporting alumni areas that enable the inexpensive and effective sharing of alumni events and fund-raising drives. Many also use LinkedIn to encourage the links between former students to become lasting and visible professional networks.


A key strength of social media is the distributed model of connection, posting, and activity feeds (from RSS to status updates) that enables building an ongoing relationship with stakeholders through low stakes participation. Indeed the most common use of social media in higher education is as a means of amplifying existing events, publications, and websites.

Social media resources are often provided for passive use as information sources or teaching resources—perhaps an alert to an upcoming event, a blog post that directs the reader to formal academic literature, or a video that demonstrates a key technique or concept. A single action, such as sharing a link or viewing a Facebook page or Twitter profile, allows an individual to casually participate in a relationship with a higher education institution. From there individuals can also take active steps of clicking the "like" or "follow" or "subscribe to feed" button to receive regular updates and alerts, showing their interest in further dialog. This simple sharing functionality is very valuable, but the real benefits for higher education often come from more integration of social media with teaching and student support.

Social media also provides the opportunity for communication, professional development, and collaboration among members of teaching and research staff, information services staff, and administrators. This communication can work well in closed institutional spaces (such as an intranet) but collaborating publicly on the web (for example, through blogs or Twitter) enables both local colleagues and broader peers to read and participate in discussions. For example, looking at the Twitter feed for JISC (see Related topics), you will typically find a mixture of updates, including fragments of ongoing discussions between JISC staff, university staff, and members of institutions who constitute a real and a virtual community of peers.

Possibility of better student support and engagement

The most important relationship for most educators and academic organizations is with their students, and social media can be a very active and responsive channel for supporting and engaging with students.

While email remains the key means of communication for most professionals in the education sector, students arrive into higher education with established social media presences and a culture of using Facebook Messages/Chat, text messages, and related tools (for example, InstantMessanger, BlackBerry Messenger, and Skype). These social media and mobile tools may be used by colleges and universities, but it is important to manage expectations: students need to know which channels they are required to use (likely to include email) and which channels are optional (such as a course Facebook group). They must also understand which spaces to use for official correspondence, assignment submission, or urgent queries. Staff cannot monitor all social media channels at all times, but endorsing spaces that enable peer support can help meet student needs outside of working hours. For part time and online courses, scheduling virtual evening tutorials or "office hours" can also provide a manageable and valued space for student support and participation.

Engagement in teaching and learning

Social media can also enhance traditional in-person learning to great effect. For instance, the collaborative nature of wikis offer particular opportunities for innovative teaching practice. Richard Buckland at the University of New South Wales is one of many academics integrating collaborative wiki projects into a traditional in-person teaching program, using wikis as part of the ongoing assessed coursework for a taught module on computer science. As part of this work, Buckland asks students to create alternative and enhanced lecture notes for his classes to encourage them to reflect on their learning and to make content more memorable and relevant (see Related topics for a link to a lecture by Professor Buckland on this topic). This process empowers students to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning and to build a productive peer community. It also alters the relationship and expectations that exist between staff and students from one-way teaching to an ongoing two-way process in both challenging and highly rewarding ways.

Support for flexible or distance learning

For those learning on a part-time, distance, or flexible basis, it can be difficult to feel part of the educational community, to connect with peers whom you may see rarely or not see at all, and to form the types of social groups that enable peer support and friendship. Social media can help create a sense of community, of being among real people and, in some spaces (including virtual worlds), a real sense of embodiment.

For example, the MSc in eLearning program at the University of Edinburgh (see Related topics) is an innovative degree taught entirely through e-learning, with students located across the world. This program makes effective use of a suite of social media and communications tools to keep students connected to their peers and tutors. Students use reflective blogs to track their own development throughout several modules; a collaborative blog forms a hub for past, present, and future students and staff. Wikis form the assessed coursework for some modules and "tweetorials" — tutorials via Twitter — take place and sit alongside ongoing Twitter discussions on course hashtags. In addition, film festivals take place through YouTube, and Skype is used for tutorials. There is even a substantial university presence in Second Life that provides a space for students to feel embodied and part of a tangible community. Students are even encouraged to experiment with new social media technologies and share these with peers throughout the program.

The Open University (OU) has also been pioneering the use of social media tools to support and enable communities of learners (see Related topics. Many of the OU social media community spaces are delivered as exclusive authenticated spaces enabling students to feel safe and open to learning (excluding feedback and discussion with wider communities). These presences do, however, sit alongside a large number of openly shared presences, such as YouTube EDU and iTunes U, featuring materials including the "60-Second Adventures in Thought" podcast series (see Related topics).

Some students feel more able to express themselves fully and confidently in online contexts, and for these students social media provides a way to tie their more confident online selves with their real world identities. For others, social media is simply a route to avoid isolation. The participation of teaching and support staff in these spaces provides the opportunity to build richer relationships with learners, and to notice concerns, issues, or misunderstandings. These issues may not be easily or comfortably articulated in other teaching spaces, such as a more formal classroom or e-learning space.


The beneficial possibilities of social media also bring potential risk, partly because any increased visibility brings with it greater exposure to vulnerability and the possibility of embarrassment or failure in a very public space.

From an organizational and management perspective, the most significant benefits and the most notable risks arise from the democratizing nature of social media: when anyone can potentially create content there will, of course, be risks associated with loss of control. This can be tricky to negotiate because much of the appeal of social media is its formality, often tied to a sense of fun, transgression, and enjoyable anarchy.

Educational organizations have a moral and legal responsibility to look after both staff and students, and to consider their safety and privacy. There are risks associated with encouraging staff and students to register for and share personal information with social media sites, particularly when requiring student participation as a course requirement. You must create a process for dealing with potential bullying or abusive behavior.


Because social media necessitates faster, less formalized processes than traditional print or online media, it can be beneficial to create appropriate organizational policies, procedures, and guidelines. These policies must acknowledge both the risks and benefits of social media. It is important that the organization accepts and understands those guidelines.

Outright bans on social media usage are rarely desirable or effective, and heavy restriction can push individuals — whether staff or student — to create more controversial or outspoken presences on a pseudonymous on anonymous basis. This reaction can both risk a negative impact on the organization, and mean that the organization misses officially recognized contributions from energized members of the community. The most successful social media guidelines and policies are encouraging and nurturing in tone, highlight good practice and clarify the appropriate use of these tools. They must also specify material that is not appropriate for sharing, and indicate some form of process for dealing with conflicts arising from social media interactions.

The best starting point to establish a social media policy or guidance document for your own organization is to look at others' existing social media guidelines or policies in addition to your organization's existing institutional policies related to Internet use, appropriate conduct, and so on. There are many excellent examples of good guidelines: IBM's Social Computing Guidelines (see Related topics) is one of the earliest and has become one of the most influential and best developed guidelines as it has been used over time. The BBC guidelines (see Related topics) are very thorough, outlining a more specific and protective approach to the use of social media sites; they may be of particular interest to those considering younger students and issues of usability. EDINA's Social Media Guidelines (shown in Figure 3) provide a guide for an educational organization and offer an adaptation of the U.S. Air Force's flowchart to describe and specify how social media comments, queries, abuse, and spam should be handled (see Related topics).

Figure 3. EDINA Social Media Guidelines' Comment Moderation Flowchart, adapted from the U.S. Air Force flowchart
EDINA Social Media Guidelines' Comment Moderation Flowchart, adapted from the U.S. Air Force flowchart
EDINA Social Media Guidelines' Comment Moderation Flowchart, adapted from the U.S. Air Force flowchart

Every higher education institution is different so it is important to both draw on others experience and tailor your guidelines or policies so that they are a good fit for your own organization's needs and audience. Remember that the speed of social media development is such that no set of guidelines or policies will be definitive: they will need to be iterated over time and updated to reflect the changing social media and legal environment.

Legal and policy issues

Terms and conditions of employment, data protection and similar personal data legislation, accessibility, and equalities legislation all apply to staff and students in their use of social media just as they would to work in other media. Since discussion and conversation are key aspects of the social media ecosystem, there are also potential legal liabilities to consider around libel, slander, defamation, and any potential issues surrounding accidental or purposeful breaches of IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) or commercial confidentiality.

Social media tools also have their own extensive terms, conditions, and policies, and these can change significantly with or without warning. YouTube, for instance, states that watching a video indicates acceptance of their terms and conditions. Meanwhile running, say, a small class prize contest in Facebook where you notify winners though the sites messaging, chat, or walls system would technically breach their terms of service (see Related topics).

Creating clear guidance on the use of social media, providing disclaimers for semi-personal presences (especially if these can be approved by a lawyer for the organization), and raising awareness of the legal issues and guidance around the use of social media should significantly reduce the likelihood of inappropriate behavior. It will, however, also be important to consider what the consequences would be for staff or students who do not comply with your policy or guidance.

Mitigating risk

Embedding social media into normal working practices can take time and effort, so it is important to consider the goals and desired outcome of that activity, whether that is easily measured (such as new admissions, achievement of funding goals) or something more amorphous (improved good will, better morale within an organization). It is also useful to consider collecting metrics (counts of tweets, comments received, or more complex information) so that activity can be considered, reflected upon, and developed or discontinued as appropriate.

Local hosting or restricted/private cloud hosting of social media tools can be an effective way to bring together social media functionality in a protected and trusted institutional space. Tools including IBM Connections (see Related topics), which act as a hosted suite of social media and business software tools, can be useful.

Whether using a hosted or web-based social media tool, it is always useful to try any tool for a few weeks with colleagues or peers to identify problems or concerns before committing to a public (whether to your staff and/or students or the open web) social media presence. Planning suitable staff time and processes to create, maintain, monitor, and reflect upon social media presences helps to ensure that the presences are taken seriously and that involved staff feel a sense of ownership and responsibility in these new spaces.

Ideas for use in teaching

Blogs have become a central tool for academic research and for teaching and learning over the last five years. Many programs require students to blog reflectively on their progress throughout a course and submit this as graded work. These blogs provide a great space for reflection, for recording progress with academic readings and developing ideas, and for discussion with peers from the wider world.

In schools, there are greater risks to address in terms of privacy and access to resources but there is also huge potential for innovation. The award winning "I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here!" initiative (see Related topics) used a talent show format to connect practicing scientists with school children. Over the course of two weeks, social media tools such as YouTube and real-time chat tools enabled school children to ask any science question, which was then answered by a research scientist within 24 hours. The students voted for their favorite scientist throughout the show and the winning scientist won a small grant to further their research.

A number of sites are also experimenting with entirely new ways to teach that takes inspiration from, or connects with, social media. The Khan Academy (see Related topics) is one of the most interesting of these. The site is a free learning space combining specially produced videos, practice tasks, and instructor tools with game-like progression and achievement badges that can be shared through email or social media sites. The Codeacademy (see Related topics) is another innovative self-led learning site focusing on making programming skills interactive and accessible. These types of sites build upon the wider Open Educational Resources (OER) movement that supports the open sharing and reuse of learning materials and materials in the public domain (see Related topics).

Make the most of the possibilities

It can be inspiring to look at what comparable schools, colleges, universities, or other educational organizations currently do. I encourage those considering social media activity to consider what interesting qualities or materials are available to work with, and what could be doable with the time, money, and skills they have available.

Playful ideas can have huge impact. For instance the innocent drinks company (see Related topics) uses a silly weekly email to highlight key news around their products, but this is a small part of a must-read message with links to viral videos, materials on their own YouTube and Facebook profiles, bad jokes, and many images. It is a traditional marketing email but the company's understanding of the informality and silliness of social media is the perfect way to attract attention. Similarly the "New Spice" video to promote the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University (see Related topics is a silly but clever social media project that also happens to be a great demonstration of the sophisticated film-making and marketing skills of the students involved in the production.

The Australian Museum has also made use of the power of eye catching silliness: they have selected an image of a particularly grotesque looking marine sample, a psychrolutid fish in their collection, as the museum's official presence on Facebook. This allows the museum to post updates in casual first person style without compromising the appropriateness of the page or the privacy of staff (see Related topics).

Low-tech ideas can also be very effective. There are free or low cost programs allowing you to make stop motion animations with a mobile phone and the potential for using this technique to illustrate something slight: the day in the life of a busy department, the refurbishment or seasonal decoration of an iconic university landmark, a chemical process being studied, and so on, that will engage and enlighten students and others. Blog posts that give a sense of "behind the scenes" in a particular department or process — perhaps the admissions process for new students, perhaps the set up for graduation, or perhaps the work it takes to complete a post graduate degree by research can be similarly effective.

Enthusiasm and interest can make the difference between a successful and a struggling social media presence, so it is important to ensure that staff and students are supported to understand any risks or issues without losing their own enthusiasm as well as praising, rewarding or recognizing achievements in ways that enable others to learn from their successful campaigns.


Increasingly, early adopters engaged teaching staff, and university marketing and communications departments are realizing the huge potential for the use of social media in education. There are substantial risks to consider, ones that require thoughtful management of expectations, the ongoing review of practice, and the surrounding legal and social context. Social media guidelines and policies are useful tools in supporting the use of social media in schools and colleges but these should not stifle creativity. Social media provides real opportunities for innovative and engaging practice with authenticity and informality, both notable features of successful social media in academia.

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Zone=Web development
ArticleTitle=Using social media in education, Part 1: Opportunity, risk, and policy