With staff and learners beginning to exploit social media's potential to support learning and teaching, attitudes towards it are changing...
Not long ago, social media was a phenomenon viewed by many in education with some suspicion: useful, perhaps, for marketing departments to issue press releases, but surely not a serious tool for academic or professional purposes? After all, isn’t Twitter just celebrity chit-chat? What could Facebook possibly have to do with a quality learning experience? Where does LinkedIn fit into the picture?
At first, some institutions were keen to block social media as - at best - a disruptive influence or - at worst - a safety threat. Its path to acceptance as a legitimate communication channel has not been smooth.
Yet attitudes and habits appear to be changing. Last year, for example, Jisc Inform reported on successful experiences with Twitter and Facebook in a range of organisations, highlighting for example how negative feedback can be turned to positive effect. Examples of social media use are discussed in academic forums such as the Guardian’s Higher Education Network. Meanwhile, in Scotland, a recent analysis showed further education colleges beginning to take a strategic view of social media.
Helped by the increase in availability of mobile devices and Wi-Fi, staff and learners are beginning to exploit social media tools to support learning and teaching, whether as part of assignments or group activities, or to support the creation of more informal personal learning networks.
The role of social media has the potential to extend beyond learning and teaching to support student engagement in the broadest sense. It offers a new way to develop relationships between the student or learner and their institution, as well as an alternative means to raise awareness of an institution’s engagement efforts.
Growing focus on student engagement
Student engagement is clearly high on university agendas but what’s driving this?
On one level the uncertain funding environment has focussed minds on improving communications and involving learners. At the same time, in higher education, we see a growing emphasis on the student as an active partner in governance, curriculum design, quality enhancement and even in leading organisational change. For examples of the importance attached to student engagement by universities, see Higher Education Wales’ review of student engagement activity.
A newly-published Student Engagement Handbook devotes a whole chapter to students as ’digital change agents’, also referred to as digital pioneers. Meanwhile, in the further and adult education sectors, interest in ‘learner voice’ or ‘learner involvement’ has not gone away.
The importance of belonging
Because social media is all about participation and relationships, it has the potential to support engagement in the widest sense by:
- Encouraging a feeling of belonging throughout the student lifecycle
- Helping to create trusted relationships in an increasingly digital, distributed study environment
- Involving learners/students as partners in their study experience
- Raising awareness of the student engagement or learner involvement work of your organisation
Partners or customers?
Any discussion about the use of social media for student engagement has to contend with some important debates. Much of the available advice on social media for engagement has grown out of customer engagement in the global business world and may not transfer seamlessly to UK education.
A tension may be felt between the idea of ’students as partners’ and the role of fee-paying ’customers’. Issues can also arise when student engagement and learner voice are simply equated with ’satisfaction’, prompting fears that by seeking to engage students through social media we will fail to stretch and challenge them.
To address such concerns, effective social media engagement needs to develop within wider quality and communications processes.
In 2013, to meet demand from the higher education sector, my colleagues at Jisc RSC Wales and I produced 'social media for student engagement: 20 good practice suggestions for higher education in Wales', published bilingually in association with Wise Wales. The guidance has been well received by staff and agencies and we’ve had some great feedback.
Dr Cliona O’Neill, senior learning and teaching manager, Higher Education Funding Council for Wales said:
“We welcome the Jisc guidance on social media for student engagement, as this is an area of increasing prominence, and changes the way students engage, and expect to engage, with their institutions.”
The launch was accompanied by a webinar to share a selection of ’top tips’ which could be used in any UK post-16 sector. Key recommendations include:
- Listen, don’t bark! Today, social media engagement is not self-promotion, it’s about listening to your communities and engaging in a conversation with them
- Think about social media as relationship-building, not only for learners/students but for employers, policymakers, research partners, clients – whoever you see as ‘your people’
- Learners congregate in diverse online and physical spaces: be prepared to meet them where they are, on their chosen devices and channels - prepare to be inclusive
- Take a strategic approach in line with your organisation’s vision, linking social media strategy to other key processes
- Ensure all members of the organisation are able to develop the skills needed to succeed in a social media environment - see the Jisc guide on developing students’ digital literacy