Title: The Role of Social Media in Higher Education Classes (Real and Virtual) – A Literature Review (2013)

Author: Paul A. Tess

Source: Computers in Human Behavior

Research Question: Is there a scholarly consensus on the effectiveness of social media as an education tool in higher ed?

Study Design: As previous research studies have noted, there is not substantial evidence to suggest that digital tools for learning are more effective than traditional in-person interactions. But what about social media platforms? A literature review from the University of Minnesota summarizes studies specifically pertaining to the use of social media in higher education, and cautions that similar evidence limitations prevent researchers from describing social media as an inherent improvement in educational communication.

By systematically searching education databases and Google Scholar, the author evaluated literature surrounding the use of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to deliver course content and facilitate classroom discussion. Although there are studies analyzing other social media platforms, including smaller apps devoted to higher ed, these interfaces had large user bases (by 2011 90% of undergraduates had already created Facebook accounts) and due to looser restrictions on behavior and differences in structure, organization, and culture, these platforms may better lend themselves to research studies.

Findings: A challenge in reviewing this literature was weighing the merits of contradictory research claiming either negative or positive effects of social media on student achievement. While one survey found that a minority of participating students used social networks for educational purposes, others regarded Facebook as the ideal platform for blended learning. In fact, this difference between expectations and reality occurred across several studies. Even when students perceived Facebook as encouraging greater participation in course conversations, its actual usefulness during the course did not meet expectations. And where other studies revealed a significantly higher rate of participation on Facebook, the communication was found to be superficial and lacking critical, thoughtful engagement.

Other platforms like Twitter and blogs were perceived to have more specific communication benefits as course management systems. Tweets discussing class material, books and articles, questions and answers, and class reminders created quick, low-stress interactions between students and professors that promoted active learning. In other studies, students who communicated via blogs felt less pressure to interact and felt more encouraged to present and share their work compared to face-to-face interactions. Blogs were seen as beneficial because they allowed students to write about course information, report daily experiences related to learning, and build a common base of knowledge. However, despite recognizing some potential advantages, the overwhelming majority of studies found no significant difference in learning outcomes for social media platforms.

Moving Forward: This review mentions several limitations that bear consideration: some studies were outdated and no longer accurately assessed quickly changing online communities, other studies used convenience sampling and self-reported data that may have been biased, many researchers only examined the most popular social networks, and the lack of agreement on a standard definition of "social media" may have limited the number of empirical studies. Going forward, the author recommends shifting the focus from studying web 2.0 technologies to studying the mentality around using apps and platforms in educational settings and examining educators’ motives and strategies for using technology.

In light of mostly inconclusive research, this is a worthwhile recommendation. As with other forms of education technology, social media platforms are only as useful as teachers choose to make them. A professor who allows students to passively receive content in the classroom will be as ineffective as a professor who does the same via social media. Meaningful interactions that foster active learning are possible in either situation, but require intentional engagement.

Image: Instagram and other Social Media Apps by Jason Howie via Flickr