How Social Networking Relates to Online Learning

 How Social Networking Relates to Online Learning

Virtual communication has grown significantly because of the increase in social media use. However, most people participate in social media for social and entertainment purposes. For the field of higher education, the most common reason why students are encouraged to be involved in social networking is the ability of these websites to help promote collaboration. Online students are usually separated by distance, so they can benefit from social networking because it provides a means of bringing everyone together for the purpose of creating a learning community.

Social networking can improve the online learning experience in several key areas. First, as students build a community, they are increasing the number of interactions, and through those exchanges, they are sharing experiences, discussing resources, developing a support system, and adding a human element to the digital environment. Essentially, what social media does is help students develop skills that are relevant for learning, such as communicating through the use of technologically-enabled websites, and that translates into a direct benefit for participation in an online classroom.

In addition, online students and instructors can add profiles and become visible on social networking websites, allowing them to be seen as real people rather than just an anonymous figure, and this is likely to create another connection to the class. However, keep in mind that simply creating an online profile and adding users or friends to the profile will not enhance student learning. Only through purposeful interactions and collaboration do meaningful exchanges occur, resulting in a sense of community and working together. What can further develop effective communication are the interactive tools that these social media websites offer. For example, students can participate in message boards, provide links to resources, and create blogs to share knowledge and information.

Social Media: Challenges and Concerns

The most important issues that have been raised about students utilizing social media websites include cyberbullying and the disclosure of personal information. Cyberbullying involves posting derogatory information or comments about someone else. As for privacy concerns, students must be careful about the type of information they voluntarily disclose. It is not mandatory to reveal personal information such as contact information, a relationship status, or political views when a profile is created. With some websites, you can further restrict access to personal information from public view, which allows only members of your network to view what you have posted. Another important aspect to consider is the photos posted in your profile and the image they may portray to others.

Another concern is the potential for legal prohibitions of social media interaction between instructors and students. There has been legislation passed related to social networking, such as the recently passed state of Missouri Senate Bill 54. This bill banned teachers from communicating with students (who are minors) through social networking websites. However, a presiding judge issued an injunction preventing enforcement, so that the language of the law could be reviewed. It is certain that with the growth of social media websites, there will be many more debates related to issues of privacy and control.

Know Your Social Networks

1. Twitter

Twitter was launched in 2006 and it has quickly become a popular social networking website. The design is simple and once you have created a profile, the only personal information that can be added is a bio that you write with 140 characters or less. In fact, every update or status that you post is called a tweet, and it is also limited to 140 characters or less. This requires posting messages that are very clear and concise.

There are no requirements for the types of tweets that can be posted and you are likely find messages that range from inane to significant thought contributions about a particular subject or topic. As you read through the culmination of a person’s messages, you can begin to develop a sense of who they are based upon what they’ve written. Overall, Twitter has shown the most promise for educational purposes because of its ability to connect students in a professional manner because they can read share tweets about class topics and read one another’s tweets as well. I encourage online students to follow me on Twitter (@DrBruceJ) as a means of developing an academic community and sharing resources.

2. Facebook

Facebook has become the most popular social media network, and a recent study estimated that 80-90% of all college students have a Facebook profile. Because of the number of profiles on Facebook, the social media giant provides one of the easiest methods for students to find each other online. Of all of the social networking websites, Facebook has drawn the most attention because of the amount of personal information that profile users have the option to include.  There are privacy settings available that allow users to limit what the general public can view. Because of the personal nature of Facebook, I do not add my online students as friends and recommend one of the professional networking websites instead.

3. LinkedIn

This is the most professional of all networking website because profiles are designed to contain information about your education, experience, background, and career interests. When you want to invite someone to connect with you on LinkedIn, you send a request that asks the person to “join your professional network“ – instead of submitting what is referred to as a “friend request” on Facebook. Other important features of this website include career networking capabilities and the availability of online professional organizations. In addition, a student can search for companies on the LinkedIn website and receive background information, along with career opportunities. This is another website that I use to connect with students because of its professional nature (Dr. Bruce A. Johnson).

4. MySpace

MySpace was once the most popular social networking website and it is very similar in nature to Facebook because a profile can be created with the inclusion of photos and personal information. MySpace began prior to Facebook, but over the past few years, Facebook has exceeded MySpace with the number of users and the amount of revenue it generates. MySpace was recently sold and its future potential is uncertain at this time.

Social Media and Schools

Many schools, especially online schools, are developing an active presence on the social media websites for educational and marketing purposes, which includes utilizing social media as a means of finding potential students. The University of Phoenix has launched its own academic social network called PhoenixConnect in 2011. This is a system that is used internally while students and faculty are logged onto the school’s website. At present, the university boasts a potential to connect with an academic community of more than 400,000 students and faculty.

Social media networks are also being actively utilized by alumni associations as a means of maintaining relationships, sustaining the students’ academic community after graduation, and connecting students to career opportunities. Keep in mind that employers are scanning social media networks to learn more about the background and interests of potential employees, so you want to be careful about what your profile contains, especially if you have a public profile on Facebook or MySpace.

Also, some schools are developing social media policies, so be sure to check your school’s Code of Conduct to determine if there are any specific guidelines to follow. In addition, while you are interacting with other students on any of these websites, be sure to demonstrate respect and follow the rules of Netiquette, which is a list of guidelines and behaviors for interacting with others in a professional manner over the Internet.

The use of social networking websites by students can help them feel comfortable communicating and interacting with others in a technology-enabled environment, which translates effectively for online learning because of the communication and interaction skills acquired. Through social media, students can learn to navigate through website functions, share resources and documents, and participate in threaded conversations – which are similar to the basic features of an online classroom. Online schools and instructors are recognizing the potential of these networks to further promote collaboration among students, and involvement in websites that are professional in nature is encouraged.  Social networking relates to online learning through its potential to humanize the distance learning experience.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Frank May/dpa/Corbis

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