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The Role of Social Media in Online Learning










In the early 2000s, when Friendster and MySpace were introduced, these social networking tools were seen as the domain of young people – students who wanted to chat with their friends and to share music and other forms of entertainment.

To say that since then social media has gone mainstream is a vast understatement. Today social media influences how we live and work, and even how we learn.

The rise of social networking and Web 2.0 has been fast and furious. It has been fueled by the twin desires: to consume information and to create information.

What researchers are saying

  • People are literally spending half of their lives taking in information. A 2009 study by researchers at the University of California at San Diego showed that information consumption increased from 7.4 hours per day in 1960 to 11.8 hours per day in 2008
  • The Web is no longer static. Since users can now create and curate information, Web 2.0 is in a constant state of flux. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 56% of Internet users either create content by posting blogs, videos, and other materials online, or curate content by reposting materials created by others. Nearly one-third engage in both creating and curating resources online.

Why Social Learning?

Social media tools such as blogging, Tweeting, and Google+ hangouts allow students to both create and curate content, to collaborate with other students, and to build their own learning networks. These activities translate into major benefits for students.

Social learning is active learning. Social media tools for learning take advantage of people’s needs to consume and create content. They allow students to take active roles in their own learning. Rather than passively absorbing information (the traditional model of education), students are invited to participate in a culture of learning.

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Social learning is collaborative and motivates students to work harder and perform better. One study by the eLearning Guild found that more than half of respondents reported “modest” to “big” improvements in learner performance using Web 2.0, and many educators have found that students work harder and perform better when their work is both collaborative and displayed publicly online (such as in a blog, video, or podcast).

Here are some ways to integrate social media tools into online learning environments:

  • Wikis and other collaborative document tools can be used for brainstorming, group work, and assignments.
  • Class discussions can be held asynchronously on discussion boards or synchronously using Twitter or live chats. These discussions can then be archived and used in learning modules.
  • Personal and class blogs can be used to submit writing assignments and reflections. Students can be required to read and comment on other students’ writings.
  • Students can make presentations using YouTube, podcasting, or mind-mapping software and post these presentations online for others to evaluate.
  • Students can use social bookmarking sites to curate and tag relevant content.

How Can Social Learning Be Improved?

The content in social media is often distributed on several platforms throughout the Web. This distributive nature of social networks is useful for engaging with different types of multimedia resources and it can help students form knowledge networks, but networks that are too disperse can become obstacles to learning.

To get the full advantage from these resources, students need to be able to use them within a more systematic learning environment. This can be as simple as setting up a class blog or an aggregator for student blogs, or the social media tools can be implemented within a learning management system (LMS). Integrating these tools into an LMS is an effective way to both harness the power of social media and provide an organized platform for students. LMS can also help educators keep track of students’ participation in social networking and other course activities.

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The formal use of social media in education is still in its infancy. A recent study by the eLearning Guild found that although many individuals use social media on a daily basis, the support for these tools at the organizational level is lagging behind. However, the social networking trend continues to increase, and new forms of social media are introduced frequently. These tools are significantly influencing our daily lives, and they are poised to have a major impact on education at all levels and across all platforms.

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About the author

Kamy Anderson is an online training expert and a product manager. He leads the product vision and strategy of ProProfs Training Maker. Kamy blogs about trends in eLearning, online training, employee training, gamification, LMS, AI, and more. His articles are published in eLearningIndustry, TrainingMag, Training Zone, and Learning Solutions Magazine. You can connect with Kamy on LinkedIn.