Social Media (Networking) Activity and Enhancing Learning (Part 1)

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Social networks existed long before the Internet and have been influential in providing for interpersonal support (Wellman, 1992), social and political movements (Tilly, 1994); and inter-organizational associations (Nohria & Eccles, 1992), however, interconnecting computers with media-rich virtual environments creates another dimension of the traditional social network—a social media network. Among our college students, social media—comprising technology such as Facebook, blogs, and Twitter—is as popular and ubiquitous today as any of the traditional forms of communication or entertainment. However, too many educators fail to adequately leverage the possibilities of social media networking to enhance learning (Prensky, 2006). Today the popularity of social networking continues to grow as an activity that college-age students use to further their own social interests (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zichuhr, 2010).

This essay proposes a high-level recommendation for transforming social networking into learning enhancement at the college level: The use of social media activity to build learning communities beyond the confines of the traditional four-walled classroom (Bender, 2003). There are three ways in which social media activity can be leveraged in this way at the college level: (a) migrating assignment posting and peer critique to social media-enabled platforms, (b) working harder to enable enriching online dialogues with social media-enabled platforms, and (c) rewriting traditional curricula that strategically empowers social media participation. Each of these points will be discussed in detail, with a focus on demonstrating how the existing literature supports these propositions and advancing practical suggestions for implementation. A conclusion will summarize the recommendations and point the way forward for college-level educators who wish to leverage social media activity as a means of enhancing learning for students.

Defining social media activity

Before undertaking a substantive analysis of options available to college-level educators, it would be helpful to define and delimit what constitutes social media technology. Social media networking sites are, as defined by Boyd and Ellison (2008), “web-based services that allow individuals to (a) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (b) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (c) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (p. 211). This definition lacks a sufficient description of the activities accommodated by social media networking. Rutledge (2000) has defined social networking as “sites that connect like-minded people on the Web” (p. 8). This definition is deliberately broad owing to a lack of consensus of what precisely encompasses social media. For example, Rutledge and Boyd and Ellison defined social networking as a feature that might be enabled by single-purpose social media websites; but Perry, Taylor, and Doerfel (2003) discuss how computer-mediated-communication is a function that can be enabled by any website for two-way communication. For example, if a video presentation made available online could afford the means for allowing viewers to post online comments and to connect with others who liked or disliked the video, then that activity in a general sense could be described as social media—or at least social media-enabled activity. On the other hand, Rutledge limits social networking to the kind of activity that takes place on any number of established social media sites—which today consists of Facebook, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, YouTube, Twitter, and others.  Likewise, Boyd and Ellison create the same box by including a “bounded system” in their definition.

Because many college educators are actually using some form of social networking activity at varying levels of application, it is important to adopt a sufficiently broad but relevant definition of social networking at the outset. To gain a workable definition for purposes of this essay, a synthesis of associated terms is essential.  As previously mentioned, using the terms social networking and social media, while they are associated, does not adequately provide the necessary practicability and nuance for explaining how they would be used to enhance learning in the academic setting.  Text, chat and forums, pictures and graphics, and video describe the various types of social media content created by users, while the ability to connect and interact with social media content and other users better describes the activities linked to social networking. For example, system types of social networking might include blogs, wikis, forums, and chat sites. For purposes of this essay, which assumes an academic environment, I use the term social media activity—as defined by “the activity of learners with access to any number of networked, virtual learning environments (a) to create and interact with content and curriculum and (b) to communicate and collaborate with fellow students, their instructors, and the global community of learners.”  This definition treats social media activity as a component that can be integrated into any website, and it accounts both for the kind of activity that takes place on sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and also for the kind of social networking activity (such as wiki sites specific to a class) that can be custom-built by college-level educators. While the primary focus of this essay heretofore pertains primarily to a discussion of social media activity in educational environments, the cited definition demonstrates moderate utility and may be slightly modified for application in any number of non-education environments.



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About the Author:

Dr. John Weidert is an independent educator, communicator, and practitioner of educational and organizational leadership, communication, and media studies.