How Is Social Media Shaping Higher Education?

Social media has become something more than spare-time scrolling for students. 

Most students are familiar with online learning tools like Blackboard and Canvas, but many institutions are also beginning to use social media to enhance learning. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr are starting to make their way into the university classroom alongside JStor and Google Scholar.

Is social media suitable for classrooms? Like any controversy, it has positive and negative attributes. Educators and students alike have to make informed decisions about how they engage with social media as a study aid, teacher tool and student resource. Here are the university aspects it affects:

1. Admissions

Admissions counselors, like hiring managers, check applicants’ social media presence to see what kind of content they’re posting. Students should be aware of what they post on their social media pages and the type of image it offers. Disparaging content about former schools, teachers or classmates raises red flags — and it should be removed. If students don’t want to revamp their entire profiles, they have the option to create separate social media accounts for public and private content.

Social media helps applicants with the process by showcasing their academic readiness to admissions counselors. Posts about awards, achievements and organizations they don’t mention on their applications will draw attention. Counselors view students who create clubs or regularly participate in volunteer efforts as admirable applicants. Activities like these show proof that students are involved in local causes and care about bettering their community.

Social media can be harmful, however, when students abuse its purpose. Applicants from Harvard’s Class of 2021 used Facebook’s messaging feature to create offensive memes of several ethnic groups. 

Private channels like direct messages aren’t always airtight, especially if other group participants reveal information. No one should assume their activities will stay under wraps. Universities often portray themselves as places of inclusion and community — most have no qualms about turning away students who have the potential to stir up intolerance on campus.

Communicating violent threats, posting images of personally owned weapons, and sharing statuses about drug use or illegal activity are more examples of oversharing that ends in application denials and revocations.

2. Mental Health

When it comes to mental health, social media can be at both ends of the spectrum.

When students don’t have a place to vent or feel too afraid to confide in people they know personally, they often turn to social media. Finding like-minded individuals through social networking sites is simple — there’s no lack of community on the internet. Knowing they’re not alone in what they experience, whether it be positive or negative, makes students feel acknowledged and affirmed.

Research shows that people who experience severe mental illness benefit from online peer-to-peer support because they can interact with others facing the same struggles and stigmas. This online communication leads to healthy behaviors like seeking help finding options within the health care system.

A support system can quickly become a codependent relationship, however. Social media provides an accessible source of compliments and attention, which can make a person feel like they aren’t valid without it. FOMO lurks like a monster under the bed when students see their peers living picturesque, happy lives. Unfortunately, many fabricate false posts — because they don’t want to put their bad moments on display. When peers only post at their best, it tricks students into trying to live up to ideals that aren’t real.

3. Study Habits

Social media allows people around the globe to connect and converse with ease. This aspect is one of the more extraordinary advantages of the internet — communication is so much more convenient than it used to be. Students create study groups on sites like Twitter and Facebook and share information about class discussions or topics they need help with. They recommend resources they wouldn’t have found without external support, and they use messaging apps like Kik and WhatsApp both for fun and for exchanging class information.

But procrastination and distraction pose negative aspects when students use social media to study. Cases of students logging onto social media and scrolling for 20 minutes when they only meant to pop in occur often. With the exciting things social media offers, it’s no surprise how alluring its glitter and glam can be. Researchers in Owerri, Nigeria, found that 32% of student subjects surf social media half the time they mean to do coursework.

Many students feel they don’t get enough work done because of the distractions social media provides. Although these platforms can be extremely helpful with research, sometimes it’s better to put them on the shelf when it’s time to do attention-consuming coursework.

4. The Classroom

Technology in the classroom facilitates new and exciting ways to learn, such as live-tweeting events, video chatting with other educators or participating in digital collaborations. A professor at Marist College in New York integrated Snapchat videos into his lesson plans, and 90% of his students use them for studying. Other professors have students do homework and post their thoughts about the assignment under an Instagram or Twitter hashtag.

Digital assignments are a boon for students who don’t often participate in class, whether their avoidance is due to fear or disinterest. Social media provides interactive platforms for earning grades, and it gives socially anxious students a safe space to share ideas.

Students obtain information from social media that they wouldn’t receive elsewhere, but they should heed the quality — not every source is reliable. Authoritative, well-known sources are best for accessing news and information.

A disadvantage of integrating technology is that students focus on their devices and tune out of lectures. Professors who want to implement social media time into their lesson plans should think about limiting device usage to specific short periods. A long-term issue to consider when implementing tech is how social media can discourage face-to-face interaction. Students who avoid classroom participation may rely on digital communication too often, which can diminish their interpersonal skills.

Students will need these communication skills later on for job interviews and networking opportunities, so educators must consider how these digital avenues affect them. Also, not every student will have a reliable internet connection for use at home or a readily accessible device to complete interactive assignments.

5. Communication

Social media facilitates discussion between students, teachers and administrators — the president of the University of British Columbia proved this by developing an extensive social media strategy. Professors utilize their accounts to allow students to contact them outside their office hours about papers or exams. They also use their platforms to raise awareness for fundraising events, share information relevant to the class or promote newly formed courses for students to enroll in.

Teachers place major importance on adequate enrollment because it’s how they can keep teaching specific classes. If they drum up enough interest in these courses on social media, students will sign up, and they’ll have enough participants to keep the course open for that semester.

When professors use social media for discussion, they usually establish a system of internet etiquette among their students. Some students cyberbully their peers — others may not intend hostility, but their messages come across as unfriendly. Tone doesn’t translate well in text, and in case of such misunderstandings, it’s good to have a policy for digital interactions. If any instance seems targeted, however, professors or administrators need to interfere.

Digital Education of the Future

As the technological landscape changes, the world changes with it — and this includes the educational sphere. Educators may integrate social media into their classrooms for various reasons, and students will invariably use it as both a resource and a distraction. Whatever mark social media makes, it’s here to stay — and the sooner we find out how it fits, the better we can make the landscape of higher education.

About the Author

With an interest in student life, learning and higher education, Alyssa Abel writes about educational topics for both students and educators. Read more of her work on her blog, Syllabusy.


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