Social media and the academic life

Would you think twice about using public social networks for learning purposes if you found out that 73% of students want to keep their social and academic lives separate?

Separating academic and social lives

Educause is one of the most recognised non-profit associations in higher education. Its mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology. Educause members benefit from networking events, professional development, publications, applied research and more.

Every year, the Educause Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) investigates student expectations. The 2014 report asked 10,000 US undergraduate students if they would like their instructor to use more social media as a learning tool. 73% agreed or strongly agreed that they like to keep their academic and social lives separate.

Benefits and dangers of social media

Historically, edtech has been so poorly designed that the emergence of social media felt like a breath of fresh air. For the first time, Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and others acknowledged the fact that it’s all about people. Their rise in modern day culture was a result of satisfying our need to connect and create communities.

Social media also brought a few other key benefits to education. These platforms are media-rich unlike the traditional text heavy online learning environments. They make it easy for learners to become creators. It still surprises me to this day how difficult it is to post something in a VLE/LMS.

Many teachers have been (and still are) afraid of adopting mainstream social media for various reasons. Some have argued that it is a fad that distracts students from the actual learning process (link). Over the past few years, many educators have voiced that social media makes cheating and plagiarism easier (link). And of course, there is the on-going concern of privacy and data security.

As for the 73% of students that don’t want to use mainstream social media for learning, only a fraction can be explained by privacy issues. Another explanation is related to trust. A 2013 survey on 2,000 US students reveals that only half trust the information delivered through a university’s social media account.

However, the biggest clue in understanding why students want to keep their online identities separate comes from looking at how people use social media. Facebook used to be THE social network. Now the average Internet user has 5.5 social media accounts. Why on Earth would anyone use so many different mediums? Isn’t one enough?!

Short answer – no, one is not enough. Andrew Watts brilliantly described his social media habits and the habits of his peers in A Teenager’s View on Social Media. Social platforms develop their own personalities, and there’s an unwritten agreement between their members on what the platform is used for. Trying to break the status quo generates unrest and can lead to the decline of the network. Mixing the social and academic lives is a perfect example of such a conflict.

What does this mean for Education?

It’s unlikely that our desire to connect with other people will disappear, so it’s fair to say that social media is here to stay. It will evolve, new platforms will rise and old ones will fall. Due to the advantages that these platforms bring, institutions will use more social media.

Schools, colleges and universities are free to choose whatever tools they want. However, when selecting one tool over another, one big question will need to be answered – are students comfortable with the institution or teacher adopting the medium, or will they see it as an invasion of their own personal space?

Our own exploration of this question led us to create a neutral learning ground – Learnium, the learning network built on social principles.

Robert Dragan is an education and technology enthusiast. He is co-founder and CEO of Learnium.

Image credit: mkhmarketing.wordpress.com via flicker