Social Media in Tertiary Education: moving outside the walled garden

Professional Pathways Blog

This blog represents the views of the author and does not represent any official position by FLANZ

Image of adults looking at laptps in a busy coffeeshop

The second blog post in this series of four briefly outlined options for secondary school teachers to leverage the functionality of social media platforms. This third post examines in more depth the benefits for tertiary students. The same caveats still apply though; faculty need to be aware of their institutional policies and adhere to national legislation, particularly in the realm of privacy and data protection.

The Ubiquitous Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) 

The vast majority of tertiary providers, certainly the Universities and Polytechnics & Institutes of Technology (ITP) and Industry Training Organisations (ITO) host their own virtual learning environment (VLE). They do this to integrate the learning resources and articulated learner journey with backend enrolments, identity and payments systems. VLEs have become a common experience for most adult learners in formal education.

The reasons given by some institutional leaders for adopting a centralised system, a walled garden within which they meet all the technology access needs, is ensuring data and privacy legislation is adhered to. Other rationales put forward include ensuring continuity of access, ease of grouping students into cohorts and sometimes tracking student participation. These digital environments for learning are designed in such a way to exclude students’ choice of social media technologies. I am excluding the mobile apps that permit access to the VLE itself.

Need to for wider digital exposure

Unquestionably adult learners require, and deserve, as much exposure to the world-wide web’s near unlimited informational resources. Learners need to gain the skills of discernment and judgement to be effective and informed citizens and employers and employees. Being exposed to the cacophony of information and misinformation, swimming in the sea of knowledge, is the only way learners can hope to develop those skills.

All the social media tools, with their constraints, explored in the last blog focussed on secondary schools, apply equally to tertiary learners. The difference is that in principle educators do not need to consider parental views. There may be other restrictions in place, however. An employer may restrict the use of mobile devices in the workplace during work hours, they may even block access to some platforms such as Facebook.

Difference in Educational Sectors

The biggest difference between the school and tertiary sectors is the ability for tertiary educators to delegate responsibility for learner actions, ownership of activities and what is shared with the learner themselves. Some educators worry about the dangers of exclusion within cohorts becoming unmanageable. There is nothing to stop students creating WeChat or WhatsApp groups and adding just those that they want to, and exclude others. Interestingly, there is nothing to stop campus-based learners establishing study-groups with just those fellow learners they choose. The digital environment simply shines a light on normal social practices of friend selection. The ability to group learners together, to engineer study-buddy partnerships, and providing quick feedback to learner queries are one reason why some adult educators have embraced the social media communication apps.

There are also exciting opportunities for making learning across any discipline more situated. Perhaps the most significant effect on tertiary learners of social media is that it is intimately integrated into any modern handheld smartphone. The portability of the device itself means that we can ask learners to carry the means of reflection, assessment and recording their own learning with them at all times. This affords the educator with an opportunity to prompt the learner to reflect throughout the day on an Instagram video post on a current event posted by the educator first thing in the morning. It could make use of an online poll or quiz.

There are clearly useful ways in which student-generated content can be more engaging. In a visual arts course for example, rather than centralising the provision of an e-portfolio tool, educators could ask students to create a Pinterest account and generate a specific Pinboard for a defined task, then to submit (most likely through the VLE) a written account in support of their selection. In nursing courses, where metacognitive and reflective practices are critical, the ability to take 10 minutes away from clinical practices to record an audio reflection might prove invaluable. Likewise, in science lab-based learning, the ability to provide a visual or audio record of experiments in progress reinforces learning.

Sitting on a bus in Wellington, it is hard to believe that everybody between 8 and 80 has a smartphone and so social media access is universal. The reality is different. Next post we’ll look at the realities of social media use, its dangers and pitfalls.

Dr Simon Paul Atkinson (Profile)

Photo by fran innocenti on Unsplash

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