Should You Use Social Media in Your Course?

A look at the advantages, disadvantages, and underlying purpose of social media in the classroom

When hosting an online course, it makes sense to make the best use of all the resources the Internet has to offer. Social media is among the most prominent of these resources, and there’s a strong temptation for many online educators to find creative ways to use it in their course.

There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as it has a purpose. However, social media isn’t for everyone—or every course. A quick break down the pro’s and con’s, shows us the following:

Key advantages of social media include:

  • User familiarity. Many of your learners already have accounts and know how to use the platform.
  • Access to functionality. You don’t have to design all these functions yourself, because the social media platform has done it for you.
  • Networking for new and old learners alike. Build a place for learners from previous courses and your current learners to connect.
  • Continuity of engagement. Your learners can engage with your course on the social media platforms they already use, and may continue to do so after they graduate.

Key disadvantages of social media include:

  • Users leave your LMS. Course learners have to exit the LMS environment to engage on a different platform.
  • Lack of control. Social media platforms update and change in ways that may not continue to be useful to your course.
  • Privacy concerns. Connecting on social media could feel too personal to both you and your online learners.
  • Course bloat. Temptation to add social media because it’s the “thing to do,” even if it doesn’t help your course.

As you can see, a lot of these balance each other out. Your users know the social media platform, but they have to leave your course environment to access it. You don’t have to build everything, but you also have less control over it. Your learners get to meet each other, but then they also have to… meet each other. You have more ways to engage, but you may not need them.

With so much for and against, judging whether you should use social media for your course will take some deeper probing. Here’s a few questions to ask yourself before you add social media too quickly—or dismiss it off hand.

Does social media infringe on your privacy, or that of your learners?

Social media users have different ranges of comfort when it comes to their privacy and the degree to which they want to share personal details online. Some users feel comfortable posting just about anything publicly, not matter how personal. Others take their privacy seriously, are selective in whose friend requests they will select, and allow some posts to be seen only by certain defined groups.

Requesting all your learners to follow each other or become online friends can feel, to some, like an intrusion on their personal lives. This is partially platform-dependent. LinkedIn and Twitter are, by design, more public networks, while Facebook has more controls in place to protect user privacy. The key is to be aware of how much personal information you may be asking your learners to give up, and to not ask them to share their social media profiles with the class without good reason.

Of course, privacy is a concern for teachers, too, especially those running online courses for younger audiences. If you want to use social media in your course while also retaining a barrier between your personal and professional life, consider creating a separate account just for your course.

Are you using social media as part of your course, or as a networking and idea-sharing tool?

Most social media uses for online education fall into one of two categories: learning aids, or communication tools. For instance, if you were running a course on advertising, you could ask your learners to take pictures of certain types of ads and share them to Instagram. This would be a learning aid, where social media forms part of your course content.

On the other hand, a social networking tool might involve asking learners to share interesting related news articles to your Facebook group, or creating a special networking group on LinkedIn for course graduates.

Social media as course content is a much more difficult proposition than an optional networking group. If you’d like to give social media a try, it’s easier to start with an group that learners can choose to opt-in to, rather than a full-blown social media experiment. When you decide to try the latter, consider test running it as an extra credit program so you can see how well it works before incorporating it into the main course.

Is social media relevant to your course?

If you cover social media in your course in any way (marketing, PR, sociology, modern journalism), then including a social media-based project seems an obvious course of action. It’s not only relevant, but it’s also a great practical exercise that will give your learners hands-on experience and make the lesson more memorable.

Even if social media isn’t directly relevant, it can be a useful skill to acquire for some professions. For instance, many small businesses use social media in their marketing, so a social media-based project could help them learn how to find content to promote their business. For instance, an online cooking course could have learners share weekly pictures of their culinary experiments on Instagram. Their peers could then offer support and give feedback about their plating and food photograph techniques.

What are the alternatives to using social media in your course?

Sometimes, social media platforms merely duplicate functionality already offered by your LMS. For instance, do you need a Facebook group if you already have a forum? Possibly—they have some functional overlap, but they aren’t exactly alike. However, running both might split your time and attention, and confuse learners.

Or, before you have everyone connect over Instagram to share pictures, why not see if your LMS offers an add-on with similar features? It may be that the features you want are already at your fingertips.

Avoid social media gimmicks at all cost.

The bottom line when it comes to social media (or any new flashy element you want to add to your course) is to only incorporate those which add value to your program. If you don’t have a good reason to include social media in your course—just leave it out. You won’t attract learners by adding pointless features. Instead, keep your focus on your core content, and make sure it’s what you do best.

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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