Chapter 7: Pedagogical differences between media

7.6 Social media


Figure 7.6 The range of social media in 2010 Image: © Abhijit Kadle, Upside Learning, 2010

Figure 7.6.1 The range of social media in 2010
Image: © Abhijit Kadle, Upside Learning, 2010


Although social media are mainly Internet-based and hence a sub-category of computing, there are enough significant differences between educational social media use and computer-based learning or online collaborative learning to justify treating social media as a separate medium, although of course they are dependent and often fully integrated with other forms of computing. The main difference is in the extent of control over learning that social media offer to learners.

7.6.1 What are social media?

Around 2005, a new range of web tools began to find their way into general use, and increasingly into educational use. These can be loosely described as social media, as they reflect a different culture of web use from the former ‘centre-to-periphery’ push of institutional web sites.

Here are some of the tools and their uses (there are many more possible examples: click on each example for an educational application):


Figure 7.6.2 Examples of social media (adapted from Bates, 2011, p.25)

Type of tool  Example  Application

Stephen’s Web

Online Learning and Distance Education Resources

 Allows an individual to make regular postings to the web, e.g. a personal diary or an analysis of current events





UBC’s Math Exam Resources

 An “open” collective publication, allowing people to contribute or create a body of information


Social networking



 A social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and interact with them

Multi-media archives





iTunes U


MIT Open CourseWare

 Allows end users to access, store, download and share audio recordings, photographs, and videos


Virtual worlds Second Life  Real-time semi-random connection/ communication with virtual sites and people
Multi-player games Lord of the Rings Online  Enables players to compete or collaborate against each other or a third party/parties represented by the computer, usually in real time
Mobile learning Mobile phones and apps  Enables users to access multiple information formats (voice, text, video, etc.) at any time, any place



The main feature of social media is that they empower the end user to access, create, disseminate and share information easily in a user-friendly, open environment. Usually the only cost is the time of the end-user. There are often few controls over content, other than those normally imposed by a state or government (such as libel or pornography), or where there are controls, they are imposed by the users themselves. One feature of such tools is to empower the end-user – the learner or customer – to self-access and manage data (such as online banking) and to form personal networks (for example through FaceBook). For these reasons, some have called social media the ‘democratization’ of the web.

In general social media tools are based on very simple software, in that they have relatively few lines of code. As a result, new tools and applications (‘apps’) are constantly emerging, and their use is either free or very low cost. For a good broad overview of the use of social media in education, see Lee and McCoughlin (2011).

7.6.2 General affordances of social media

The concept of ‘affordances’ is frequently used in discussions of social media. McLoughlin & Lee (2011) identify the following ‘affordances’ associated with social media (although they use the term web 2.0) in general:

  • connectivity and social rapport;
  • collaborative information discovery and sharing;
  • content creation;
  • knowledge and information aggregation and content modification.

However, we need to specify more directly the unique pedagogical characteristics of social media.

7.6.3 Presentational characteristics

Social media enable:

  • networked multimedia communication between self-organising groups of learners;
  • access to rich, multimedia content available over the Internet at any time or place (with Internet connection);
  • learner-generated multimedia materials;
  • opportunities to expand learning beyond ‘closed’ courses and institutional boundaries.

7.6.4 Skills development

Social media,when well designed within an educational framework, can help with the development of the following skills (click on each to see examples):

7.6.5 Strengths and weaknesses of social media

Some of the advantages of social media are as follows:

  • they can be extremely useful for developing some of the key skills needed in a digital age;
  • they can enable teachers to set online group work, based on cases or projects, and students can collect data in the field using social media such as mobile phones or iPads;
  • learners can post media-rich assignments either individually or as a group;
  • these assignments when assessed can be loaded by the learner into their own personal learning environment or e-portfolios for later use when seeking employment or transfer to graduate school;
  • learners can take more control over their own learning, as we have seen in connectivist MOOCs in Chapter 5;
  • through the use of blogs and wikis, courses and learning can be thrown open to the world, adding richness and wider perspectives to learning.

However, many students are not, at least initially, independent learners (see Candy, 1991). Many students come to a learning task without the necessary skills or confidence to study independently from scratch (Moore and Thompson, 1990). They need structured support, structured and selected content, and recognized accreditation. The advent of new tools that give students more control over their learning will not necessarily change their need for a structured educational experience. However, learners can be taught the skills needed to become independent learners (Moore, 1973; Marshall and Rowland, 1993). Social media can make the learning of how to learn much more effective but still only in most cases within an initially structured environment.

The use of social media raises the inevitable issue of quality. How can learners differentiate between reliable, accurate, authoritative information, and inaccurate, biased or unsubstantiated information, if they are encouraged to roam free? What are the implications for expertise and specialist knowledge, when everyone has a view on everything? As Andrew Keen (2007) has commented, ‘we are replacing the tyranny of experts with the tyranny of idiots.’ Not all information is equal, nor are all opinions.

These are key challenges for the digital age, but as well as being part of the problem, social media can also be part of the solution. Teachers can consciously use social media for the development of knowledge management and the responsible use of social media, but the development of such knowledge and skills through the use of social media will need a teacher-supported environment. Many students look for structure and guidance in their learning, and it is the responsibility of teachers to provide it. We therefore need a middle ground between the total authority and control of the teacher, and the complete anarchy of the children roaming free on a desert island in the novel “Lord of the Flies” (Golding, 1954). Social media allow for such a middle ground, but only if as teachers we have a clear pedagogy or educational philosophy to guide our choices and use of the technology.

For more on social media, see Chapter 8, Section 8.

Activity 7.6 Identifying the unique pedagogical characteristics of social media

1. Take one of your courses, and analyse how social media could be used in your course. In particular:

  • what new learning outcomes could the use of social media help develop?
  • would it be better just to add social media to the course or to re-design it around social media?

2. I have offered only a cursory list of the unique pedagogical characteristics of social media. Can you think of others that have not already been covered in other parts of this chapter?

3. How does this chapter influence your views on students bringing their own devices to class?

4. Are you (still) skeptical about the value of social media in education? What do you see as its downsides?

Please use the comment box to share your answers.


Bates, T. (2011) ‘Understanding Web 2.0 and Its Implications for e-Learning’ in Lee, M. and McCoughlin, C. (eds.) Web 2.0-Based E-Learning Hershey NY: Information Science Reference

Candy, P. (1991) Self-direction for lifelong learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Golding, W. (1954) The Lord of the Flies London: Faber and Faber

Keen, A. (2007) The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture New York/London: Doubleday

Lee, M. and McCoughlin, C. (eds.) Web 2.0-Based E-Learning Hershey NY: Information Science Reference

Marshall, L and Rowland, F. (1993) A Guide to learning independently Buckingham UK: Open University Press

McCoughlin, C. and Lee, M. (2011) ‘Pedagogy 2.0: Critical Challenges and Responses to Web 2.0 and Social Software in Tertiary Teaching’, in Lee, M. and McCoughlin, C. (eds.) Web 2.0-Based E-Learning Hershey NY: Information Science Reference

Moore, M. and Thompson, M. (1990) The Effects of Distance Education: A Summary of the Literature University Park, PA: American Center for Distance Education, Pennsylvania State University