Why is social media important to higher education students?

Posted by Lucia Hubinska

The tremendous expansion of social media and other Web 2.0 technologies is unprecedented. As users create content, post images, select to 'like' or engage in a game, social media technology has become an integral element of daily life. Social media now influences how people communicate, share information, broadcast events, update people, and create community.

"Nowhere is the use of social media more evident than in the practice of higher education. Facebook got its start at Harvard University to connect students and its use has expanded steadily since its inception in 2004. What started at one university for one group of students has now stretched to other platforms and extended to include virtually all communities throughout the world"[i]

The pervasiveness of social media is nowhere more evident than at universities, where the technology is redefining how students connect, collaborate, and study. Our students socialise, learn, work, build professional identities, and participate in professional networks and diverse interest groups in this networked world.  

Communication and Information

The methods current students use to communicate and get information are largely dependent on internet access and are driven by mobile technology. Research into the communication preferences among university students suggests that although face-to-face interactions are important to the students, when it comes to alternative modes of communicating, technology-mediated communication is preferred over all other methods[i]. Moreover, factors such as immediacy and mobility play a decisive role in choosing methods and tools of communication.

While most universities still use email as the primary means of communication within the institution and between their staff and students, relying on one form of communication can limit communication and result in students' missing some correspondence. Therefore, utilising forms of social media and mobile apps, such as Engage,  has been highly recommended by communication specialists[ii].

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Speed in communication matters to the "net generation" of the HE student. Faster communication is seen as a better form of communication, as it is perceived as more 'real' due to its ability to evoke similar feelings we get in face-to-face interactions. In addition to this, students want to connect with one another and the institution anywhere and anytime. Social media and mobile technologies enable fast and synchronous communication, which can positively enhance connectivity and presence in the complex network of relations in educational settings.

'Indeed, social media users are described as having an enhanced capacity to self-organise and provide for themselves. These young people 'are not content to be passive consumers, and increasingly satisfy their desire for choice, convenience, customisation, and control by designing, producing, and distributing products themselves'[i].

Apart from faster communication, increased pace and mobility are reflected in the way young people live. More flexible, fluid and accelerated ways of being are both reflected in and driven by social media. Social media and mobile technologies are also associated with an increased tendency for young people to multitask and to rely on a 'digital juggling' of daily activities and commitments[ii]. Higher education, therefore, needs to ensure that it understands the fast-paced rhythm of students' lives and respects the increased autonomy students require in their communication and interaction with their institutions. The increased control over the nature and form of what learners do have now become not only the drive, but one of the very conditions for social media's use.


Sense of belonging and community building

Communication, collaboration, good relations, and a sense of belonging are very important aspects of university life. Social media provides the opportunity to connect and cooperate in a flexible and approachable manner, supporting interactions between staff and students.

"The term 'social' in the context of media means that these systems are user-centric and encourage communal activities... Indeed, social media can be thought of as online facilitators or enhancers of human networks... [i]"

Social media platforms all have the intrinsic potential to support social activity through dialogue; not one-way, but multiple-way exchanges that allow people to learn and share new information, build communities, as well as to create and sustain human relationships.

Establishing connections via social media apps enables staff and students to communicate, collaborate, and cooperate more effectively. This also has a direct impact towards strengthening student and staff networks as well as interpersonal relationships.

In turn, positive relationships within the institution directly influence the formation of one community and a sense of belonging. Research shows that students who feel they 'belong' have a higher degree of intrinsic motivation and academic confidence[ii].


Communities of practice

Social media applications on which students meet and interact with each other virtually also encourage the creation of "communities of practice". Communities of practice have been defined as groups of people who share a concern or an interest in something they do and learn how to do it better by interacting with one other on a regular basis[iii].

The benefits of communities of practice are multifaceted, ranging from increased student engagement through deepening knowledge to enhancing skills and competencies that the students will use in their future employment. On social media communities of practice are easy to create; they can take on the form of closed groups, pages, group chats and others, and can exist regardless of traditional time or space constraints. As such, communities of practice facilitated via social media platforms enable regular and timely interactions of specifically distinguished groups of students and lecturers whereby users can discuss, share, and co-create knowledge and other information related to their field of study or other extra-curricular activities they are engaged with.

Here, students can engage in meaningful and productive activities which promote learning and professional development. What's more, communities of practice not only foster new forms of collaboration and cooperation among students, but they can also support and strengthen already established groups within the HE institution, such as student bodies and societies.


Equality, diversity and inclusion

Finally, students are increasingly seen as customers who desire easy access to services and resources at any time and from any location. Such access calls into question the concept of campus boundaries, potentially altering the student-institution relationship. When higher education institutions embrace mobile technologies, they have the potential to increase educational opportunities for students whose personal circumstances prevent them from pursuing traditional higher education. Individuals who demand a more flexible and sympathetic approach to education provision are frequently parents or students who work full-time. Higher education institutions can ensure wider access and participation of non-traditional and disadvantaged groups of students by allowing them to interact with and access their education through social media and mobile technologies, which will have a positive impact on equality, diversity, and inclusion within the organisation.


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i Rowan-Kenyon, H.T. Martínez Alemán, A.M. Gin, K. Bryan, B. Gismondi, A. Lewis, J. McCready, A. Zepp, D. Knight, S. (2016) ‘Social media in higher education’, ASHE Higher Education Report. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/aehe.20103

ii Robinson, S.K., & Stubberud, H.A. (2012) ‘Communication preferences among university students’, The Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 16(5). Available at: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Communication-Preferences-among-University-Students-Robinson-Stubberud/b93f15c8fb085d69b3e656643137b07664f8921f

iii Swanson, J.A. Renes, S.L. Strange, A.T. (2018) ‘The communication preferences of collegiate students‘, Paper presented at the International Association for Development of the Information Society (IADIS) International Conference on Cognition and Exploratory Learning in the Digital Age (CELDA) (Budapest, Hungary, 2018) Available at: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED600613

iv Selwyn, N. (2012) Social media in higher education. Available at: https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/sites.lib.jmu.edu/dist/f/324/files/2013/04/sample-essay-selwyn.pdf

v Subrahmanyam, K. Šmahel, D. (2011) Digital youth. Berlin: Springer.

vi Van Dijck, J. (2013) The culture of connectivity: a critical history of social media. New York: Oxford University Press.

vii Freeman, T.M. Anderman, L.H., Jensen, J.M. (2010) ‘Sense of belonging in college freshmen at the classroom and campus levels‘, The Journal of Experimental Education, 75(3), pp. 203-220. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3200/JEXE.75.3.203-220

viii Monaghan, C.H. (2011) ‘Communities of practice: a learning strategy for management education’, Journal of Management Education, 35(3), pp. 428-453. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1052562910387536