Why use social media to support learning?

The Learning Systems Team of the Open University, the UK’s largest university and a distance learning specialist, talk about why they support the use of social media in learning with the OU, and offer some practical tips on its use.

Can using social media support learning? Or is it simply a distraction? Well, judging by how long it’s taken me to write this blog perhaps it can be considered a distraction. But, here at the Open University, we also know it can be useful in supporting learning. It can give students a richer, enhanced learning experience. An experience that can give students a broader perspective on issues covered in their studies. And it can help them feel that they’re a valued part of a learning community. A community that provides additional support and motivation to students throughout their learning journey.

It doesn’t need you to be a full-time Facebook posting, Instagram snapping, Periscope streaming, snapchatting, tweeting superhero to get started in giving students that enhanced experience. It just a takes a bit of time to understand what you want social media to achieve for your students, and a bit of time to think about how much effort you can afford to make in this area.

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

You might be thinking ‘Yeah, that sounds okay. But I need to hear more. How exactly could it bring these benefits? And have you got any examples of social media being used for these purposes?’. Well, funny you should ask. Here are some of the reasons of why we support the use of social media here at the Open University, covering:

  • Making learning more social
  • Encouraging deeper reading and discussions
  • Being a catalyst for creation and collaboration
  • Putting us closer to where the students are

We’ve also included some examples and ideas of how to use social media in the learning context, such as:

  • Setting up your own accounts
  • Platform advice
  • Increasing visibility
  • Creating special events
  • Twitter chats
  • Curating lists
  • Using hashtags
  • Live streaming
  • Creating retrospective collections of social media posts

Oh, and we include a bit of advice on things to be aware of. We’re nice like that.

So, here goes…

It makes learning a more social experience

Helping learners to exchange thoughts, beliefs and to give and receive feedback encourages the sort of social interaction that can really motivate learners. Social media enables easier discussions between a wide range of learners, each with their own backgrounds, cultures and experiences. This is great for sharing a broad range of perspectives. At the same time, the fact these learners all share the same learning aims, can foster a great sense of community.

And that community can be an incredibly supportive to a learner. The OU Students Association make fantastic use of social media to create an online community for the diaspora of distance learners of the OU. In doing that they have discovered that the peer support aspect of social media is really appreciated by students. Students are able to help each other through those tricky periods giving advice, offering support and having a laugh.

An Instagram post by the OU Students Association with comments from students

Great for encouraging discussion and reading about real world events

Social media is a natural platform for discussing world events and situations, both serious and not so serious, as they happen. Many students will be using it in that way already. From the bamboozlement of the blue/black/white/gold dress to the concerned discussions as the Paris attacks unfolded, social media has been ‘the water-cooler’ that people have gathered round to discuss these events.

Discussing real world events connected to their course adds context to their studies, highlighting the relevance of what they have learned. It allows them to explore different avenues, hear new perspectives and hone their viewpoints. With social media these conversations can involve, not just other students and academic staff, but a global community with a shared interest.

The scientific adventures of the Philae Lander which which left the Rosetta spacecraft to land on comet 67P in November 2014 is a great example of this.

The Philae Lander’s social media presence on twitter, and its associated account (ESA_Rosetta), its hashtags (#philae2014, #cometlanding, #lifeonacomet, #67P etc), and its video logs are a great example of social media enhancing the learning experience, giving rich additional content for those who want it.

A world wide audience converged on this one presence and discussed various related topics whilst experiencing the roller coaster of emotions associated with the mission.

Allows students more opportunities to be creators and collaborators

Social media platforms are also natural environments for students to create and co-operate; curating collections of links they’ve found engaging, sharing their ideas through blogs, posting motivating images. The very platform you’re reading this on, Medium, allows people, or groups of people, to create and share content. This content is automatically shared , through the use of recommendation algorithms, to other users worldwide. This global audience, outside of the students’ natural network, raises the potential for useful feedback covering varied points of view.

You might be surprised at how much people on the internet, who you’ve never met, are willing and able to help you.

An increased personal network (a fundamental aspect of social media) doesn’t just offer a greater range of feedback, it could also offer students greater opportunities through ‘the strength of weak ties’. Which is good. These networks that are built online can transform into real world networks which can be useful for work opportunities, developing interests and…er…sourcing replacement deely-boppers at short notice. You might be surprised at how much people on the internet, who you’ve never met, are willing and able to help you.

Lets us be closer to where the students are

A large proportion of people are now social media users. For many this is where online conversations are happening naturally. So it’s no surprise that some students are starting communities and groups related to their learning on social media. It’s just a natural thing to do. These student-led groups often focus on what the learner needs, more that just what is required from the course. They offer emotional support for other learners, technical help, advice on dealing with the institution. They can be a bit more personal. A bit more friendly.

As well as supporting personal learning activities should we also be in these spaces to support these broader aspects of their study journey? Not to force our way into the conversations of learners, but being available if they want to talk with us there. Join in the conversation on their terms. After all, it’s their learning experience, not ours.

For more of an insight into this you could look at this nice bit of research from Tony Coughlin and Leigh-Anne Perryman of the OU, “Are student-led Facebook groups open educational practices?

There’s also the question of, dare I say it, ‘customer service’. Expectations have changed in how people contact organisations. It’s not often we hand write and post a letter, waiting weeks for a response. We’re even moving past the stage where we type an email and wonder why we haven’t got a response within days. Our expectations are shifting to the point that we expect a social media query to have a response within hours.

If we expect that ourselves, shouldn’t we look into offering that to our students?

Some practical examples of using social media.

We’ve mentioned a few of the benefits social media use can bring to learning. But how could you actually use social media to achieve these benefits? Well, here are some more examples to get you going.

Set up your own account

It could be an account for the course, a course team account, accounts for specific academics or even a mascot! Or perhaps not a mascot.

Course team social media accounts are a nice opportunity for the team and students to interact. Students can get an insight into the department, the people, the ideas behind the course. This interaction can help motivate both the team and the students.

Which platform?

But which platform to use? Should you be on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or something else? Well, it depends.

As a very basic rule of thumb:

  • Twitter is great for sharing information, dealing with queries, and interacting with those outside of your normal group.
  • Facebook is good for having a specific group area where interested people can get together and talk and share.
  • Instagram is perfect for sharing those occasional photos.

An example might help, and a great example, as mentioned earlier, is the use of social media by the OU Students Association. They have a presence across several platforms which are used to motivate, inform and give a voice to students.

Have a look at:

They’ve even got an online radio show. See how they adapt their use for each different platform. Now this level of presence obviously requires time and resource so it’s not going to be possible for everyone. But a limited presence, done well, can still be very effective.

Make social media activity visible to all

At the OU we can make use of embedding twitter or facebook feeds within a course site in the Moodle virtual learning environment (VLE).

How Twitter and Facebook appear on the OU VLE

This is useful as it allows students to view social media activity without having to seek it out, and without even having to have a social media account. It raises visibility of what is taking place in the social media accounts and lets students choose whether they would like to participate.

You don’t have to actively take part in a social media conversation to benefit from what is said.

This means students who don’t have social media accounts, or who have accounts but don’t want to use them for their studies, can still see what’s being talked about. You don’t have to actively take part in a social media conversation to benefit from what is said.

Question for readers: Should learners on online courses be actively encouraged to take an active part in course related activities on social media?

Special events can be run to act as a catalyst for further, deeper discussion.

One of our favourite examples of this is the ‘Friday Thinker’ run by our colleagues in the Social Sciences department here at the OU. Each Friday has a different member of the academic staff raise a question, which is discussed by members of the group. What makes this so good? Not only does it generate some great discussions but it also gives students visibility of academic staff. This helps build a feeling of community and strengthens connections between students and the OU. This is really useful in a distance learning environment.

The Facebook post introducing the next Friday thinker, and the actual Friday Thinker video that leads to some interesting discussions.

Twitter Chats

Twitter chats are another popular method of generating discussion around a specific topic. A group of Twitter users meet at a pre-determined time to discuss a certain topic. A designated #hashtag (more on these below) is chosen and each post in the Twitter chat will include this hashtag. A host will pose questions, identified with the prefix Q1, Q2 etc, and the group will respond to the questions, with the answers prefixed A1, A2 etc accordingly. This is a great way to explore a subject and build a community at the same time.

Set up curated lists of interesting social media accounts.

Twitter lists are a great. They are an easy way of showcasing the tweets of group of people or organisations you find interesting. You can as many lists as you want (as long as you don’t want more than 1,000 lists) and these lists can have up to 5,000 people on them. And these lists can be shared with, and viewed, by others.

Setting up and sharing interesting lists is a useful way of ensuring a steady stream of engaging content is being generated without you having to commit much, if any, time to tweeting yourself. That can be very handy!

Here’s an example of a small list showing OU related twitter accounts.

So what can you do with Twitter lists? How about:

  • making a list of members of the academic team who are happy to be listed. Useful for making online learning more ‘human’.
  • building specific community lists around certain topics related to the course. This can add an element of personalisation to the learning experience letting the students follow the lists that interest them the most.
  • seeing if students want to be on a list of course participants. A simple way of starting an online community based around the course.

Sound interesting? Want to know how to set up Twitter lists? Then look no further. Here’s how to set up Twitter lists.

And, as a bonus, some additional ideas for how you might use Twitter lists.

Use #hashtags to allow to build conversations around topics

On many social media platforms the # symbol turns any word or group of words that directly follow it into a searchable link. This lets you organise content and track discussion topics based on keywords. Click on a keyword to see all the posts that mention the subject in real time.

This can be handy for joining in with world events or conversations that are taking place e.g. as I type this currently trending hashtags on Twitter include #WorldPoetryDay, #HumanRightsDay and #NovakDjokovic.

And you’re free to create your own hashtags based around course or community content.

Here’s a decent list currently used #hashtags for education. There are a lot of them.

Live streaming

As well as posting text, links or images and videos, it is now possible to live stream events through video over social media. This allows you to broadcast anything as and when needed. It can be scheduled or it can take place on the spur of the moment, with your social media followers being notified of the start of the broadcast.

Viewers of the broadcast can interact with those broadcasting during the event. Eric Stoller, who’s a bit of an expert with the whole social media in education thing, covers this far more eloquently than I ever could in his Medium article Live-streaming Apps Engage Students and Staff. Have a look. After you’ve read this obviously.

Curating social media posts into a story

Social media can be of the moment, recording people’s views and actions as events unfold and discussions take place. These moments can be curated after the event and presented in one neat package. This is a great tool for reflection or for taking the opportunity to catch up with an event or discussion you weren’t able to attend.

Tools like Storify are built specifically for this purpose. Using a range of social media posts you can put together great coverage of things like conferences, open days, special events, twitter chats…the list goes on.

Want some examples? Have a look at these examples from the OU’s coverage of education day and JISC’s coverage of Digifest 2016.

Let’s be careful out there

Let’s not kid ourselves. As great as it is, the internet can be a weird place and some strange things can happen there. We can’t avoid this if we use social media, but we can be aware of it and do what we can to make it a lot less weird for our students.

Here are some things we think you need to be aware of:

You can’t control what other people post

Social media gives people the tools by which people can amplify their voice, and speak to the world. Unfortunately some take this opportunity to say something stupid. Or offensive. Or just odd.

It’s worth taking the time to ensure staff and students are aware of how they are expected to act when using social media in relation to their learning activities. And for those outside of the academic circle it might be useful to make yourself aware of what tools the social media platforms have to moderate those who are being inappropriate. There are some useful tips in this link

Hashtags can have mixed meanings (and don’t always go the way you want)

The cool hashtag you come up with might not be unique.

For example, does #U101 refer to the OU’s Design Thinking:Creativity for the 21st Century course?

Or does it refer to the 1996 collector’s card for Tommy Vardell, the San Francisco 49ers unforgettable running back (actually I know very little about US football so have no idea whether anyone stateside does remember Tommy Vardell)?

A pre-planned hashtag can benefit from a little bit of thought and a little bit of investigation to see if it will be suitable.

Other hashtags will form spontaneously from the users and might usurp the hashtag you had intended. If so, just run with it. Social media is the learners’ space.

Oh, and hashtags can occasionally go a little bit wrong.

People may also use a hashtag to vent a frustration. But it may be better to allow that, and to deal with any issue effectively, rather than leave a learner unhappy.

Tools and platforms change.

We know which social media platforms are big today. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are incredibly popular and have been for several years now. It makes sense for us to think about having a presence on these platforms.

But we need to be aware of changes in this area. What other platforms are becoming popular? How is social media use changing on these platforms? At what point should we consider having a presence on them? What would that presence look like if we did?

For example, did you know that Snapchat now has 100 million active users and 7 billion daily video views. That’s a testament to how much the network is growing, and also to how much people (usually young people in Snapchat’s case) are willing to consume content through this medium. But does it have any use in teaching?

And then there is Slack, the group messaging tool that has seen massive growth and is changing how businesses and groups communicate. What is the future potential for supporting learning on a platform like this?

It’s not for everyone

Although social media might be a massive global phenomenon it doesn’t mean everyone is active on social networks. And those that are using social media might not necessarily want to use it as part of their learning experience. It’s important not to exclude these people or put them at a disadvantage.

Social media can enhance the learning experience, adding elements of peer support, tapping into global communities, making the learning experience more personal, giving motivation and acting as a catalyst for deeper exploration of a topic. But these things are optional. If they choose not to engage in social media they should still receive a rewarding and beneficial learning experience.

You represent your institution

Now I’m sure you’re a very sensible and professional person so this probably doesn’t need saying, but if you start behaving ‘strangely’ on social media it might just reflect badly on your institution. By the same token, if other people start engaging with your social media accounts, then they are interacting with the institution. The nature and timeliness of your responses should be inline with what people would expect from your organisation.

Having a non-responsive, non-posting zombie social media account is worse than having no presence at all.

Oh, just one more thing…

Have a reason for doing what you do. Don’t just do social media because everyone else is. Do it because you have an idea of how you feel it will enhance the learning experience.


We hope this has been useful in giving you some ideas about how social media can be beneficial in supporting learning. This is actually going to be blog that is updated over time to remain relevant and useful in an ever changing environment. We’d love to hear your feedback or questions about this blog, or your experience with the use of social media in learning. What have we missed? What do you disagree with? How are you using social media to support learning? You can get in touch by leaving a comment or by giving us a shout on our Twitter account @GoTeamLTS.

Version 0.1 — March 2016

This version was written by @Steve_p_uk a product manager, and bit of a social media geek, in the Learning Systems team at the Open University.