Social Networking Sites and Education

IMG_6178It’s been interesting reading Merchant and Jenkins articles on shared online spaces – Social Networking Sites [SNS] this week. Merchant explores what constitutes a ‘Social Network’ to try and conceptualize realms of social groupings and interaction. Jenkins’s White Paper discusses affiliation, participatory culture, affinity spaces, and social production.

If asked the question: Can you define what social networking means to you? I imagine that each of us would need a few moments to reflect before answering.

Traditionally, a social network consists of people that have a connection founded upon an initial face-to-face meeting. Over time, and if someone in the network lived or moved out of the locality, correspondence may have involved phone, letter, cards etc. and possibly future meet-ups in person.

The biggest difference with social networks anno 2015 (or anytime from mid 2000s) is that the arrival of the Internet and wider connectivity through technology, enabled a rapid expansion of social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, etc., supporting social connections across ‘dispersed networks’ (Vincent, 2000, Gillen and Hall, 2010).

Primarily aimed at social/collegiate connections, SNSs now offer a plethora of interest groups and professional networking sites such at Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and so on. Today, the demographic of our social networks will undoubtedly include people that we have not met. However, we may have engaged in collaboration/idea sharing, virtually linked via mutual contacts or simply Follow them. 

What is it that defines an SNS, regardless of whether social, interest group of professional? Boyd & Ellison (2008) make a distinction between Network and Networking and highlight 3 main characteristics:

  • Users construct a full or semi public profile
  • Users create and list connections with others
  • Users traverse the sites/s through own and other friend or contact lists.

Although there is some debate as to whether small scale SNSs share specific characteristics with large scale online social networks, Merchant points us to their foundation in ‘presence, connection and community’.

Is there a place for SNSs in Education – Adoption or Allergy?

I can identify with Merchant’s reference to Internet use and SNSs generating a nervous reaction linked to popular culture where ‘young people are often more expert than’ the adults around them.

It can be a challenge to teachers and parents and social media is a regular discussion point at parent workshops. In a Primary setting, we have an additional duty of care as our students fall within the Under 13 age band. With the introduction of 1:1 iPads, for example, careful consideration was placed on developing Responsible User Agreements [RUAs] and pastoral input for parents to highlight the age-limits for social media and to safeguard the types of information students access.

I feel building awareness goes with the territory of engaging new technologies, adults have an additional responsibility to understand how rapidly student interests morph, how they learn, explore and share ideas with technology at their fingertips.

Mobile computing now enables round the clock access, which in turn can lead to “high levels of agency” (Merchant, 2012). It is crucial for younger learners to be taught digital literacy skills (see Social Skills and Cultural Competencies Jenkins, 2006) to help them to discern ‘right place, right time’ usage of devices and information.

This is a challenge for all users; it’s difficult to switch off, even for me – a Learning Technology Manager! My confession is I enjoy the way Twitter can provide a quick selection of ‘info-shots’. I enjoy learning, but the question is “Do I really need that info late at night or 1st thing in the morning?” Not really!

As an adult, I can make that call, but younger minds need guidance.

This also applies to online identity and how we present our digital selves, interact and form connections “across different geographical locations and time” (Merchant, 2012). When technology and socio-cultural connections merge, so do the boundary between online and offline lives.

“The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking. These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom.” (Jenkins, 2006)

A Participatory Culture – are there positive features?

For starters, it’s not all about Facebook or free access to online communities! Recently, I carried out some action research on ‘The Influence of Peer Feedback on Digital Game Design’, observing student exchanges in class and on their Computing blog (Edmodo) during designing and programming games using Kodu Game Lab.

Both environments qualify as ‘informal learning communities’ (Jenkins, 2006) and student feedback on their learning experiences, suggested similarities to his definition as a learning (social) network:

  • Providing support for others
  • Providing informal mentorship
  • A place where members believe contributions matter
  • Members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at least they care about what they have created)

The ‘social capital’, of resources residing in individual social networks, in this case, the connections between students, their experiences and collaboration can positively impact learning.

It’s important to note that the example above takes place within a ‘known’ network, and an established affinity space. Further caution is required if engaging Twitter, Facebook etc. with students, and requires significant research on the part of teachers/schools beforehand.

Establishing clear expectations for all participants on ethics, safeguarding and sharing policy (the who-when-what of content, access, online identity and language) is key to positive adoption in an educational setting.


Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robison, A. J., & Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MacArthur Foundation Publication(1), 1-59.

Merchant, G. (2012): Unravelling the social network: theory and research, Learning, Media and Technology, 37:1, 4-19

MA Research


One thought on “Social Networking Sites and Education

  1. Good surveys of the key elements of different but complementary visions of networks and participation. When and how does “social capital” become “Edcational capital” though? These are difficult questions. And how is private identity managed in spaces where education has thrown a wall around communication? Really interesting thoughts anyway, thank you…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s