Social networks are becoming increasingly important in higher education as the format of course delivery changes to include hybrid and online models, and as the social network offers students a way to stay in touch, creating face-to-face like conversations and other interactions away from the physical classroom. From this perspective, social networks are particularly important for adult learners who often have complex, busy schedules that may not enable them to participate in face-to-face events at their institutions of choice, or may prohibit them from participating during “regular” classroom hours.
Online social media participation can happen anytime, anywhere, and fills the need of adult or distance (or both) students to feel connected to their classmates, their instructors, and their institutions. My experience teaching both face-to-face and online courses with and without the use of social networks has shown me how valuable they can be to overall student engagement. In both cases, before turning to using a social network (in my case, Yammer) as a web course space, I tried using other formats for student engagement such as blogs, wikis, and forums. I found that the “chatty” nature of social networks made a big difference in the kind of student participation I saw and the length, depth, and consistency of student-to-student and group-to-group (many-to-many) interactions that occurred in my courses.
Social networks most closely resemble what happens in face-to-face discussions, and therefore resulted in the students feeling more committed, engaged, and known to each other and the course, as well as (potentially) to the institution. Other factors contributing to the increased engagement with the use of social networks are: (1) The low learning curve: Most people are familiar with Facebook, and can therefore easily adopt any similar social network without feeling burdened by having to learn anything new; (2) Familiar faces: The use of a photograph alongside the students and professors or administrators postings goes a long way to heighten a sense of familiarity. Often I found students knew each other and me from the social network so well that when we finally met in person, it felt very familiar; (