This paper reviews the available literature on the relationship and impact online social networking sites have on student engagement and achievement. Online social networking sites are plentiful, varied and easily accessible to students and teachers alike. The potential for using these SNSs to further the goal of education is immense, and teachers are making the foray into the world of online social networking for educational purposes. However, educators cannot presuppose that because SNSs are a timely technology, they will necessarily engage students and improve student achievement. In fact, the research is inconclusive.
This paper will review literature which has reported finding positive impacts of SNSs on student engagement and achievement, and other literature which finds a negative correlation, or at best, no conclusive proof that there is any kind of a link between the two. Aspects of online social networking such as engagement, collaboration, creativity, distraction, grade point average and academic achievement are considered in the literature. Results of this review will indicate that, while there are many instances of research reporting positive and negative results, there is no conclusive evidence either for or against the impact of SNSs on engagement and achievement. Generally, participation in online SNSs has a positive connection to student engagement, but a negative connection to student achievement. The review concludes with suggestions and implications for further research.
Key words: social networking sites, student achievement, student engagement
Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, Cloudworks, Twitter, and Ning are but a few examples of the relatively new phenomenon of online social networking. People of all ages are flocking to the Internet and are signing up for social networking sites by the millions. Facebook, for example, boasted 901 million monthly active users and more than 125 billion friend connections at the end of March (Key Facts, 2012). This popularity of online social networking sites (SNSs) is constantly growing. Educators are set to take advantage of the multiple collaboration tools and discussion opportunities provided by social networking sites for secondary and higher education (Hoffman, 2009; Mason & Rennie, 2008, as cited in Forkosh-Baruch, & Hershkovitz, 2012).
Despite the fact that there is limited guidance on how educators can integrate social networking sites into subjects which have been traditionally delivered face-to-face (Andrews & Drennan, 2009), teachers are on the lookout for information on the potential benefits or harmful effects using SNSs as a new and innovative way to try to engage students and improve student achievement. This effort is supported by Munoz and Towner (2009) when they suggest that “the benefits of Facebook’s networking and social communication capabilities can benefit both the instructor and the student by tapping into a greater number of learning styles, providing an alternative to the traditional lecture format, creating an online classroom community, and increasing teacher-student and student-student interaction.” (p. 9).
Accordingly, if teachers are indeed encouraged to bring social networking into the classrooms, then the research question that begs to be asked, and which will be discussed in this paper, is “Does online social networking have an impact on student engagement and achievement?”
For the purposes of this paper, online social networking sites will be defined as web-based services that permit individuals to create a public or semi public profile, display a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and view and navigate through their list of connections and those made by others within the system, (Boyd & Ellison, 2008, p. 211). Social networking could, in general terms, be seen as a way of describing the modelling of everyday practices of social interaction, including those that take place within family structures, between friends, and in neighbourhoods and communities (Merchant, 2012). With online social networking sites, these practices of social interaction are taken to the technological level which allows for social interactions within families, between friends, in neighbourhoods and communities, and now, even the world, through the development of online communities. Most social networking sites incorporate a range of communication tools such as mobile connectivity, blogs, and photo/video sharing; with many platforms cross-posting to each other if the user so desires.
For example, a student or teacher could post a comment on Twitter and it would appear in their blog or on a private or educational SNS such as Ning, Elgg, or Facebook. Presently, many students are using this cross-connectivity of SNSs for non-academic (or purely social) purposes (Ahmed & Qazi, 2011a). Merchant (2012) has suggested that there are three possible approaches to the use of social networking sites in educational settings: learning about SNSs (including understanding and identifying the knowledge, skills, dispositions and learning involved); learning from SNSs (to understand and appreciate the kinds of learning a social networking site can support); and learning with SNSs (making use of the student’s existing SNSs to support and extend curriculum-based work); suggesting that these three areas describe how students and teachers currently use SNSs, and that they are relevant to teachers trying to incorporate SN work into their classroom (p. 16).
As further support for teachers contemplating using SNS in the classroom, it has been proposed that social networking-type interactions such as quality relationships, connectedness, modelling positive behaviours and sharing information have been observed taking place through social networking sites (Martin & Dowson, 2009). Considering the amount of research which surrounds the use of SNSs in the education system, it is imperative to determine whether or not social networking sites have any impact on student engagement and achievement. This paper will review the available literature on the subject and represent it as positive, negative, or neutral results of various studies.
Even though online social networking sites are a relatively new phenomenon, popularity is growing rapidly among college-aged youth, with 95% of 18 and 19 year olds using Facebook (Smith & Caruso, 2010). The emerging literature suggests that SNSs are becoming ubiquitous components of youth and young adult life, and the nature of SNSs was reported by Hargittai (2008), who found few demographic differences between users and nonusers of social networking sites in a sample of college students. In a study set out to determine the most effective way for faculty to use social networking sites for educational purposes, Nemetz, Aiken, Cooney, and Pascal (2010) stated conclusively that students use social networking sites frequently and extensively. Facebook was initially designed by Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes in 2004 as a means by which fellow Harvard students could communicate, share study-related information and socialize with peers at the University level (Calvi, Cassella, & Nuijten, 2010; Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007).
The popularity of Facebook and other social networking sites is growing to include applications in formal educational settings, such as learning management systems and augmentation of content, and in informal educational settings, such as relationship management systems, in sharing, communication, information discovery, and creative forms of behavior (Forkosh-Baruch, & Hershkovitz, 2012; McLoughlin & Lee, 2008). Despite these statements by Forkosh-Baruch and Hershkovitz, this growth in popularity of social networking sites appears to be underdeveloped in the field of education, with only about 30% of college respondents reporting using SNSs in their courses, despite the fact that about half of these same students use SNSs to collaborate with classmates about course-related topics (Smith & Caruso, 2010). The education system has an opportunity to reach the students in a mode of communication they enjoy and use, but educators are not doing so; a fact reiterated by Akyildiz and Argan (2010) when they concluded that students rarely used Facebook for educational purposes.
In a similar manner, Nemetz et al. (2010) found that students view SNSs differently when considering its use for social purposes, as opposed to considering SNSs for educational purposes. Even so, the research contains many instances of the educational potential of social networking sites. For example, instructors, learners, system designers and decision makers (Forkosh-Baruch & Hershkovitz, 2012) as well as students by their own initiative (Selwyn, 2009), are coming to use social networking sites for educationally related activities, including significant and new innovations in areas of interactive and collaborative learning (Schroeder, Minocha, & Schneider, 2010). These new social networking practices are being used in areas such as “knowledge sharing, development of ideas, and creative production while allowing for personal sense making and reflection” (McLoughlin & Lee, 2008, p. 12). Much of the research suggests that students, faculty, and administrations need to explore the use of online social networking sites in education.
In fact, the National School Board Association (United States) recognizes the potential value of using SNSs in the classroom, recommending that school board members find ways to harness the educational value of social networking, chat rooms and collaborative online journals (Gewertz, 2007). In a study of the use of alternative social networking sites in education, Brady et al. (2010) put forward that, to date, the higher educational community has been noticeably slow in adopting social networking technologies into the curriculum. Ajjan and Hartshorne (2008), support the call for students, faculty, and administrations to explore the use of SNSs in education in their research into faculty decisions to adopt Web 2.0 technologies in their classrooms. The authors suggest that social networking sites could be used to establish a series of academic connections, or to foster collaboration and cooperation in the higher education classroom. There are some instances where this potential for the use of social media has been recognized.
Griffith and Liyange (2008) suggest that the positive aspect of SNSs and their use is starting to be seen, as students are using SNSs in their academic studies for group and team-based work. Social networking sites are also seen to be in use in various academic activities, including communicating with faculty and lecturers, and discussing academic issues with classmates (Helou & Ab. Rahim, 2000). While it is apparent that the educational potential of SNSs exists, this potential is not always exploited, and opinions vary as to whether or not it should be exploited. These challenges relating to the potential value of social networking sites as an educational tool are summed up by Hoffman (2009) in a presentation to the Technology Colleges and Community when she states “Social networking is a tool, with both its advantages and problems for usage in teaching and learning” (p. 98).
This sentiment is echoed by Hamid, Waycott, Kurnia, and Chang (2010) who studied the use of online social networking for higher education and conclude that, despite the potential benefits they have identified, harnessing social technologies offers both opportunities and challenges. This paper explores many of these opportunities and challenges. Despite being a timely question, research on social networking sites and student engagement and achievement is limited when compared to studies of SNSs relating to other issues such as student privacy, safety, social capital, and psychological well-being (Ahn, 2011). What then, does the research say about online social networking sites impacting student engagement and achievement?
While analyzing the research available it was noted that studies generally focused on students at the University level, with the occasional study focusing on the secondary school student. As a result, this paper focuses mainly on this level of higher education. In the context of this review, social networking sites (SNSs) refers to general social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace which students are free to join and which enable “friending” other students, placing of photos and information, allowing continuous status updates, the potential for collaboration and chatting, and encourage the joining of “groups” reflecting personal interest. In this paper, the definition for student achievement is derived from the Report of the Student Achievement Task Force based in British Columbia, which states that “Student achievement is an improvement in learning that develops both the individual and the individual’s ability to contribute to society” (Brownlie & Renihan, 2003, p. 9), combined with the suggestion put forth by Ahmed and Qazi (2011b) that the use of technology such as the Internet (and by extension, social networking sites) is one of the most important factors that can influence educational performance of students positively or adversely.
Likewise, for the purposes of this paper student engagement is defined as the time and effort students invest in educational activities (Kuh, 2009). Since one of the primary goals of the education system is to enhance student engagement and advance student achievement, it seems logical to analyze what the research has to say about the impact of social networking sites on the engagement and achievement of students. Whether defined as student achievement, or student engagement leading to student achievement, this paper will examine the research relating to the impact social networking sites has on both.
Review of related research and literature
Positive impact of SNSs on student engagement and achievement
It is important to understand the connection between student achievement and student engagement. Much of the research indicates that student academic achievement may be increased by enhancing student engagement, and accordingly, student engagement has been identified as a significant predictor of academic performance (Zhao & Kuh, 2004, p 1332; Wise, Skues, &Williams, 2011). The connection between academic engagement and academic performance is supported by Junco, Heiberger and Loken (2011), when they report that they know that academic and co-curricular engagement are powerful forces in student psychosocial development and in academic success.
Brady, Holcomb and Smith (2010), in a study of the educational benefits of the social networking site Ning state that, since social networking sites are centered on the individual, rather than on the class, they have the potential to increase student engagement. These same authors also noted that the majority of participants in their study highlighted the educational advantages of SNSs and the instructors observed positive effects of using Ning on student engagement (2010). These types of interactions begin to identify how relationship development in a social networking setting may contribute to increased engagement and learning.
Facebook and Twitter, two very popular social networking sites are often mentioned in relation to student engagement. In a study examining the relationships among frequency of Facebook use and participation and student engagement, Junco (2011), a prolific researcher on modern technology and its effects on education, suggests that using Facebook in certain ways is positively predictive of student engagement (p. 169). Wise et al. (2011) promote the information-sharing social network ‘Twitter’ as having positive potential for improving academic engagement. Support for the connection between student engagement and student achievement, in relation to the effects of social networking is provided by Hoffman (2009) when she states that among the positive attributes of social networking are impacts on affective aspects of the learning environment, as well as impacts on motivation and student engagement.
As was previously mentioned, teachers are looking to the Internet to find new and innovative ways to engage and teach students.Improving student achievement is foremost on their minds. Many authors report positive impacts on student achievement as a result of participation in social networking sites.
After conducting a study of the influence of social networking sites on students’ academic performance in Malaysia, Helou and Ab.Rahim (2011) found that the majority of the respondents agreed that social networking sites have a positive impact on their academic performance; despite the fact that they also reported that they mainly engaged in social networking sites for social reasons rather than academic reasons. The Brady et al. (2010) study of the educationally-based social networking site Ning also provided evidence of a positive impact on student achievement, noting that the majority of students reported positive e-learning benefits in their courses including increased collaboration and exchange of information compared to face-to-face courses. It is important to note that in both the Brady et al. (2010) and Helou and Ab Rahim (2011) studies students were self-reporting their impressions on the impact of their use of social networking sites.
In a study designed to investigate the effect of social networking site (Facebook, YouTube and Twitter) engagement on cognitive and social skills, Alloway and Alloway (2012) suggested that some activities predicted higher scores in verbal and visual-spatial working memory performance. Results such as these would suggest a possible connection between this SNS engagement and improvement of student achievement. In fact, Alloway and Alloway state in their discussion that, given the importance of working memory in education, further research should investigate this possible connection. Similarly, Yu, Tian, Vogel and Kwok (2010) determined that online social networking can improve students’ psychological well-being and skill development; desired learning outcomes.
While social networking sites are not often used in classrooms yet the potential for the educational impact of social networking sites on academic achievement is recognized and well reported. Beach and Doerr-Stevens (2011) confirm the possibility that social networking sites can have a positive impact on student achievement, noting that the collaborative nature of social networking sites could have a positive effect on the development of civic engagement in students. Furthermore, in another study supporting the positive impact of social networking sites, Forkosh-Baruch and Hershkovitz, (2012) concluded that Twitter could actually increase student engagement and improve grades in educationally relevant ways and so was a useful tool in education.
In the conclusion of their study on the usefulness of the educationally-focused social networking site called Ning, Brady et al. (2010) reported that, for a majority of students, social networking sites provide significant e-learning benefits in their courses. Mahadi and Ubaidullah (2010) indicate that social networking sites can enhance language, particularly second language, learning since the social interaction, authenticity, feedback, and learner autonomy found in a SNS are also the key characteristics of successful language learning, and that teachers should consider SNSs as an engaging option. As the research suggests, student engagement and achievement can be impacted positively by student use of social networking sites, and, whether through self-reporting or independent research, a correlation between improvements in student engagement and achievement has been identified.
Negative impact of SNSs on student engagement and achievement
While teachers may be looking towards social networking sites for inspiration, a look at the research suggests the connection between SNSs and student engagement and achievement is not always a positive one. Several studies have found a negative relationship between student use of SNSs and engagement and achievement.
Even before the development of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, research was reporting that Internet use in general could cause some students academic difficulties (Kubey, Lavin & Barrows, 2001). In a much reported explorative study to determine whether differences existed in the academic performance of college students who were Facebook users, and those who were not Facebook users; considering Facebook as an activity that students carry out while studying – in other words, multitasking; Kirschner and Karpinski (2010) reported significant findings. The authors found a negative correlation between Facebook and student achievement, relaying that Facebook users reported having a lower mean grade point average (GPA). They also reported spending fewer hours per week studying, and engaged in procrastinating behaviour. This study apparently reflects the fears educators have about the dangers of social networking sites, and how they will be only a detriment to student engagement and achievement.
In a similar but larger-sampled linear regression analysis of the relationship among frequency of Facebook use; participation in Facebook activities; time spent preparing for class; and actual, as opposed to self-reported, overall GPA; Junco (2012), suggests several negative predictors of overall GPA, including chatting, checking, and posting status updates on Facebook. The author places further emphasis on this negative correlation in his discussion when he states “Specifically, large increases in time spent on Facebook relate to lower overall GPAs” (p. 194). Junco (2012) continues to relate how this increased time on Facebook would certainly detract from time spent focusing on academic work, and would negatively impact academic success. Flad (2010) agrees, reporting that SNS use can have a negative impact on study habits and homework completion, with students in their study admitting to having spent time on SNSs rather than studying, and that time spent on a SNS has prevented them from completing homework. Similar findings were reported by Paul, Baker and Cochran (2012) in a very recent study of the relationship between time spent on online social networking sites and academic performance, stating that time spent on SNSs is shown to negatively impact academic performance.
In a second revealing finding coming from their study, Paul et al. (2012) also reported that as the level of attention deficit increased, the amount of time spent on social networking sites increased, “implying that increased levels of attention deficit have a negative, although indirect [through increased time on SNSs] impact on academic performance” (p. 7). As a result of these findings, Paul et al. (2012) even go so far as to suggest that students should be made aware of the potential detrimental effect SNSs can have on their academic achievement. Adding to the research maintaining a negative correlation between SNSs and academic achievement is a study comparing the use of Facebook as a medium for social interaction or informal learning. Madge, Meek, Wellens, and Hooley (2009) came to the conclusion that time spent on Facebook for social purposes was sometimes to the detriment of time available for academic study. Any time spent away from time allotted to academic study could be viewed as a negative influence. Jacobsen and Forste (2011) concur in a study of the academic and social outcomes of electronic media use among university students.
In this study students indicated that electronic media (which the authors describe as including Facebook and instant messaging) is negatively associated with grades, and that since students report using this electronic media in class or while doing homework, the distractions would be detrimental to student performance. In fact, after controlling for offline time use, Jacobsen and Forste conclude “there is a significant negative association between social networking site exposure and academic performance” (p. 278). Similarly, in a fittingly titled paper “No A 4 U …,” which examines the perceived academic effects of instant messaging, Junco and Cotton (2012), reported that students in their sample seemed to be aware that divided attention, or multitasking, is detrimental to their academic achievement.
Yet students reported continuing with these same activities. In a recent study to explore the relationship between SNSs and educational performance of students, Ahmed, Amir, Qazi and Jabeen (2011) sampled 1000 students from various universities in Pakistan, comparing aspects of SNS usage in areas such as student gender, specialty area of study, age, study habits, leisure activities, time and purpose on the internet, time spent on SNSs, and most importantly for this paper – the effect of using social networking sites on their studying habits, and the differences of academic performance of students. The authors found study habits were significantly affected by time spent using social networking sites concluding that Internet and SNS usage “significantly [negatively] affect the studying habits of the students and eventually their academic performance” (p. 156).
This is supported by Oye, Helou, and Ab.Rahim (2012) whose participants related that spending more time on SNSs resulted in them getting lower grades, and some perceived the distractions of SNSs ranging from “mere distraction” to “obsession” (p. 27). Even the research study which generally reported a positive relationship between the social networking site Ning and education, found that some students did identify time and accessibility as major limitations to using Ning to help them to succeed academically, and 54% also expressed a preference for face-to-face communications over Ning (Brady et al., 2010), suggesting a preference away from academic use of social networking sites. Although concluding with positive remarks about Twitter, Wise et al. (2011) argue that Facebook, a medium for social interaction, has only a limited role, if any, to play in promoting student engagement from an academic or institutional perspective.
Despite the intentions of many researchers to find a conclusive impact of use of social networking sites on engagement and achievement, many reported no such findings, concluding only that there was no real connection to be found.
Neutral research on the impact of SNSs on student engagement and achievement
While many researchers weigh in on the positive or negative side of the impact of social networking sites on student engagement and achievement, other literature is reported as being neutral. This is supported in research focusing on social networking and gender when the author states “The relationship between students who are actively involved in social networking and their academic performance is inconclusive” (Flad, 2010, p. 38). Ahmed and Qazi (2011b) also reported results from their study which explored the relationship between SNS usage and educational performance of the student user, finding that internet or SNS usage was not significant enough to affect the academic performance of students adversely.
In a presentation to Technology, Colleges and Community (TCC) which focused on evaluating social networking tools for distance learning, Hoffman (2009) stated that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that Ning directly impacted individual student achievement, even though students commented that they felt social networking did have a positive impact on student engagement and satisfaction. As well, no association was found between grade point averages of student Facebook users and nonusers in a study which examined a random sample of Facebook profiles at a Northeast University in the USA, (Kolek & Saunders, 2008). A connection between use of social networking sites and improvements in self-esteem and development of the whole person, which can ultimately lead to performance proficiency and future success was noted by Yu et al. (2010), but despite this positive outlook, they caution the “coin has two sides” (p. 1501) and the negative side of SNS usage, such as distraction, must also be considered and reviewed.
In the reporting of their findings, many of the researchers who reported neutral results often suggested developing similar studies, but with more scrutinizing criteria, to determine if there is in fact a definitive impact of social networking sites on student engagement and/or achievement.
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