Teaching and Learning with Social Networks —Exploring the advantages and disadvantages

Anderson (2009) defines the term social networking as referring to “the networked tools that allow people to meet, interact and share ideas, artefacts and interests with each other”. Boyd and Ellison (2007) define social networking sites as “web-based services that allow individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.” Shirky (2008) captures the essence of social networking more succinctly: social networks facilitate the creation of groups and the exploration of “new ways of gathering together and getting things done”.

Is the network a substitute for community? Would the use of social media in a networked manner be detrimental to the wider school community? The answer to both questions is no. As Bickford and Wright (2006) point out “were community not important for learning, colleges and universities would have little reason to exist”. The critical role of interaction in learning is reinforced by the addition of social networking to the school community, not undermined. Therefore, the addition of the learning network augments the learning community rather than provides an alternative to it, resulting in the overall enhancement of the learning environment.

Are dialogue and collaboration hampered by the addition of social networking to the learning environment? These two concepts are critical to the one-to-one and one-to-many models. However, in the many-to-many model afforded by social networking the focus shifts from collaborative to cooperative learning, from the group to the individual. Whereas collaboration demands that the group “sinks or swim together”, cooperation “focuses on opportunities to encourage both individual flexibility and affinity to a learning community” (Paulsen 2008).

Transparent information and cooperation among individuals foster the creation of personal learning environments in which participants wish to engage due to the potential benefits each can acquire. Schools and other learning outlets have thus far shied away from encouraging the development of such personal learning environments using the host of Web 2.0 and social media tools available, preferring instead to impose learning management systems, sometimes euphemistically called virtual learning environments. These systems do foster dialogue and collaboration, however, as Anderson (2009) indicates, a virtual learning environment which consists solely of students and teachers cannot profit from the benefits derived by a network because it lacks transparency of information and deep engagement between students and teachers (Bickford and Wright 2006).

In my own experience, virtual learning environments quickly become repositories of institutionally approved teaching materials and effectively discourage cooperation and interaction among students, fostering instead less meaningful, transactional interaction such as the setting or handing in of student work or the communication of assessment grades. Less often do students appear to willingly engage in more meaningful forms of cooperation such as peer review and assessment of each other’s work.

Dron and Anderson (2007) have suggested that individuals join social networks to “associate with others of like interest or vocation, or who know more, or who would like to learn similar things”. This contrasts sharply with schools’ imposition of learning management systems on their students. Wheeler (2010) points out that many students tend to avoid using the school-managed virtual learning environments because they either find it difficult to use, or irrelevant to their daily learning needs. It would appear then that a loose network of willing participants is better able to guarantee the commitment and engagement of the vast majority of our students. Having said that, there are also potential roadblocks and disadvantages that need to be explored to better understand the potential implementation of social media in schools.

Leach (2002) points out that teachers ought to exploit their pupils’ existing ICT knowledge and use the tools to which pupils are already accustomed. However, Mazer et al. (2007) have suggested that certain affordances of ICT, such as social networking sites, “can be a potential hazard for teachers as some applications allows users to communicate” and “the content can lead to discrediting or defamatory messages”.

Commercial social networking sites have often been accused of exposing young people to inappropriate content and turning them into victims of cyber-bullying, breaches of privacy and, in extreme cases, even of sexual predators. Trust and privacy are therefore seen to play a critical role when considering using social media in the school context (Griffith and Liyanage 2008). In addition, others point out that social networks can be used for “plagiarism, cheating, harassment and other types of academic and social misconduct” (Anderson 2009). Overall, a picture of risk and danger emerges. As Selwyn (2009) notes, the internet can place children at risk of harming themselves and others.

So, what began as an endorsement of technology as a catalyst for improved pedagogy in the classroom quickly turned into a cautionary tale when said technology allowed students – and teachers, for that matter – to begin to interact outside the classroom. The possibility of abuse, affecting both students and teachers, therefore emerges as the principal disadvantage of social networking sites versus the relative safety provided by the institutionally managed learning environment. However, as user behaviour can be modified and improved through guidance, training and modelling, I see this more as a temporary hurdle than an inherent disadvantage of the application of social media to the educational context.

What do you think? Your thoughts, comments and views are always very welcome. Please don’t hesitate to leave your two penneth as a comment, below.

Photo by Brett Jordan


ANDERSON, T (2009) Social Networking. In MISHRA S (Ed) Stride Handbook 8 – E-Learning. IGNOU, pp 96-101 [Online] Available from http://webserver.ignou.ac.in/institute/STRIDE_Hb8_webCD/STRIDE_Hb8_index.html Accessed 18/12/2010

BICKFORD, D and WRIGHT, D (2006) Community: The hidden context of learning. In OBLINGER, D (Ed) Learning spaces. Educause, pp 40-61 [Online] Available from http://www.educause.edu/LearningSpaces Accessed 11/12/2010

BOYD, D. M., & ELLISON, N. B. (2007). ‘Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship’. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 11. [Online] Available from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/boyd.ellison.html Accessed 22/08/2011

DRON, J., & ANDERSON, T. (2007). Collectives, Networks and Groups in Social Software for E-Learning. Paper presented at the Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education Quebec [Online] Available from http://www.editlib.org/index.cfm/files/paper_26726.pdf Accessed 18/12/2010

GRIFFITH, S, & LIYANAGE, L. (2008). An introduction to the potential of social networking sites in education. In I. Olney, G. Lefoe, J. Mantei & J. Herrington (Eds), Proceedings of the Second Emerging Technologies Conference 2008, pp. 76-81. Wollongong: University of Wollongong [Online] Available from http://educatingthefuturegp.co.uk/useful%20files/into%20to%20potential%20of%20social%20network%20sites.pdf Accessed 5/12/2010

LEACH, J. 2002. Teaching, learning and the digital age. In: B. MOON, A. SHELTON MAYES, S. HUTCHINSON (eds.) Teaching, learning and the curriculum in secondary schools. London: RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 142-164

MAZER, J. P., MURPHY R.E., & SIMMONDS, C.J. (2007) ‘I’ll see you on “Facebook”: The Effects of Computer-Mediated Teacher Self-Disclosure on Student Motivation, Affective Learning, and Classroom Climate’. Communication Education, 56:1, 1- 17. [Online] Available from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03634520601009710 Accessed 1/06/2010

PAULSEN, M. F. (2008). Cooperative Online Education. Seminar Net, 4(2) [Online] Available from http://www.seminar.net/images/stories/vol4-issue2/paulsen_-_cooperative_online_education.pdf Accessed 18/12/2010

SELWYN, N. (2009) The digital native: myth and reality. ASLIB Proceedings, 61 (4). pp. 364-379. [Online] Available from http://www.emeraldinsight.com/10.1108/00012530910973776 Accessed 3/06/2011

SHIRKY, C. (2008) Here comes everybody: How change happens when people come together. London: Penguin

WHEELER, S. (2010) “Anatomy of a PLE” in Learning with ‘e’s [Online] Available from http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.com/2010/07/anatomy-of-ple.html Accessed 11/07/2010


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  1. Good stuff, José! I presume, from the references that this is for some academic work you’re doing? If so, I strongly suggest you have a look at David Noble’s (@parslad) work on teacher CPD. 

    He’s written a couple of papers including one for the Scottish government (http://www.scribd.com/doc/55515159/Technologies-for-Career-Long-CPD-by-David-Noble) and an absolutely fantastic one on teacher habitas for his Ed.D. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/63269227/Thesis-proposal-Online-Personal-Learning-Networks-of-Professionals-Grounded-analysis-of-talk-from-the-edonis-project). They seem to link closely to your reading of Dron and Anderson (2007). 🙂

    1. Thanks again for those links Doug. You presume correctly, this forms part of the Critical Study I’m currently putting together to finish off My MA in ICT in Education. I’m really pleased you think it’s good 🙂

    1. In my institution, a lot of what we have been asked to do in the VLE is as you put succinctly (and reinforced by Jaime) in paragraph 5. I have dabbled varously with online forums, Twitter and Facebook groups with limited success. This is partly due to my naivety and, as a result, I’m embarking on research to perceived barriers to engaging HE students through Social Media.

      I’m thinking clear boundaries need to be stipulated with regard to the use and possible misuse/abuse that can come with these ‘close’ relationships between teacher and learner as well as between learners. Not every student would chose to work with every other student.

      Cleary defined areas of doubt and uncertainty. That’s what we need.

Your feedback and comments are very welcome