Teaching and Learning with Social Networks: Barriers to Adoption Exploring the reluctance to use social networks for academic purposes

What early adopters see as tools that can help refine and develop teaching and learning can sometimes be perceived as undermining by teachers who remain sceptical about the adoption of emerging technologies because of the demands placed upon them of learning and understanding the new pedagogies involved and because they often feel constrained by the contexts and pressures in which they work (Conlon and Simpson 2003). As a result, teachers often view these new technologies as superfluous or simply not conducive to better learning outcomes.

Loss of control is also an important factor for many teachers who might see the adoption of social media, not only as extremely disruptive, but also as a further erosion of academic rigour and, ultimately, of their traditional role and relevance. This may be because the tools that are familiar to our students are not so to teachers who might therefore feel unable to control their students online. King, Duke-Williams and Mottershead (2009) suggest that teacher resistance to the adoption of Web 2.0 is present because of “the little place it plays in their lives, personal or professional, and their poor perceptions of social networking”. In this context, the challenge for teachers would be to develop new teaching and learning strategies that incorporate the use of social media and that allow them to focus on learner-centred strategies, rather than the more traditional teacher-centred use, which is still widely preferred by teachers in general (Scrimshaw 2004).

In their desire to closely manage learning, both schools and teachers gravitate towards tight control of online environments but, in doing so, they often negate any possible learning benefit that may be obtained from a personal learning network. However, it would be entirely unfair, in my view, to place the blame solely on school and teacher attitudes. Students perceptions and use of technology may also play a part in the absence of social media in schools. Do secondary students wish to interact with their teachers online? The answer to this question may be more complex than it may appear initially because, as Paulsen (2008) points out, in order to obtain the necessary quality of interaction and cooperation that would lead to improved teaching and learning, participation in networks should be voluntary. A problem then arises if a sufficiently significant number of students opt out of such participation, not only in school-managed learning environments as Wheeler (2010) has already observed, but also in personal learning networks created using social media.

Manifold reasons for this reluctance of some students to participate have been suggested. Anderson (2009) argues that social networks challenge both teachers’ and students’ ability to interact and cooperate fruitfully via this medium, implying that, when it comes to academia, students too do not feel comfortable with the degree of transparency necessary for the network’s benefits to take effect. McLoughlin and Lee (2009) suggest that the blurring of the distinctions between work and play is seen as an unwelcome development by students as well as teachers and may have a detrimental role in students’ perceptions of the utility of social networks in the educational context. Hughes (2009) states that “the bridge between Web 2.0 in social use and in learning is as yet only dimly perceived by students”.

Anecdotal observations have led me to believe that secondary students see the internet as their territory and that they feel uncomfortable when this territory is encroached upon by their teachers. In my experience, teacher attempts to engage students using social networks can be seen by some students as initially intriguing but ultimately futile and, above all, uncool. As the uncool label begins to be applied to social networking for academic purposes, the negative views of a small but vociferous group of students can prove to be detrimental to achieving the desired interaction and participation. This dichotomy between student and academic culture can result in tension (Levine 2005) that can lead students to reject schools’ attempts to connect using what students perceive as their tools.

Notwithstanding the above, these barriers appear to be surmountable by both institutions and students. The use of social networking is increasing in all areas of society but, although students have been active in social networking for almost a decade now, during this time, schools and teachers have largely ignored their students’ clear desire for peer interaction and communication outside the classroom. Even though the time has passed when students entering secondary education do not remember life before social networking, many schools continue to ban, block and firewall its use, failing to grasp the important role that social media plays, not only in the private lives of their students, but also in the wider school community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this alienation has resulted in what Livingstone (2009) describes as sporadic and unspectacular engagement with technology, apparently unfit for academic purposes.

However, as an increasing number of schools and faculties are beginning to open accounts in social networking sites – principally in Facebook and Twitter – to take advantage of the benefits of the networked and transparent transfer of information, and as students continue unrelenting in their use and enjoyment of social networking sites, a greater understanding by both parties of the educational potential of these services is beginning to emerge. Students have discovered that learning is no longer bound to the confines of the school building and schools are beginning to realise that teaching students how to use these technologies effectively for academic purposes is essential if they want their students to engage in the use of social networking appropriately, less sporadically and more spectacularly.

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 K Held


CONLON, T. and SIMPSON, M. (2003) ‘Silicon Valley versus Silicon Glen: The Impact of Computers upon Teaching and Learning: A Comparative Study’ British Journal of Educational Technology 34(2) 137150

HUGHES, A. (2009) Higher Education in a Web 2.0 world. Bristol: JISC. [Online] Available from http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/generalpublications/2009/heweb2.aspx Accessed 02/06/2010

KING, T, DUKE-WILLIAMS, E, and MOTTERSHEAD, G (2009). Learning and Knowledge Building with Web 2.0 Technologies: Implications for Teacher Education. 2009 Knowledge Building Summer Institute, Palma de Mallorca, Spain, August [Online] Available at http://userweb.port.ac.uk/~kingt/research/Majorca-Paper-draft1.pdf Accessed 27/12/2010

LEVINE, A. (2005) “Worlds Apart: Disconnects Between Students and Their Colleges” in Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, Richard H. Hersh and John Merrow (Eds) New York: Palgrave Macmillan

LIVINGSTONE, S. (2009), Children and the Internet, Cambridge: Polity

McLOUGHLIN, C, & LEE, M (2008). The Three P’s of Pedagogy for the Networked Society: Personalization, Participation, and Productivity. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Volume 20, Number 1, pp. 10–27

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

SCRIMSHAW, P (2004) “Enabling teachers to make successful use of ICT.” Becta [Online] Available from http://www.kenttrustweb.org.uk/UserFiles/KICT/File/ICT/support/enablers.pdf Accessed 03/05/11

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. I agree that a key problem is the that that students see social networking as exactly that: social! My experiments with class blogs have been partially successful, but students, even excellent ones, rarely used their French blogs to read each others’ work or to communicate between themselves. Your summary seems very apt to me. So where do we go from here?

    1. Expecting students to want to do things simply because technology is involved often results in what you describe. I say this from my own experience. Students are simply not used to using these tools for academic purposes and therefore it comes as a shock to them that you might want them to use the tools they use to play… to do work! 

      You are doing the right thing though. You are experimenting and learning how to exploit these new possibilities, establishing and (hopefully) sharing good practice as you go.

      Where do we go from here? Well, in my opinion schools need to establish organic policies governing the use of social media, not just the abuse – which is currently mostly the case. Essentially students need role-models. By taking a stance in which we ban instead of educate, no modelling of good behaviour is provided and therefore students will continue to regard the use of these tools as not real work, assigning more importance to other, more traditional activities… because that is the current role model we area providing. 

      Thank you for your comment Steve.

  2. ‘Do secondary students wish to interact with their teachers online?’ Great question. We carried out a survey about tech use with our student body and over 65% of students did not want to share their twitter accounts with the school/teachers. However over 90% were in favour of the BYOD policy as opposed to the 1:1 Mac policy. Technology adoption is very much about human attitudes towards technology then about hardware and software alone.

Your feedback and comments are very welcome