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Challenges and Opportunities of Social Media  and formal education


Rayhan Ahmed Topader:


Education does not exist outside of the social or technological contexts in which it is located. Thus, it is little surprise that both users and developers are proposing and exposing teachers and students to new affordances of social networking tools. In addition, researchers are beginning to understand and appreciate the learning designs and value that integrating informal social media tools adds to formal education As a long-time advocate for technologically based innovation in education, I am pleased, but apprehensive, about the pervasive and increasing use of these tools in education. As with the introduction of any tool in education, we need to examine the evidence for both its effectiveness and the challenges and problems associated with its use. I hope to add to the discussion by drawing upon both formal educational research and the wisdom acquired through reflective use by myself and others in campus and online classrooms.

Likely the most significant and life changing technologies of the 21st Century is the adoption of social media as major components of commercial, entertainment and educational activities. In this article, I overview the supposed benefits of the application of these tools within formal higher education programs. I then discuss the disadvantages and challenges, with a focus on the paradox that accompanies convenience and value in use, with loss of data control.

It is likely that we will continue to see both authorized and unauthorized use of data that we have created for both personal and institutional use. I conclude by examining some of the solutions proposed and tested to resolve this challenge. I then overview two possible solutions-the first focused on institutions creating and managing their own social media and the second an emergent technical solution whereby users keep control of their data, while sharing and growing in multiple social contexts. Just as variation in tools and their application makes it challenging to assess the general effectiveness and value of social media, so, too, is identifying and assessing the problems that use brings. There are many types of social media and many ways in which they are used. Notwithstanding this variance, researchers find much to be concerned about. Critical thinkers have long suspected that the inherent commercial bias of social media, with a business model based upon promoting the consumption of advertised goods and services, is anathema to educational use. This claim is perhaps unfairly attributed to social media, given the predominance of advertising revenue in all mass media used in education — from many academic journals to newspapers and television. However, no one wants to see the data trails created by ourselves and our students exploited in ways that lack informed consent and in addition are little understood by teachers or students.

On the other hand, we may find the exchange of our time and our data is a small cost for an obvious educational benefit. Users consciously or unconsciously engage in an exchange when consuming commercial media. We give our attention to promoted goods or services and in return we receive some value perhaps a social or educational connection or access to desired entertainment, news or learning opportunity.  As researcher Yuwei Lin summarizes,  the terabytes of data we generate in our interactions on these platforms allows companies to “datafy”, quantify, track, monitor, profile us and sell target adverts to haunt us.

As a personal example, I am tempted to eliminate my use of both Facebook and Twitter. However, I value the insights from others that are shared on particular Facebook groups and the resources and ideas shared by those I follow on Twitter. As a student, I appreciate the notifications that prompt my participation and engagement in learning. Thus, value is created at the cost of my attention. What value can be extracted from the resulting data in the future is currently unknown and of concern both for civil discourse and personal and institutional privacy. Some critical reviewers suggest that social media is not conducive to education as it contains an explicit bias towards conviviality and homogeneity and lacks the critical components of disagreement and discourse.

The phenomena of social media filtering out opposing views has been documented in many applications of social media. Critics point out that social media use and information flow is self-segregated into interaction amongst sets of people with similar political and social views. The social media sites are inherently designed for conviviality. To stay in these spaces in this way is to inhabit a space devoid of the abuse witnessed and experienced by others outside of that community, and one that is at risk of understanding itself as a cyber utopia”. These views seem to be both true and false at once. The effects of living in a filter bubble of like minds is well documented but equally notorious are the often heated and occasionally abusive disagreements aired in these media. The large, centralized social media companies use proprietary algorithms to select content to which individual users are uniquely exposed. It is not possible for a user to understand, much less directly control how the algorithm works to create their unique feed of information. The content served to me is selected by the algorithm. Previous to the development of large centralized social media, I was presented with a host of personal and independent blogs, feeds and emails from which to choose my own web presence. We are now reduced to both consuming and creating content that is then owned by the media companies and served to myself and those who follow the topic in order to influence your purchasing or political activities. The cemetery of neglected blogsis growing and growing with every new social media platform.

Further Greenhow and Lewin theorize that students may practise learning with formal, informal, and non-formal attributes across a wide range of contexts and exercise considerable authority over how they learn, when they learn and with whom”. Thus, the case is made for developing tools that work to expand formal learning into these more public domains. Given the large number of unknowns that mark the use of social media that are described above, what can we expect from formal educational research? When one critically examines the research literature on social media, we come to a number of unfortunate and somewhat discouraging results. Far too much of the research literature is based on case studies and descriptions of use with a paucity of empirical data especially as regards to educational outcomes. In a 2017 systematic review of ten years of social media found “the most prevalent type of study conducted related to our focal topic was research on common uses. The least common type of study conducted was research that established the technology’s effectiveness at improving student learning”.Research relating to “common use” has some exposure value when new tools are being introduced into classrooms but provides very little evidence related to cost or learning effectiveness.There are many reasons for this paucity of evidence-based research and these inadequacies are shared with many other interventions in formal education systems.

Over ten years ago I compared the funding available for Canadian research in health compared to .01% currently allocated for educational research as compared to expenditure. There seems little public or private faith in the efficacy and cost return of education research. I also note the over-representation of research in which the samples are drawn from education students generally and especially those enrolled in graduate educational technology programs. Can we honestly assume that the early adopters drawn to education technology studies are representative of all students or teachers? Finally, as I detail above, the data generated by students and teachers using social media is owned by the social media companies. Researchers are constrained or not allowed to examine and analyse this data such analysis is left to the media company, always hidden and most often used for commercial advantage and external sales. Despite the challenges of low funding, lack of data availability and extensive convenience sampling, I have hope that the continuing increase in power and capability of research tools themselves, will continue to provide us with at least a trickle of openly accessible research results. The creation of this paper has focused my attention on both the challenges and the opportunities provided by social media and likely to continue to develop in the near and long-term future.

Education has unparalleled opportunity to monitor and improve its own practices. Teachers have new ways to connect with students and, as importantly, means to monitor and intervene in student learning so as to increase the efficacy of both teaching and learning. Students have new ways to find, retrieve and share their learning products and opportunities. However, the cost of these benefits currently is reduction in privacy and user control. Continuous monitoring, research and surveillance of the surveillers is of critical importance to the development of educational quality and opportunity. Today social media has become indispensable in our day to day life. It is virtually impossible to distance social media from the learning process. Instead, now we should focus on exploring new avenues of using social media in teaching and learning process because our new generation is so addicted to this media that they cannot think anything beyond this.

Writer and Columnist