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The Human Factor: The Connection Between Social Networking and Learning

by Mary Arnold

October 18, 2011

Column

by Mary Arnold

October 18, 2011

“Often, as training professionals, we believe that we need to plan a strategy for using social media to enhance learning. In this case, it looks like a hands-off approach is reasonable, and it may even support retention and engagement.”

Retaining and engaging students or employees is a goal so important to organizations that they invest significantly in employees and consultants to develop talent management strategies. A study of Facebook use among university students, published last year, examined one way that social media use can help. (See References at the end of this column.) The researchers found that student participation in an online social network may, in and of itself, lead to positive learning outcomes that could support the goals of retention and engagement in a university setting.

The Facebook factor

The design of the study was relatively simple. Using a combination of focus groups and surveys, researchers asked university students a series of questions related to how often they used Facebook, how socially accepted they felt, how comfortable they were with the culture of their university, how they felt about themselves, how satisfied they were with university life, and how successful they’d been in meeting their own academic goals. The intensity of the students’ Facebook use served as a stand-in for their level of engagement in social networking.

On average, the students who took part in the study spent just under an hour and a half on Facebook every day, mostly connecting to their friends from high school and their current college classmates. The study did not suggest that the students intended to use Facebook to support their academic endeavors.

Even so, the data showed that participation on Facebook seemed to support the students’ success in the university in two ways. First, and not surprisingly, engaging with other students on Facebook supported social acceptance of their peers. Second, engaging with other students in the university helped them acculturate to the university. It’s easy to imagine how this might come about, with students sharing their planned activities on their Facebook pages, some of which would occur within the university. Social acceptance and acculturation, the study found, were related to enhanced self-esteem, satisfaction with the university, and proficient academic performance.

What this means for your organization

The researchers never intervened in the students’ Facebook use. They didn’t encourage or discourage its use, nor did they suggest alternate ways or reasons to use the tool. So, it’s likely that the outcome is the result of students using the tool in the way that’s most natural to them. The researchers go on to suggest that, if a university wanted to enhance the effect, they might develop some interventions that incorporate Facebook as part of their orientation or pedagogical approach.

The findings – enhanced satisfaction with the university and academic performance – have interesting implications for training professionals and those charged with talent management, in addition to university staff. And the suggestion that planned activities within the tool might lead to greater success is a familiar one to the many training professionals who work to construct experiences in social media in the hopes of positive learning outcomes.

Since both students and other age groups widely use Facebook in their daily lives, it’s easy to imagine that the effect might extend to other age groups and be useful for other organizations. Why not build on an already existing effect provided by a free tool?

Some objections

Well, organizational policies, for one. Some organizations discourage or outright disable the use of Facebook and other social media on work computers. Also, an extended period of company time spent on social networking is probably just unacceptable. And, let’s face it, the content on Facebook is not guaranteed to be HR-friendly.

Also, in a corporate setting, Facebook interactions between the company and employees could do more harm than good. It’s easy to imagine a well-meaning HR department accidentally alienating employees with policies requiring employees to disclose their social media accounts, or asking employees to “Like” a company post, and so on. One way to mitigate the risk is to replace popular social networking tools with internal company-sanctioned tools, but in that case, the company might not get as robust an accidental effect. After all, the students who responded to the survey probably logged in with the simple intention of having fun with their friends, and they accidently experienced some positive learning outcomes.

Conclusion

The findings are intriguing, and potentially useful beyond the original scope of the study, but for a somewhat surprising reason. Often, as training professionals, we believe that we need to plan a strategy for using social media to enhance learning. In this case, it looks like a hands-off approach is reasonable, and it may even support retention and engagement.

References

Yu, A.Y., Tian, S.W., Vogel, D., Kwok, R. (2010). Can Learning Be Virtually Boosted? An investigation of online social networking. Computers & Education, 55, 1494-1503.


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