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How Social Networks Can Positively Impact the Experience of Adult Learners

Greater use of social networks in higher education will allow adult and other non-traditional learners to feel more integrated into their classes.

Social networks are becoming increasingly important in higher education as the format of course delivery changes to include hybrid and online models, and as the social network offers students a way to stay in touch, creating face-to-face like conversations and other interactions away from the physical classroom.

From this perspective, social networks are particularly important for adult learners who often have complex, busy schedules that may not enable them to participate in face-to-face events at their institutions of choice, or may prohibit them from participating during “regular” classroom hours. Online social media participation can happen anytime, anywhere, and fills the need of adult or distance (or both) students to feel connected to their classmates, their instructors, and their institutions.

My experience teaching both face-to-face and online courses with and without the use of social networks has shown me how valuable they can be to overall student engagement. In both cases, before turning to using a social network (in my case, Yammer) as a web course space, I tried using other formats for student engagement such as blogs, wikis, and forums. I found that the “chatty” nature of social networks made a big difference in the kind of student participation I saw and the length, depth, and consistency of student-to-student and group-to-group (many-to-many) interactions that occurred in my courses. Social networks most closely resemble what happens in face-to-face discussions, and therefore resulted in the students feeling more committed, engaged, and known to each other and the course, as well as (potentially) to the institution.

Other factors contributing to the increased engagement with the use of social networks are:

(1) The low learning curve: Most people are familiar with Facebook, and can therefore easily adopt any similar social network without feeling burdened by having to learn anything new;

(2) Familiar faces: The use of a photograph alongside the students and professors or administrators postings goes a long way to heighten a sense of familiarity. Often I found students knew each other and me from the social network so well that when we finally met in person, it felt very familiar;

(3) Student ownership: When students own ideas and conversations, they gain a feeling of participation in the forces shaping their own education, either at the course or institutional level;

(4) The ability of participants to rank each other’s posts and comments: Participants having the opportunity to rank classmates’ posts and comments led to self-editing on the part of students, and a greater attention to the format (and form) in which they were trying to express their ideas. The “like” button was an informal way of grading, and the students adapted their voice to the responses of their classmates;

(5) The ease and speed of questions being asked and answered: I might not be online at 3 a.m., or even 10 p.m., but plenty of students are, and often they could collectively resolve many concerns or quick verifications (i.e. “when is X due”) on their own.

Some potential roadblocks to the adoption of social networks in higher education include faculty feeling threatened that their courses might “run away without them,” or that they need to monitor all conversations. In the traditional model of higher education the faculty “deliver” course content in a one-to-many set up; this is also how most online course delivery systems are currently configured. Opening up the course and creating a conversation as opposed to a delivery model can sometimes seem threatening. Privacy concerns also can be a roadblock to adoption of social networks for some administrators.

With increased use, I think these concerns will seem less dangerous, and the benefits of social networks in higher education will outweigh any anxiety over their use. For adult or non-traditional learners especially, I think social networks will allow for a level of participation and high-touch feel, even for those with unusual schedules, small amounts of time to devote to studying; it will allow even those who reside at great distance from their institutions to feel a part of their education.

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