Published on 2012/06/28

The Time is Now: the Convergence of Social Media and Online Programs in Adult Higher Education

The understanding that social media is an integral part of successful adult higher education programming is becoming more prevalent, making it not so much a matter of if these technologies will be leveraged in the classroom, but when. Photo by Apexdv.

I was talking to my mom the other day, as I try to do regularly. She is a nursing professor, with students from many different age groups. She is also very involved in the development of online education programs. In our chat, she mentioned being at conference recently where she was shocked to find many of her colleagues hadn’t yet incorporated any form of online social interaction or learning opportunities into their lesson plans. Even worse, she said, there were some still completely opposed to the idea. I’m not sure which part of her story shocked me more: that there are still those who completely denounce the use of social media in education, or that my mother, who recently forced me to decide whether or not I would claim her as my mother on Facebook, was the one advocating it (like any good son, I chose to accept her status as “Mother”).

I give my mom a lot of credit. From wikis to blogs to Second Life, she has taken a lot of unique approaches to online social instruction. In my position working in social media strategy at a higher education institution, though, I have the insight to know she’s among the minority—though more institutions are following the lead.

I have come across administrators and faculty who are wary of using social media as part of the education process. Most of this wariness, though, stems more from fear and lack of understanding than any feeling of its absolute uselessness. These folks, however, seem to be fewer and farther between.

A study by Pearson found that 80% of faculty report using social media for some aspect of a course they are teaching [1]. And, no surprise, faculty who teach online are twice as likely to use social media in class as compared to those who don’t. That right there got me thinking.

In a previous article of mine, I highlighted the growing trend of “Baby Boomers” adoption of social media—the fastest growing social media demographic. I also pointed out that because of the current economy, many adults are looking to go back to school. But “going back to school” isn’t so simple for someone who likely has a family and at least one full-time job. Online education is coming in to fill the gap.

The Pew Research Center [2] finds that more than 75% of colleges and universities offer online courses, and enrollment in these courses has increased at far greater rates than traditional enrollment. The biggest shocker in this study for me: nearly 40% of adults surveyed say the online educational experience was equal to that of a traditional classroom. Another study in the Journal of Online Learning & Teaching [3] even found them to enjoy the experience more than their younger counterparts.

I won’t get into the A+B+C of it all, but it seems obvious enough to me that if ever there is a time to incorporate social media into adult education, that time is now. Wikis and blogs are a great way to create and track collaborative, ongoing education [4]. Facebook Groups and Groups for Schools can provide a relatively secure online space for discussion and sharing on the world’s most popular network [5].

Facebook not private enough? Ning and other privacy-centric social networks are used by many medical schools (or you could do what Stanford did and create your own! [6]).  And of course, YouTube [7] and iTunes U [8] have opened up exciting new opportunities for the development of entire social online courses with videos, ebooks, assignments, wikis, and more.

The trends throughout our technological history have shown that the question is not “will you leverage these technologies?” but “when?” I guarantee that ten years ago there were those who doubted online education, much like those who doubt social media in education today.

As my mom always said when I refused something, “You never know until you try it.” And I usually ended up liking it. But don’t tell her that.

– – – –


[1] Mike Moran, Jeff Season and Hester Tinti-Kate, “Teaching, Learning, and Sharing: How Today’s Higher Education Faculty Use Social Media,” April 2011, available from Pearson Education

[2] Kim Parker, Amanda Lenhart and Kathleen Moore, “The Digital Revolution and Higher Education,” August 2011, available from Pew Research Center

[3] Amy S. Gaumer Erickson and Patricia M. Noonan, “Late-Career Adults in Online Education: A Rewarding Experience for Individuals Aged 50 to 65,” Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol 6 (2), June 2010, available from the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching

[4] John Orlando, “Integrating Social Media into Online Education,” Faculty Focus, September 8, 2010, available from Faculty Focus

[5] Nick DeSantis, “Facebook Returns to Campus Roots With ‘Groups for Schools’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 11, 2012, available from The Chronicle of Higher Education

[6] “Stanford medical schools develops private, internal social-networking service to foster collaboration,” Stanford School of Medicine Press Release, October 24, 2011 on the SCOPE web site

[7] YouTube, “EDU,” available from

[8] Apple, “iTunes U,” available from Apple

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Readers Comments

Paul Maurice 2012/06/29 at 9:12 pm

I think social media is so under-used by higher education it’s scary. We need to realize that these are more than just “time-wasting tools” or procrastination devices but, as a previous article pointed out, locations of streams of content.

These services could be incredibly useful as well in the professional development realm

Shazia Ahmed 2012/06/30 at 8:50 am

I would have to disagree with you, Paul (and Matt). I think these outlets are great ways to ensure students have constant access to materials that have been taught, but I don’t think they would be useful in actual teaching scenarios.

I think social media’s greatest use for higher education is in marketing

Matt Roush 2012/07/09 at 12:24 pm

Shazia – Have you or anyone you know had any bad experiences with the use of social media in the education process? I think you’re right in the sense that some approaches, like using Twitter in classroom, could prove to be more of a distraction than an aide. But other things like wikis and blogs, which do fall within the social media category, have proven to be successful in some situations. I think we’re a phase right now where we are testing the waters, finding out what works and what doesn’t.

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