Overcoming Hurdles to Social Media in Education

min read

Key Takeaways

  • According to a recent study, 100 percent of colleges and universities surveyed use social media, but instructors use it far less for teaching than they do for personal or professional reasons.
  • Of those who use social media for instruction, most use video in the classroom and many use blogs and wikis.
  • Concerns about cheating and privacy top the list of barriers to adoption, though these concerns — like many of the others cited — are decreasing as time passes and social media becomes more prevalent.

Social media has made its way into higher education. A 2010-2011 study of social media adoption by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth analyzed the most recent trending of social media use among four-year accredited institutions in the U.S. and found that 100 percent of the colleges and universities studied are using it.1

Many higher-education professionals are using social media for marketing and communication, but faculty are also adopting it in the teaching and learning process. This is particularly true in online and blended instruction, as more educators see value in leveraging Web 2.0 technologies with their students.

Here, I'll discuss the findings from our recent survey at Pearson Learning Solutions, which highlighted faculty concerns about social media. I'll also discuss how those concerns might be mitigated for some of the more common social network sites.

Survey: Social Media and Higher Ed

In this podcast, author Hester Tinti-Kane interviews Jeff Seaman of the Babson Survey Research Group.

This slide show shares results of the survey in graphical form (27 slides).

In 2010, Pearson began a partnership with the Babson Survey Research Group to study trends in higher-education faculty's social media site usage for personal, professional, and instructional purposes. Responses from a total of 3,875 faculty members from across higher education were included in our 2012 study. The results show that faculty are very aware of social media, but levels of social media adoption for teaching purposes lag behind both personal and professional use (33.8 percent for teaching compared to 44.7 percent for professional and 64.4 percent personal use). Responses showed blogs and wikis as the social sites most often employed in teaching; approximately 20 percent of respondents used them at least monthly.

The 2012 study shows that faculty are growing more sophisticated in their use of social media, intentionally using certain platforms (such as Facebook) for personal use, while using others for professional use (LinkedIn) or  instructional purposes (blogs and wikis). This usage pattern might be linked to more experience on social sites, which are pervasive in today's culture.

One area where faculty adoption is almost universal is in the use of video for classes. More than 80 percent of survey respondents tapped into online sites such as YouTube for video to use in their teaching. Whether using it in class sessions or assigning it for outside viewing, many faculty members are enthusiastically bringing video into their teaching. Also, some faculty members — weary of the vast array of YouTube content that is not relevant to teaching — are using EduTube.org or TeacherTube.com, educator and student-friendly sites for sharing the best content with their classes. From the survey:

"Any higher ed online instructor who doesn't create videos for their courses is missing a key tool for student engagement."
—Full-time law faculty
"I started exploring YouTube and found many different kinds of videos that I could use to supplement my online literature classes…. I've found that students are now more interested in literature since it has become more fun and entertaining through the use of multimedia."
— Yvonne Ho, associate professor, American Public University System

Although the research shows that faculty use both social media and networking sites in teaching, it also shows significant levels of faculty concern around using these sites.

Barriers to Adoption

"I would do more with technology if I had more time to develop things and if I had more direction as to what is instructionally effective."
 —Linguistics/language faculty

The survey looked at eight barriers to faculty use of social sites for teaching:

  • Integrity of student submissions
  • Concerns about privacy
  • Separate course and personal accounts
  • Grading and assessment
  • Inability to measure effectiveness
  • Lack of integration with learning management system (LMS)
  • Takes too much time to learn or use
  • Lack of support at my institution

Respondents showed considerable concern around all of these barriers, but the first two worried faculty the most.

More than 70 percent of faculty viewed student submission integrity as the largest obstacle to social media use in teaching. How do you know that the student behind the computer is really who they say they are? Unfortunately, "cheating" has always been an issue at some level in education, and technology has introduced new opportunities for students to be dishonest with their schoolwork. Ongoing concerns about the authenticity of online submissions have been documented in surveys of faculty who teach in that modality.2 This authenticity concern is broad, has a long history, and is not related solely to teaching with social sites. Given its extensive coverage elsewhere, I'll focus here on the second largest barrier to social media for teaching and learning: privacy concerns.

One consistent finding of the research was that female faculty members are more likely to express concerns about privacy than their male counterparts. The survey revealed that two-thirds of female faculty members believe that privacy is an "important" or "very important" barrier to the use of social media, while less than three-fifths of male faculty felt the same way. These concerns mirror those seen in the general public, where Pew Research reported that women were more likely to keep their social media profiles private than men.3

In general, privacy concerns by faculty are warranted. A 2012 Consumer Reports survey of 2,002 online households — including 1,340 that are active U.S. Facebook users — revealed that approximately 28 percent share their wall posts with an audience beyond their friends and approximately 13 million users either didn't know about or hadn't cared to set their Facebook privacy settings.4

One possible reason for this is suggested in a study by social media consultants Siegel+Gale, which showed that Facebook and Google's privacy policies are harder to comprehend than the average bank credit card agreement.5 If a privacy policy takes too much time to figure out, many people will go with the default setting, which on Facebook is to "share everything."

For many institutions, social media policies are non-existent or "gray," so the risk of crossing lines is high, especially where privacy is concerned. However, survey results do show that faculty concerns around social media in general are decreasing over time. The largest decrease in concerns from 2011 to 2012 was for "Takes too much time to learn or use," which might be due to the pervasiveness of social sites today.

Popular Sites: Addressing Integrity and Privacy Issues

When it comes to using social media for teaching and learning, faculty members might be concerned about removing the "invisible" barrier between instructors and students for various reasons. When you're responsible for students, as an instructor, and technology is constantly changing, what you don't know can hurt you. Rules created by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) give institutions the flexibility to let students bring the outside world into the classroom.

Below are some strategies for bringing social media into the teaching and learning process while being mindful of integrity and privacy issues. These strategies were shared by faculty experts and by Jeff Borden, vice president of Instruction and Academic Strategy at Pearson's Research and Innovation Center for Online Learning [http://researchnetwork.pearson.com/online-learning].


For instructors who want to integrate Twitter into their teaching without jeopardizing their own or their students' privacy, there are ways to do it. One way is to create a single Twitter account for their class, and have the students manage the Twitter account. Students can tweet from this class account and play an active role in the social learning environment, but they can't tweet from their own, unique user profiles. In this way, students learn what content is appropriate or "tweet-worthy" and, at the semester's end, see what they have done, whom they have interacted with, and whether they have participated in one-way conversations or two-way dialogue. These skill sets can't be underestimated; although the U.S. unemployment rate hovers around 8 percent, job postings requiring social media skills rose 87 percent from 2011 to 2012.6

Gerald Bergtrom, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, is planning another application that involves Twitter's principles, though not the website itself: he wants to limit students to 140 characters of text when they are formulating hypotheses and conclusions. Why? Because even if some academics would call such a character limit stultifying, there is something to be said for being concise where it counts. "It's not using it as a social medium," Bergtrom says. "It's actually using the 140-character strength to force students to gather their thoughts and state clearly a hypothesis or a conclusion."7


Pinterest has rapidly become one of the most popular sites for social sharing for educators. comScore announced in February that Pinterest accumulated 10 million users since it launched, faster than any independent website it had ever tracked.8 Pinterest is a free, virtual bulletin board that lets users pin videos and images captured from around the web and arrange them into different categories. (See the board by Ariana Amorim for an example.) Pins are also shared and searchable, making it a great content-curation tool for instructors. Faculty can pin together images, links, lesson plans, podcasts, and videos into visually appealing boards. They can create resource boards for themselves, other instructors, or their own students, and use the boards for classroom assignments.

Although Pinterest is a fairly easy social sharing site to learn, it offers no privacy controls! Everything you pin is seen by everybody, not just followers. And, once pictures and comments go online, there's no taking them back. Given this, the best approach is two-fold:

  • Think before you pin. Don't post any pictures that you wouldn't feel comfortable showing to anyone — including your parents, kids, students, or co-workers.
  • Don't add any comments that can be taken out of context. If you aren't sure, err on the side of caution.


Another social media site faculty can use as a great instructional tool — and with better privacy protections — is Wordle.net, a tool that generates "word clouds" from text that you provide. Word clouds visually display words, with their size indicating usage frequency. Faculty can use Wordle in a number of creative ways, such as to create a beginning of the year "Get to Know Me" project or a "What I've Learned" year-end course wrap-up. They can also have their students use Wordle to create graphs or to analyze their writing by pasting in their drafts to see if they've used certain words or phrases too often. A YouTube video (7:52 minutes) by John Mansel-Pleydell shows ways to use Wordles in the classroom, and the accompanying Wordle of the U.S. Constitution was created by a student.

U.S. Constitution Wordle

Other Options

For institutions looking to leverage social content and functionality but steer clear of public social sites for privacy reasons, the "walled garden" approach might be the answer. In this approach, instructors let students use social content and toolsets within the environment of an LMS that incorporates social content and tools. This private environment protects students from outside distractions and focuses the social content and tools exclusively on academic use.

Other approaches that provide good privacy controls include letting students create a separate, unique profile specific to academic pursuits, while educators create a private group on a public social network where students participate using their academic profiles. In this way, faculty can ensure distinct boundaries between students' schoolwork and social lives on these sites. When students create a unique profile on social media or social networks for a course, they can engage with others in the space academically and learn in a new way, using tools they are already comfortable with in their personal lives. This brings a new level of engagement and active participation to learning. This work also lets students form bonds with their peers and facilitates community building.

Social Media Use in Higher Education: The Next Chapter

Research tells us that higher-education faculty continue to see significant barriers to widespread adoption of social media use for teaching, and yet these concerns are decreasing over time. Web 2.0 technologies have opened doors to highly interactive online communication and opportunities for user-generated content across a number of types of media. Some faculty embrace using social media, while others keep their distance. The survey shows that of the 33 percent of faculty using social media for teaching, the majority are taking the first step and leveraging social content by asking students to consume it. Others are asking students to use more functionality and curate or share valuable content, while others ask students to comment on the content they consume, and still others ask students to create their own social content on social sites or within a "walled garden"/LMS environment.

Faculty have many opportunities to engage students in online environments with the interactive toolsets they already use. But, as the following quotes show, when the survey asked faculty whether social media sites are/could be effective for building a successful student/alumni community, their views were mixed:

"Yes, they enable the sharing of resources. But they cannot fully replace face-to-face encounters, which are required for successful community building. Social media works best when face-to-face relationships have already been established."
— Part-time natural sciences faculty
"Have tried this; it takes considerable effort to sustain the community and not everybody participates. Too often, a select few dominate the site/group and drive others away (not intentionally)."
— Full-time engineering faculty
"I hesitate to use the word 'community' for online interaction, but it does offer another means for information exchange, which may be particularly useful to very busy students with difficult schedules."
— Full-time humanities faculty

Social capabilities give educators the opportunity to develop interactive, engaging projects and assignments for students and to build learning communities. Social sites let faculty and students share and comment on information, and interact with their peers, instructors, and the learning materials themselves. The social site environment's engaging, interactive nature creates an opportunity for faculty in higher-education faculty to keep the interest of their students and help them build up a network of peer support. The more that faculty members understand the effective uses of social media for teaching and learning, and the better the industry gets at learning how to balance "privacy" within the social sphere, the faster these new practices will proliferate across higher-education faculty and support student engagement and success.

  1. Nora Ganim Barnes and Ava M. Lescault, Social Media Adoption Soars as Higher-Ed Experiments and Reevaluates Its Use of New Communications Tools, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2011.
  2. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman with Doug Lederman and Scott Jaschik, Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, Inside Higher Education, 2012.
  3. Mary Madden, Privacy Management on Social Media Sites, February 24, 2012.
  4. "Facebook & Your Privacy: Who Sees the Data You Share on the Biggest Social Network?" Consumer Reports, June 2012.
  5. Survey Finds Facebook and Google Privacy Policies Even More Confusing Than Credit Card Bills and Government Notices, Siegel+Gale, 24 April 2012.
  6. Abby Lombardi, Hiring for Social Media Skills Begins 2012 with New Highs [http://www.wantedanalytics.com/insight/2012/02/16/hiring-for-social-media-skills-begins-2012-at-new-highs/], Wanted Analytics, February 16, 2012.
  7. Steve Kolowich, "To Profs, YouTube Tops Twitter," Inside Higher Ed, April 12, 2011.
  8. Josh Constine, "Pinterest Hits 10 Million U.S. Monthly Uniques Faster Than Any Standalone Site," Tech Crunch, February 7, 2012.