Social media’s evolution from a groundbreaking phenomenon to an everyday staple has generated widespread discourse on its role and influence in modern life. Notwithstanding the calls for its abolition by some critics, its ubiquity suggests that it is here to stay, necessitating a thoughtful approach to its application. Particularly interesting is the notable increase in social media interaction among everyone, including undergraduate students, during the COVID-19 pandemic, as documented in a March 2021 Vox article. This surge, driven by the need to bridge the gap of physical isolation, highlighted the urgency to scrutinize how these students engage with digital platforms. Being not only consumers but also active content creators, examining their social media usage reveals much about their cultural identity expression. In this piece, we explore how social media, as a pervasive cultural force, impacts the educational journey and engagement of undergraduate students while shaping their persistence and success in academia. We present our research alongside the narratives of Abigail and Charlie, shedding light on the far-reaching implications of social media’s pervasiveness in the realms of instructional design and the well-being of both faculty and students. This exploration aims to unravel how this digital interplay extends beyond merely influencing educational engagement, delving into its impacts on the broader academic experience.
Enhancing academic community through social media
Research highlights the crucial role of community in academic success (Major, 2022). Social media has emerged as a tool for creating a portable community, transcending the formal structures of academic settings. Students often engage with peers outside their immediate academic circle, including those who previously took the same courses. This extends to groups offering social and psychological support, facilitating identity affirmation.
Discussions on social media encompass a range of topics, from teaching styles and content comprehension to spaces for students to express themselves and share course insights. Some students already possess a well-established sense of community in academic and non-academic digital spaces (Plotts, 2020), which they bring into their learning environments for additional support. In essence, social media offers a portable and customizable sense of community across various spaces, enriching the learning experience.
Instructors can broaden community and connection, going beyond traditional classroom boundaries while retaining academic standards by leveraging social media. Social media allows for sustained connectivity outside the physical or virtual classroom, which is particularly significant in today’s educational landscape because Generation Z—including most of the current undergraduate and K-12 population (Pew Research Center, 2020)—is deeply entrenched in social media culture (Morrell, 2021). They don’t just consume content; they are prolific creators, sharing everything from memes to video narratives, steering and riding the waves of trending topics, and curating their online personas with aplomb (Cohen & Kahne, 2013 & 2015). How students have come to navigate these digital spaces is deeply intertwined with cultural practices, shaping and reflecting their online behavior. These skills are worrisome for some educators due to the informal nature of online social spaces. However, these skills, when initially applied in a learning environment, engage learners in meaningful learning experiences, increase student motivation, and allow for more diverse representations in digital spaces (Cohen & Garcia, 2008; Montgomery, 2018). Despite some instructors’ concerns about implementation challenges and potential downsides, a collaborative approach to cultivating a classroom community culture can make social media integration more effective.
Integrating social media in academia compels educators to rethink the concept of community culture, a facet often overlooked in classroom settings. Community culture, as defined by Plotts (in press, p. 54), is “the way individuals within the community interact and shape their collective identity using norms, values, attitudes, and the need for human connection to foster meaningful learning outcomes.” This involves establishing norms, values, and language around the application of social media, socialization, and learning. It helps individuals understand their place within a larger community and their level of investment in it.
In sum, our examination of social media’s role in academia reveals its potential to not only enhance educational engagement but also reshape the broader academic experience. It offers a unique opportunity for students and educators to create and maintain a dynamic and interconnected learning environment, one that acknowledges and integrates the evolving nature of community and communication in the digital age.
Student spotlights: Abigail and Charlie
In our research, we encountered Abigail (pseudonym), a multiracial nursing student whose social media savviness aids her personal and professional aspirations, and Charlie (pseudonym), an anthropology student whose non-binary identity informs their digital expression and connection. Both individuals recognize the importance of social media platforms in their personal and professional lives, yet they also acknowledge the challenges and drawbacks associated with them. Three themes emerged from their interviews with Abigail and Charlie, representing themes across the other twenty-three interviews in this research.
Varied purposes for social media usage
Abigail and Charlie utilize social media, though their approaches and intentions significantly differ. Abigail harnesses these platforms strategically for her bakery business and personal connections. She adeptly uses social media for advertising and customer engagement, reflecting her savvy in navigating the digital landscape for professional growth. “Social media is vital for my bakery’s visibility,” she notes. “It’s where I connect with customers and showcase my products.” Her strategic, business-driven use of social media contrasts with Charlie’s approach.
Charlie’s engagement with social media is more oriented toward personal enjoyment, connection, and creative expression. They are deeply involved in role-play writing communities, finding them central to their social life. Charlie reflects on this personal aspect: “The role play writing communities have been a cornerstone of my social life. They’ve introduced me to people who have become my closest friends.” This demonstrates that social media can serve various purposes, from professional promotion to cultivating personal and creative interests.
Identity and cultural expression in the digital space
Abigail’s experiences on social media intersect with her cultural identity, leading to a notable incident where she faced backlash for not adhering to religious standards. “I’m Jewish, culturally and genetically,” Abigail shares. “When I advertised one of my breads, it unexpectedly sparked outrage in a local religious community for not being kosher. It was bewildering to be accused of cultural appropriation when I am Jewish myself.” This incident underscores the complex dynamics of cultural identity in digital spaces.
Charlie, while not facing similar direct attacks, understands the potential for online misunderstandings and the complexities of sharing personal views on digital platforms. Their awareness emphasizes the need for cautious online engagement, particularly for those with marginalized identities.
Dynamics of identity and social media interaction
Charlie’s experience with social media is significantly shaped by their gender identity. They found a sense of belonging and support in a Discord cosplay community, particularly during the isolating periods of the Covid lockdown. “We each grappled with our unique challenges,” Charlie recalls. “This community became a source of support, sharing stories and exploring characters that resonated with our queer, disabled, or minority identities.” Such experiences highlight how social media can provide vital connections and representations for individuals who might feel marginalized or unseen in mainstream narratives.
For Abigail, social media interaction is interwoven with her cultural identity, occasionally leading to controversy, as in the accusations of cultural appropriation. Her daily engagement on these platforms is driven by both business needs and personal connections, highlighting the multifaceted role social media plays in her life. Both Abigail and Charlie recognize social media as a “necessary evil,” acknowledging its importance for connectivity and information yet also being aware of its potential downsides, like the flattening of discourse and the risks of sharing opinions.
The experiences of Abigail and Charlie highlight the diverse roles of social media in the lives of young, diverse individuals. Abigail utilizes it for business and cultural engagement, while Charlie uses it for personal expression and exploring their non-binary identity. Both recognize social media’s potential for professional development and community support, but also its challenges, like misunderstandings and identity representation complexities. Their stories emphasize the importance of a nuanced, empathetic approach to digital communication, especially in varied educational contexts, reflecting the intricate relationship between social media, identity, culture, and community.
Enhancing classroom culture through social media engagement
In light of the dual nature of social media, as evidenced by our research and the experiences of Abigail and Charlie, educators are presented with a distinct opportunity to leverage these platforms to enhance classroom engagement. This approach acknowledges the potential challenges while capitalizing on the positive aspects of social media.
For instance, educators can utilize social media as both an interactive educational tool and a subject of critical study. Implementing initiatives like creating a class blog, orchestrating collaborative projects on social platforms, or facilitating in-depth discussions about the societal impacts of social media can significantly enrich the learning experience.
To assist educators in harnessing the culture-building power of social media in educational environments, we propose a series of strategies. These guidelines are designed to facilitate collaboration between educators and students, nurturing a vibrant community culture through thoughtful social media integration in the classroom.
- Co-create social media guidelines: Initiate a collaborative process to establish clear social media usage guidelines in the classroom. This should involve discussions around desired uses, expectations, digital etiquette, and the purpose behind these online interactions.
- Define learning objectives: Align social media activities with specific learning objectives from the course content. Ensure that the use of these platforms contributes meaningfully to the overall educational goals, whether through general announcements in online courses or as tools for enhanced learning.
- Establish a community identity: Work together to create a unique identity for your social media community. This might include a special hashtag, group name, or theme encapsulating the collective learning journey.
- Promote knowledge sharing: Highlight the importance of sharing knowledge via social media. Motivate learners to post relevant articles, resources, and personal insights, enriching the collective learning experience.
- Create a safe space: Collaborate in making social media a secure platform for expressing diverse opinions and experiences. Develop strategies for addressing conflicts or concerns effectively.
- Implement weekly peer moderation: Encourage students to take turns as peer moderators or discussion facilitators within the social media group, fostering a sense of shared responsibility and collaborative leadership.
- Connect social media to real-world applications: Guide students in linking their online interactions to real-world contexts, both professionally and personally, underscoring the practical relevance of these digital skills.
Through these strategies, educators can effectively integrate social media into their teaching practices, transforming it from a mere communication tool into a dynamic space for building community, fostering inclusive participation, and enhancing the learning journey.
Social media provides a portable and customizable community for students seeking additional supportive communities. The community of construction can offer needs-based solutions, social support, and/or meaningful affirmation tied to an identity that is crucial for successful learning outcomes. This does not mean that every community will be affirming as in Abigail’s case; however, it does ensure that with provided and supported access, all students have the opportunity to build the communities they desire. Social media reflects the spectrum of human emotion and can be a powerful educational tool. We’ve presented our findings on its potential to foster resilience and connection among students. Your thoughts are invaluable to the conversation. How do you see social media shaping educational practices and student identity? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.
Staci Gilpin, PhD, an esteemed adjunct faculty member at the University of North Dakota, and the University of Wisconsin-Superior. She is dedicated to the advancement of teacher education, both at graduate and undergraduate levels, employing various teaching methods to enrich her courses. Dr. Gilpin’s academic journey began in K-12 education, where she gained invaluable experience as a teacher, instructional coach, and special education administrator. A respected voice in her field, Dr. Gilpin is a regular presenter at prestigious conferences such as the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), OpenEd, and the AERA National Conference. Her commitment to accessible education was further recognized with her selection as a 2020-2021 William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Open Educational Resources Fellow. In addition to her research and teaching, she contributes to the academic community as an author of open textbooks. For more insight into her current projects and contributions to the field of education, Dr. Gilpin’s website is an excellent resource.
Courtney Plotts, PhD, is an author and speaker, and former national chair of CASEPS. She is also the founder of Neuroculture.
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