Using Social Media to Retain and Connect with Students in the Shift to Online Education

Social media icons indicate how instructors can use it in their online classes

COVID-19 has upended normal social connections that develop between students and professors. We are missing the connections that develop through casual interactions in office hours, pre-class discussions, post-class questions, and any other in-person interaction. These social connections are important for student retention, academic development, diversity, and inclusion. As universities and faculty grapple with the shift to an online education system, and as uncertainties and budget concerns about the fall semester take hold, strategies to maintain student-faculty connections should be a top priority.

As we thoughtfully shift our courses online, we must also strategically consider how to best replicate or innovate to develop social connections. While maintaining a connection with students should be a university wide initiative, in the short run, faculty can assist by developing their own student connection initiatives. The purposeful use of social media presents a great opportunity for educators to connect with their students and recreate some of the social connections that are lost due to online education, while also providing new ways of developing connections.

We present 10 tips for using social media to maintain and develop social connections during this mass transition to online education. We focus here on Instagram because we have personally found it to be where our students most like to engage with us, but these tips apply for whatever platform you choose

Tip 1: Use social media to complement your traditional communication

The move to engage students via social media might feel unnatural for professors. We know from research that faculty are hesitant to use social media platforms. However, social media allows professors to reach students in new ways. In addition to teaching, there are benefits for educators and researchers to build a social media brand. Your initial inclination might be to try to avoid adding something new to your course, and that might be a wise consideration for new content and new assignments, but we recommend thinking of this as a complement to your current teaching and communication methods. We are all hungry for social connection, even more so in a socially/physically distanced context. Social media interactions can be an opportunity to connect with current and new audiences and even help build a brand for you and your institution.

Tip 2: Find your platform of choice

Pick one social media platform to build on. Look for a platform that allows students the choice of being passive or active participants. Research finds that students prefer one-way connections with faculty. The one-way connection allows students to follow you, but not necessarily require that you follow them. Twitter and Instagram allow for this connection type, and both allow those without accounts to view public sites. The difference between Twitter and Instagram is their primary mode of communication. Twitter relies on text-based communication primarily, while Instagram is image-based. Twitter restricts post length to 280 characters, while Instagram allows you to include a longer caption. Note that you can make a separate account for your student-connection activities if you’d like to keep your own personal social networks separate.

Tip 3: Stay on brand

We have actively been using Instagram @ProfMoryl and @DrAALBahrani for interaction with students, sharing our own #Econselfies, news clips, and other real life examples to illustrate our classroom content, and to share the research and reading life of our discipline. A few weeks into the “coronavirus-teach-from-home-world,” a smart tip appeared online that social media accounts should “stay in their lane” – if your Instagram consists of #smilingdogs, people follow your account to see smiling dogs, not your tips on how to stay healthy during Coronavirus.  Similarly, you should focus on content related to your discipline and your work as a classroom instructor.

Tip 4: But, recognize the external environment and show that we’re all #InItTogether

At the same time, the “social” in social media is a chance to interact with another person in a new way.  Students want to see and hear how you view the world.  Keep the focus on your discipline and your role as a professor, but perhaps broaden your focus and reflect our shared reality. Part of being an instructor is modeling how to be in the world – even this strange new one. Help students see that everyone is struggling, but the effort is worth it to meet their educational, professional, and personal goals. Instagram stories, for instance, because they are more transient and immediate, are a good place to post images from your WFH (work-from-home) day, tips for working/studying at home, and fun questions relating to your discipline area (example – an article discussing shifts in consumer consumption habits and a poll about your favorite Coronavirus comfort food). This conveys that you care about your work and are making an effort to transition, while acknowledging that everyone is still “figuring it out.”  Students need models of resilience, particularly in times of crisis.

Tip 5: Target the “whole” student

During office hours, or a casual after class chat, might be when students hear about your career path or seek guidance for their own professional development. Use your social media platform to provide advice and guidance on internships, career opportunities, skill development, etc. Link to the work your career office or academic advising office is doing to remind students of the wrap-around services your institution provides. Or find resources on LinkedIn or your professional organizations.  Keep students thinking about their personal and professional development goals and provide them strategies to advance their professional development goals, as well as their academic ones.

Tip 6: Use your new tool to engage students

You might normally chat before or after class, during office hours, or in the hallways. Now, make your social media the space where students can “bump” into you and learn what you’re up, while sharing a laugh. Use the interactive features of these platforms, such as polls, questions, and quizzes to allow students to engage with you online. You can share their responses anonymously to create a sense of community and to value their input. You can also create a unique class or group-specific hashtag (#ECON1101SP20) to build community around a class project, student-group activity, or just to connect students virtually. Be sure to search for your hashtag first to make sure it isn’t already in use.

Tip 7: Cross-promote your institution

Remember, student retention is an institution wide responsibility. Work with other parts of campus to build and leverage social connections. Administrators and others on your campus are likely trying to do some of the same things. When their content supports your efforts or is targeted for your audience, share it and link to their accounts. This shows students that your institution is united in efforts to support them and that there is a virtual campus and a virtual community of people caring about them and trying to make it possible for them to succeed. Also, show the behind the scenes – snap a picture of your department meeting to share teaching strategies, etc. The buzz of an active academic community is silent in our online world. Let students know that while it may feel like they’re alone or just interacting with a few professors, that same network of faculty and staff are behind the scenes in support.

Tip 8: Build a discipline co-educational space

As we transition away from physical space, we are awarded with the opportunity to cross boundaries that physically restricted us in the past. Co-education and cross-discipline opportunities allow faculty to engage across courses at the same institution or across institutions. Connect with your peers and colleagues within and outside of your own discipline, repost their material, and highlight where those interactions occur. Create interactions that invite this cross-pollination to grow. 

Tip 9: Share your discipline-specific content and analysis on the external event

We have made an effort to be mindful to not use ‘Coronavirus’ examples in our classes even though they are timely and relevant. We recognize that some students are struggling more with the implications of this issue than others, so we should try to keep our class space a crisis-free zone. Social media becomes a space where we can share this content. Students hungry for insight into the external crisis through the lens of our discipline can read/click more, while those who are feeling over-saturated can scroll to the next post.

Tip 10: Share student successes

Your objective is to build student connections, so don’t forget to make it about the student. In a physically distanced world, we can maintain the opportunities to celebrate members of our community through social media. You might call out a student success – fellowship, job, internship – in a F2F class. It is the time of year when students are being accepted into graduate programs and are being recognized for their achievements. Your social media account can be a way to celebrate that student (with their permission) and remind others of what is possible for them.

Abdullah Al-Bahrani, PhD, is associate professor of economics and director of the Center for Economic Education at Northern Kentucky University. He is an advocate for increasing diversity, inclusions, and belonging in the field of economics. His research on innovations in economic education has been published the Journal of Economic Education, International Review of Economics Education, Southern Economic Journal, and several other outlets.

Rebecca Moryl, PhD, is associate professor of economics at the School of Business & Management at Emmanuel College, Boston.  She was a Fulbright Scholar teaching economics, training faculty, and developing curricula in Rwanda in 2019. With more than 15 years teaching experience, Dr. Moryl has become a leading author in the area of effective economics instruction, particularly regarding use of innovative teaching technology.  Her papers have been published in the Journal of Economic Education, International Review of Economics Education, and the International Journal of Statistics and Economics.