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Social Media in Higher Education

Chris Rowell

Part One. Introduction

1. From a Tweet to a Blog, to a Podcast, to a Book

Chris Rowell

Texte intégral

1This book brings together a variety of different people working in higher education (HE) who use social media; academics, researchers, senior managers, academic developers, learning technologists and librarians. That this has not been done before is surprising given the amount of interest there is in this topic. The book also gives a voice to those in the sector who are not academics or researchers. Many of the book’s contributors are used to writing and publishing in academic journals or books, but for some this is a new experience, since they are more used to writing in the newer forms of communication, such as blog posts or tweets.

2It has become apparent for both staff and students working in colleges and universities that the teaching and learning experience is changing. Smartphones and mobile devices are now ubiquitous. Students study and learn using a variety of digital equipment, resources and software. HE staff are also expected to engage with virtual learning environments, electronic forms of assessment and digital modes of communication. Some staff have seen this as an opportunity to develop more open and networked practices, whilst others find the balance between such openness and the maintenance of individual privacy difficult to strike. Still others are curious about these affordances and would like to know more before they change their own practice. Consequently, this book aims to be a guide for those working in academia who are seeking inspiration or for those who are just looking for ways of doing things differently.

3This book also critically evaluates the impact that social media is having in HE. Several themes have emerged from the varied contributions. All of the chapters accentuate the positive aspects of social media but they also highlight some more difficult and contentious issues regarding this mode of communication, such as sexism, racism, homophobia, the pernicious presence of trolling and the abuse of power in these spaces. If institutions are expecting staff to engage with social media in their professional practice how should they be supported? What happens if things go wrong or a mistake is made? These are some of the questions this book aims to answer, and to inspire others to further research and debate.

What is Social Media?

4Given the growing variety of social media apps and websites, is it possible to actually define what social media is? A good starting point is Merriam-Webster’s (2019) dictionary definition, ‘forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos)’. This broad definition is further refined by the inclusion of some defining features that social media incorporates. Social media sites and apps have resulted from Web 2.0 technologies that have seen the Internet environment become more dynamic, interactive and participatory. Indeed, the very lifeblood of social media is the user-generated content, such as messages, posts, comments, images, photos and videos. As this content is shared, users create their own profiles, which in turn adds to their online identity both in a personal and professional capacity. These separate features come together to allow social media users to connect and network with others, sometimes individually but often with groups at a global level (Obar & Wildman, 2015). The scale of the increase in the use of social media in recent years has been phenomenal. As of December 2018 there were 2.32 billion active users of Facebook per month (Statistica, 2019a). To put this in some sort of perspective this is greater than a third of the world’s population. Similarly, at the end of 2018, Twitter had 231 million users per month (Statistica, 2019b), which is higher than the population of the United States. Both at a global and UK level this trend shows no signs of decreasing.

5This book looks at the application of these social media sites, focusing on some of the most widely used in the UK higher education sector: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Medium, and YouTube. The only chapter that some would argue does not fit neatly into this definition of social media is the chapter on podcasting. However, as the podcast itself does generate user content, and they are shared widely on podcasting platforms enabling further discussion and interactions to take place, they exhibit many of the features of social media.

6It is also important to acknowledge the number of chapters in this book that focus fully or partially on Twitter. Indeed, there is a small but growing collection of research literature led by authors such as Georges Veletsianos and Royce Kimmons (2016) and Bonnie Stewart (2015) focusing on the use of Twitter in HE. There are a number of reasons for this popularity. Firstly, its simplicity: a new Twitter user can create their own account, profile and ‘handle’, and be interacting with colleagues in a few minutes. It might take some time to understand the more advanced features of Twitter, but initially at least a new user can be ‘up and running’ very quickly. It doesn’t require a lot of instruction and support to use Twitter, and the user’s account is not linked directly to the institution. Secondly, whilst many HE professionals use Facebook to connect for their personal lives, Twitter makes it very easy to be found and to find others in professional networks. It is very ‘outward-facing’ platform that makes networking and sharing information very easy to do. Thirdly, Twitter has reached a ‘critical mass’ or ‘tipping point’, which means that it is fully established in the sector. If you wanted to find an academic, librarian or profession working in HE they are probably more likely to be on Twitter than any other social media site. Given this, it doesn’t make sense to look anywhere else. Finally, Twitter is one of the most synchronous and spontaneous of the social media platforms. Quick-fire discussions can spark up on any number of topics, from aspects of teaching, leaning, research, academic life, conferences, picket-line activity or just the state of the weather! All of these factors make it ideal for use by many professionals in this sector.

Why This Book Is a Bit Different

7This book is about social media, but it was also created by social media. Once I had had the initial idea for the book I sent out a tweet to my followers asking if they were interested in contributing a chapter, using the hashtag #SocMedinHE. If at this stage the response had been indifferent, or even negative, I don’t think I would have pursued the project. However, I received an overwhelmingly positive response so I then directly invited others to contribute, again using Twitter to send a Direct Message (DM) to certain individuals who work in this field. Within a week I had enough contributors, so I posted a blog post about my book project and gathered more interest. I was using my own social media networks to ‘crowd-source’ contributions to the book. After I received each contributor’s chapter I interviewed the authors and produced a series of podcasts that accompanies this book (see Chapter 1.2). Here the authors talk through the development of their ideas, giving further context for their use of different types of social media. The final stage was to edit the book and group together the chapters into the relevant themes.

8The style of the book also aims to reflect the type of writing seen on social media. All the chapters are relatively short for an academic book (3,000–4,000 words). The language used in the chapters aims to be accessible for a general reader who is not a specialist in this area of research. However, while some of the chapters have an ‘open’ style or are reflections on practice, similar to a blog post, all the contributors have connected their practice to relevant learning theory or an appropriate educational context. References have been kept deliberately short and aim to direct the reader who wants to pursue the topic in more detail to other similar projects or relevant sources of information.

9This book is arranged into thematic sections that are outlined below, but in addition there are several hashtags (#) at the start of each chapter that will help the reader find a route though the book. All the chapters have at least one of the following hashtags; #Beginner, #Intermediate or #Advanced. The #Beginner hashtag assumes the reader has little knowledge about the use of social media. They might have downloaded social media apps onto their devices, such as Twitter or Instagram, and perhaps used these a few times, but they are not sure how these tools could be used in a professional context. The #Intermediate hashtag assumes some working knowledge of at least one or two social media platforms; they might even have used them in an HE context. Consequently, they will be familiar with using an interactive networking platform and the associated terminology that goes with it. There are a few chapters with the #advanced hashtag. These are aimed at the more experienced social media user and they assume a high degree of knowledge and understanding of social media apps (especially Twitter) and how they can be used in a HE context. There are also hashtags to describe the topics and different types of social media covered in the chapter, e.g. #identity or #instagram.

10Although the writing style of all the chapters aims to be accessible, there is a glossary of social media words and phrases included at the end of the book.

Thematic Organisation of the Book

11In addition to the hashtagging system outlined above, this book is divided into six broad themes that reflect the diverse use of social media in HE. Part Two of the book looks at the ‘Professional Practice’ of academics in HE. Sue Beckingham’s opening chapter explores the type of online identity that HE professionals want to project. This identity may not be stable and may change over time, or even between different social media platforms. Once the identity is established, Sue argues that the benefits of sharing information on social media will create discussion, interactions and informal learning. This can, in turn, lead to a ‘networked participatory scholarship’ in which HE professionals can further develop their professional identity, promote their own research or develop opportunities to collaborate with others working in their field. Sue also gives lots of practical information about how to set up, develop and maintain this professional online persona.

12The second chapter in this section, by Timos Almpanis and Martin Compton, outlines how academic developers can use ‘cloud-based tools’ and social media apps to improve the training that lecturers receive. They suggest that we need to move away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ transmissive style of training to more transformative types of continuing professional development (CPD). Their two case studies look at the benefits of introducing social media apps that academics can immediately try, experiencing them from the learner’s perspective. Similarly, Mark Warnes’s chapter on the ‘Ten Days of Twitter’ describes the process of running an online course for staff working at his university. After a brief description of the course content and how ‘digital badges’ were introduced, Mark assesses the impact of the course using the Twitter analytics tool and a course satisfaction survey. As the course was created with a Creative Commons licence it is freely available and has now been run by several other universities.

13In the last chapter in this section, Susan Koseoglu explores the emergence of open and networked scholarship. She notes that social media can have a positive impact on an individual’s ability to build Personal Learning Networks (PLN) through Twitter chats, but there can also be tensions between personal, professional and institutional use. She argues that academics need to have an understanding of networked structures and recognise that these structures often mirror the inequalities and prejudices that exist in society at large. She also highlights the power issues inherent in online networks and questions the premise these that open networks are in fact empowering or a force for change.

14Part Three of this book focuses on how social media impacts the teaching and learning sphere in HE. Alex Avramenko and Chrissi Nerantzi’s chapter ‘Exploring the use of Social Media in a Higher Education Classroom’ is based on their own research into how final year students use smartphones in lecturers and seminars. Within the scope of this small-scale study they noted that all students in their study had used, and continued to use smartphones during classes to access various social media platforms. This is unlikely to surprise those currently teaching in HE and has led some tutors to ban mobile devices in lectures or tutorials. The authors make several practical recommendations for practitioners on how to approach and reengage these students in the learning process. Similarly, Serena Gossain’s chapter discusses how she introduced specific social media tools into her teaching. The case study shows how she used Instagram and Pinterest with students studying a BA in Advertising at the London College of Communications. She explains the rationale of these changes and relates them to contemporary theories of education and learning.

15The next chapter by Paul Kawachi takes a slightly different perspective. Paul shows that social media can help students establish a social presence on their course, but once that role has been created it can be a distraction from engaging in collaborative learning activities. Paul makes reference to social and virtual presence to explain why the use of Facebook has led to improved learning in some case studies, but less learning in others.

16The chapter entitled ‘Bursting Out of the Bubble: Social Media, Openness and HE’, written by three members of staff at the University of Manchester, provides an excellent insight into the blogging platform Medium. The authors discuss the reasons why they chose Medium as opposed to other more conventional blogging platforms and then give some reflections on the experience of delivering the course through this form of social media. The final chapter in this section is by Zoetanya Sujon’s on ‘Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and Understanding Social Media Beyond the Screen’. It has a different emphasis as Zoetanya aims to contextualise some of the learning challenges of teaching social media in the classroom. The study uses Facebook’s interactions with Cambridge Analytica to explore the importance of personal data collection in social media and ‘surveillance capitalism’. It gives practical advice, and examples of different approaches to teaching these topics that other lecturers will find useful.

17Part Four focuses on how social media is used by teams and managers in leadership positions in universities. Julie Hall is Deputy Vice Chancellor at Southampton Solent University. In her chapter ‘Leadership and Social Media’ she argues that good leadership in universities requires effective communication and this includes the use of social media. University staff in a leadership role can use social media to broadcast information to their staff and students, raise the profile of the university and build both external and internal relationships. Julie also outlines how such public engagement can create uncertainty and fear as it ‘fractures’ the more traditional modes of communication.

18Donna Lanclos and Lawrie Phipps approach the issue of leadership from a different perspective. They have both organised several iterations of Jisc’s Digital Leadership course, which brings together leaders in HE to discuss how the digital impacts on their own personal practice and how they can make effective use of social media. They discuss the usefulness and limitations of visual mapping frameworks such as the Visitors/Residents continuum, as well as summarising their own mapping of digital engagement. Like others in this book they note that engagement in social media is beneficial but it can also mirror and even amplify societal issues of racism, sexism, bullying and other issues related to the abuse of power.

19Part Five contains three chapters on building networks and creating cohesion amongst students. David Webster’s chapter considers the role of social media in fostering cohort identity on a Religion, Philosophy & Ethics course at the University of Gloucestershire. Initially a blog was set up to provide a noticeboard and area for debate for the course. This was followed by a course Facebook group, Twitter account and video blog. This short case study shows that social media can reinforce the sense of the communal experience, but it also has ethical concerns that affect minority groups who might experience abuse or troubling interactions. Rachel Challen’s chapter describes how her university used Facebook Live to help new students gain a sense of belonging and orientation before they arrived and during their induction week. Students who had already accepted a place on a course could watch the Deputy Dean of School conducting a tour of the campus and facilities, introducing them to key members of staff and allowing students to ask questions about their course, or related issues. With over 6000 views of the event and really positive feedback from the students, they plan to repeat the virtual tour at the start of the next academic year.

20The next chapter in this section by Margy MacMillan and Chrissi Netantzi discusses how they used Twitter first to connect with one another and then to develop a relationship around their shared interest in phenomenography. Chrissi was using phenomenography as her research methodology in her PhD and initially sent out a tweet asking for help. Margy responded, sent Chrissi some links to related articles and then the conversation took off! This ‘conversational’ chapter is very different in style from the other contributions to the book and is a particularly good example of how social media enables academics to meet those working within their research field in other institutions or even on different continents.

21Pat Lockley’s chapter describes the process of setting up a Twitter conference called #pressedconf2018. During the conference presenters would tweet out their presentation, in a series of tweets over fifteen minutes, which was followed by a Twitter conversation with participants from all around the world. There have been similar conferences, but his was the first with a focus on the use of WordPress in education. Pat shows that this type of conference has many of the benefits of physical conferences but without some of the drawbacks, like travelling to the destination or the cost of the venue/accommodation. The rest of the chapter gives some detailed quantitative data on the participants’ Twitter activity during the conference. This striking innovation has the potential to be replicated by others in HE in years to come.

22Part Six has several chapters on how social media can produce innovative forms of learning in HE. The chapters in this section are very different from one another but they do have one common connection in that they attempt to move seamlessly between the online and physical environments. Dave Musson provides a fascinating insight into how podcasting is being used in HE. First he describes the recent popularity of podcasting and outlines its potential benefits to the HE sector, before highlighting some exceptional examples of how universities are using podcasts both here in the UK and the United States to show off their expertise, showcase their research, provide a window on campus life, or even to celebrate their past students’ achievements.

23Jane Norris’s chapter on ‘Etiquette for the Anthropocene’ is about discovering new way of teaching and engaging with students about global warming and the Anthropocene without increasing their anxiety levels. Jane uses what she calls ‘para-fictional’ objects that move from the physical to the digital realm, as a way to explore digital memes. As part of her project she made and distributed physical badges and then asked participants (mainly her students) to send her photos of themselves wearing the badges, which were then collated on an Instagram site. Jane outlines her rationale for this project and describes the student response, which was not altogether enthusiastic.

24The next two chapters look at how social media can be used to explore spaces on and around the university campus. In Andrew Middleton’s chapter he explains what a ‘Twalk’ is, how to design effective Twalks, and why they create useful and rich learning environments. Drawing on his experience organising several Twalks, Andrew set out some emerging issues that should be considered by academics interested in using and developing such novel, blended social media learning spaces, especially if personal learning technologies are used. Santanu Vasant develops similar themes when discussing academics’ attitudes and practices in relation to learning spaces. Starting with some clear definitions of Twitter chats, Twalks and learning spaces, Santanu outlines how social media can be introduced to raise awareness about the importance of teaching and learning spaces. Twitter chats such as the #LTHEchat bring together developers, academics and learning technologists from different institutions and widen the debate about the spaces we use for learning within the institution.

25Finally Part Seven has two chapters that detail the personal experiences of two HE practitioners. It is often quite difficult to separate out personal and professional use of social media. For many working in HE, the merging of the personal and professional is a new and unwelcome development, whilst others have embraced the trend. Like many librarians working in Higher Education, Andy Horton was an early adopter of using Twitter in his professional practice. He describes its benefits at conferences where he developed his networks though his use of conference hashtags and then later engaging in Twitter chats both in relation to gaming and teaching and learning. These activities led in turn to further collaborations delivering online courses to develop digital literacy skills for both academic and professional staff in the university. Andy does not separate his personal and professional identity on Twitter and his followers are just as likely to receive a tweet on a business law journal as they are on the result of his latest softball game. Neil Withnell traces a similar journey in his use of Twitter and other types of social media, but his emphasis is on the public/private sphere within the healthcare sector. Neil outlines the guidelines produced by professional healthcare associations. He also discusses the personal and professional divide in social media and notes that often, healthcare professionals sharing information as ‘private’ posts compromises their professional roles. Neil notes that the guidelines given by professional associations are closely related their codes of conduct. The online behaviour and conduct of healthcare professionals are governed by these codes of conduct, just as they are in the ‘real’ world.

26For more information follow #SocMedinHE or check out my blog at​



Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2019). ‘Social media’,

Obar, Jonathan A. and Wildman, Steve (2015). ‘Social media definition and the governance challenge: An introduction to the special issue’, Telecommunications Policy. 39: 9, pp. 745–50, 2015.07.014

Statistica (2019a). Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 4th quarter 2018 (in millions),

Statistica (2019b). Number of monthly active Twitter users worldwide as of 4th quarter 2018 (in millions),

Stewart, B. (2015). ‘Open to influence: What counts as academic influence in scholarly networked Twitter participation’, Learning, Media, and Technology, 40, pp. 287–309.

Veletsianos, G. and Kimmons, R. (2016). ‘Scholars in an increasingly open and digital world: How do education professors and students use Twitter?’, The Internet and Higher Education, 30, pp. 1–10.


Academic Developer in Digital Enhanced Learning at London South Bank University. Previously he was Learning Technology Manager at Regent’s University in London, a Lecturer in Economics (1990-2005) and a Lecturer in Education (2005-2010) at the University Centre Croydon. Currently he is studying for a doctorate in Education at the Institute of Education, UCL. His research interests are all to do with learning technology, more specifically the use and evaluation of social media by staff and students in Higher Education. He is also editor of the Association for Learning Technology’s (ALT) blog. He lives in Camberwell, London and is interested in things to do with cycling, photography, travel, politics and London. You can find him on Twitter @chri5rowell and blogging at


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