Higher education structures are rapidly changing. Traditional libraries that were synonymous with bookshelves have since been replaced by digital libraries. Students have turned to new media resources such as videos, e-books, and DVDs as sources of knowledge and information. Social media is one of the internet tools that have changed the education sector in a big way. This change touches on all levels of education. Social media refers to media that is created to enhance social interaction. Educationists have defined social media as “web-based and mobile applications that allow individuals and organizations to create, engage, and share new user-generated or existing content, in digital environments through multi-way communication” (Greenhow, 2009). Currently, the most popular social media platforms include Twitter and Facebook. The integration of social media and online education has spread throughout the world. Online education is in three distinct forms. The first form of online education involves the use of computer networks to solidify the face-to-face mode of education. The other form of online education involves the “use of networks to facilitate the entire learning process while the last mode involves education through both computer networks and face-to-face mediums” (Robinson, 2011). The pure online mode of education has been the main beneficiary of social media tools. Institutions are turning to online education courses to provide affordable and quality education to students. This paper uses past research to explore how social media can be utilized by online courses.
Social media technologies are also known as the Web. 2.0. These media innovations include various communication forms including wikis, social networks, personal blogs, and virtual worlds. Five characteristics make social media a useful tool in online education platforms. These characteristics include community, creativity, convergence, collaboration, and communication. Social media tools help turn the world into a community. The communities that are formed by social media tools bear similarities to the communities that are formed by institutions of higher learning. Unlike other learning communities, the ones that are formed through new social media are ‘inclusive and democratic’. According to Johnson (2007), modern tools of social media are a great equalizer and they foster equality. Online education can benefit from the communities that are formed through social media.
There is an ongoing debate revolving around the question of whether digital technology transforms old media into new media. However, it is common knowledge that new media tools promote creativity because they accommodate easier editing. Social media in particular promotes creativity because it enables students to make changes to any piece of information. For instance, social media allows users to comment on new information, alter pictures, and add new voices to videos. All these activities promote creativity and are beneficial to higher education. Creativity is an important aspect of learning and this mode of learning would promote it better.
The mode of communication that is fostered by social media comes in different forms. Social media allows multi-directional communication, networked communication, viral communication, and networked communication. Moreover, most social media platforms are designed to overcome the challenges of traditional communication methods (Motiwalla & Tello, 2001). For instance, social media leads to a faster and wide-range mode of communication. Social media communication would help educators achieve several objectives of online education. For example, educational faculties can send segmented information to groups of students using social media.
Collaboration is another important aspect of higher education. In today’s learning environment, Wikis provide the most effective tools for collaboration. In past studies, it has been revealed that wikis are relevant in the work, study, and social environments (Johnson, 2007). Using social media can enable students to benefit from global collaboration. In addition, some social media platforms like SecondLife provide online students with an advanced form of collaboration. Therefore, the element of a collaborative environment that comes with social media would be a valuable asset to online students. Wikipedia is the most popular collaborative tool of social media and it has been of help to students around the world.
Social media provides an important convergence tool. Convergence refers to the phenomenon through which activities and tools are brought together to optimize processes. For example, companies that only make phones can achieve convergence of their technologies by starting to make cameras and computers. In the education sector, convergence involves optimization of the learning process. In addition, the process involves making sure that students have access to all learning materials. Social media shortens the physical distance between processes considerably. For example, after students are done with the theoretical part of their study, they can be linked to resources that can help them gain practical experience via social media platforms. One researcher (Hynes, 2003), poses the question of whether “technology convergence drives consumer convergence and vice versa”. Modern online education can benefit greatly from the convergence that is made possible by social media platforms. This convergence brings together producers, consumers, developers, and distributors.
There have been several studies exploring how the use of social media can enhance a student’s online experience. For instance, Haythornthwaite (2008) “examined the distance learners’ interactions in class and profiled students’ roles and information exchange among distance learners’ social networks”. In another study, it was proven that a student’s level of social network involvement had a direct impact on his/her academic performance (Baldwin, Bedell & Johnson, 2007). There are several aspects of social interaction that determine how social media would benefit a student. The most prominent aspect of this interaction is the type of network that can be formed through social media. Types of social media interactions include friendship networks, advice networks, and adversarial networks. An online course can pursue any of these networks depending on its requirements.
Recent research has found that online courses can “improve the financial prospects of leading universities while posing financial challenges to lesser-known institutions and for-profit colleges” (Azevedo, 2012). The success of online learning is largely dependent on the students’ level of involvement in the educational process. Students help in creating a viable learning environment and act as a source of motivation for the lecturers. In addition, good instructors only act as facilitators of the learning process. The use of social media technology in online courses was also covered in a study by Hovorka and Rees (2009).
In online learning, the need to achieve efficient communication can be achieved through online discussions. In addition, email chains can help in reaching multiple students using a single communication channel. However, social media has revitalized online courses through the introduction of tools such as student blogs, Twitter discussions, and video presentations. In the learning environment, a learner’s ability to work and communicate with other learners is valuable (Robinson, 2008). Online learning seeks to foster critical thinking, adequate communication, and problem-solving skills among students. Social media presents educators with numerous tools that enable online students to review other students’ work. For instance, blogs and blog responses are great collaboration tools. These social media tools also support life-long learners to pursue their goals. Academic institutions encourage their students to embrace collaboration to prepare them for the workplace environment (Friedman, 2010). Online learning also seeks to foster creativity among students. Moreover, online learning represents the most advanced form of education. Therefore, combining online courses with the latest form of digital media is bound to revitalize higher education. Social media is modeled around the ‘production line mentality and it is meant to fit into the age of enlightenment. Therefore, social media is an important component of online education. Standardization in education only kills creativity and lowers the quality of education. Compared to other forms of education, online courses present the least standardized form of education. One of the goals of online education is to internationalize higher education. Social media is a global form of digital media and it provides a lot of support to the internationalization agenda of higher education.
Using social media tools in online education helps in improving the integrity of higher education. Researchers have been exploring the social media factor in online education because the use of social media has been spreading to all spheres of life including the education sector. Researchers note that social media accounts for the majority of internet traffic globally (Johnson, 2007). The use of social media in online courses fosters several abilities among students including critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. Social media improves communication, creativity, collaboration, convergence, and the learning community. Failing to adopt social media tools in online education can contribute to making education ‘obsolete’. Furthermore, social media is only a part of digital-based changes that have occurred in the education sector recently including online libraries and digital presentations.
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