Social Media and the Student Experience
The static paper-based School noticeboard is a thing of the past. There is no longer a need, or desire, for small groups of students to congregate around a central location. Advertised events are no longer printed on to poorly reproduced paper flyers and then pinned on to wall-mounted cork boards next to the School’s administration office. However, the need and desire to stay plugged into the student social community has not disappeared; but has been transformed by modern developments in the way students interact with each other. As the educational landscape inevitably shifts towards a more flexible, cost-effective model of providing academic course elements on a distance learning basis, the opportunity for students to interact with each other outside of their immediate social or workshop group is dwindling. This leads to a general lack of cohesion in the student cohort, which therefore impacts on student experience. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and non-proprietary online blogs, such as Wordpress, are an inherent part of the modern student’s life, and the apps which provide the link between these parent sites and the student’s mobile phones, tablets and laptops create an unprecedented immediacy in the way that messages are communicated between users. ‘The ubiquity of social media is no more apparent than at the university where the technology is transforming the ways students communicate, collaborate, and learn’ (Tess, 2013: 60). However, as Roblyer et al (2010: 135) observe, platforms such as Facebook have ‘the potential to become a valuable resource to support their educational communications and collaborations’ with academics. Until now, social media has been primarily used as a separate entity, albeit importantly, to the ‘at university’/offline student experience, perhaps as a means of promoting special events, such as social activities or extra-curricular lectures, or to raise general awareness for a type of regular practice, such as creating specialist groups for online discussions of certain aspects of university life. We see this as a missed opportunity. Correa et al (2010: 248) define social media as providing ‘a mechanism for the audience to connect, communicate, and interact with each other and their mutual friends through instant messaging or social networking sites” but which has “that has little to do with traditional informational media use’. The problem is that the designated ‘social’ areas of university-branded and operated managed learning environments, such as The University of Hertfordshire’s ‘Studynet’ system, and university-run online social media groups on non-proprietary platforms, have tended to be regarded by students as almost a ‘sub-class’ of online social interaction. Many students either opt-out of receiving regular notifications from these groups - thereby negating the benefits of compiling a seemingly large membership - or allow regular notifications, but having their effect minimised as students become inured to the constant stream of information. Although education providers deem this information potentially useful, students acknowledge that is not personally targeted and therefore easy and beneficial to mentally and physically filter it out completely. However, with some modification to the way that social and educational online communities are created and administered, it has been proved that the ‘grey area’ between total immersion and total denial of university-led social media can be achieved. This balance will enhance learning, improve social interaction between students in all programmes and years of study, and create healthy, largely unregulated communities aimed at improving the student experience. With these issues in mind, the research hypothesis addressed in this paper is ‘Despite the general resistance of students towards university-run online communities, social media platforms can be used to improve student engagement, thereby enhancing the student experience’. The authors’ findings, supported by evidence of enhanced student engagement, conclude that huge steps toward optimal implementation of working online communities have been demonstrated.