Making meaning with Social Media

Collage of Book Covers for Social Media Platforms

Images by Jam Zhang: full credits at the bottom of this post

When you hear the phrase ‘social media’, probably the first association that springs into your mind is conversing through short-form messages and shared links or images. You probably also recognise a range of practices, conventions and behaviours, such as collaborative authorship, tagging content to help it be found, a concern with identifying people-of-interest to help mediate one’s own experience and the location of personal artefacts in remote, shared collections. All these have been adopted as normal, expected aspects of just about any application facilitated by internet access, underpinning activity on both public social media such as Twitter and more contained business-targeted services, such as Slack.

As the organisers of Future Happens 2: Social Media Connect : Disconnect, a recent event led by the LSE and UAL put it:

we define social media as being digital platforms that allow the creating and sharing of information, ideas, and other forms of expression related to identity in forms visible to others. These platforms provide the potential for connections, dialogue and discourse through online communities and networks.

The aim of Future Happens 2 was to identify a series of principles that would help higher education institutions and the teachers working in them ‘to make the most of social media in teaching, learning and assessment’. You can read the ideas generated at the event and keep an eye on the evolving outcomes on the Future Happens site.

In many disciplines the practices developing through social media have so affected the way that work is done, that social media and social media use have become part of the curriculum, being topics of study in themselves. In others the impact may be less transparent; here one of the challenges of using social media within teaching is ensuring that the uses will be meaningful for students. The meaningfulness of social media practices for learning was the topic of research with undergraduate students at the University of Alberta, published in a recent article by Erika Smith in the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education. What is striking about her findings is that the practices the students found most meaningful for their studies were closely aligned with tasks that would seem to be directly constructed within the curriculum, rather than with aspects of broader engagement with the discipline, tasks such as collaborative document creation, pooling of useful information and managing study schedules. Additionally, amongst these students at least, there seemed to be little variation in what they found meaningful, regardless of their area of study. Reading between the lines, the students seemed to focus meaning on course assignments. Perhaps the potential and benefit of reaching and engaging with a subject community beyond their peer group can feel too nebulous or tangential to justify the effort needed to cultivate and rehearse these practices.

If, then, we recognise benefit in encouraging students, as part of their learning, to actively explore these practices of sharing, presenting and collaborating beyond their cohort, are there practical tactics we can adopt to make them more directly meaningful for students?

Two approaches that have proved successful in practice are on the one hand focusing the use around specific, time-bound events and on the other focusing it around specific, relevant tasks.

Using Events

One of the difficulties of extracting meaning from interactions via social media is the combination of potentially overwhelming numbers of voices with the pauseless, eddying nature of the discussion. It can feel like trying to follow someone through a hall of mirrors and can be particularly problematic when the experience you have to guide your critical faculties on a topic is uncertain or lacks mastery (i.e. you’re still very much learning). Events, at specific moments in time, can concentrate discussion around a particular area of interest and in a particular place, making it much easier to follow and synthesise the relevant ideas. Academic tweeting, for example, thrives on the focus provided by conferences and tweetchats.

The Public Relations programmes at the University of Greenwich operate a cross-programme group, the PR Fraternity, which organises a series of talks and similar events with leaders from the PR industry. The students collectively promote, record and disseminate these events through various social media platforms. This provides a focus both for rehearsing and critically evaluating their professional practices around social media communications and contextualised exposure to curriculum topics through the content of the events themselves.

Coventry University’s PhoNar module (photography and narrative), was opened up for public online engagement. By turning the weekly activity of the module into an online event and leveraging contacts within relevant industries and disciplines to provide interesting angles on the curriculum, students were positioned at the centre of a wider conversation on social media, allowing them to correlate their specific study within the cohort with ongoing online discussion bringing in a much wider variety of experience than would be possible through the class alone.

Using Tasks

Students can often feel uncomfortable, aware of their relative inexperience within a subject, in exposing their thoughts in a public sphere. Structuring their engagement around the completion of specific curriculum tasks, can provide a focus and purpose to help contextualise their activity. Tasks might include collecting responses to a survey, asking for example cases around a particular topic, or requesting feedback on a previously developed artefact.

For the award-winning ConstitutionUK project, LSE Public Affairs students were tasked with moderating and supporting public discussion around a topic of current topical interest. This gave them a real and meaningful responsibility to the contributors, alongside exposure to range of perspectives and a structured point of engagement within the social media activity, all of which provided content for evaluation and exploration of curriculum topics as a cohort.

These are just a couple of approaches to ensure planned social media activity is embedded and meaningful. If you would like advice on developing activity that uses social media in meaningful ways in your modules, please contact us at

Image credits

Social Media Collection – LinkedIn“,  “Social Media Collection – Flickr“, “Social Media Collection – Facebook“, “Social Media Collection – YouTube“, “Social Media Collection – Twitter“, “Social Media Collection – Tumblr“, “Social Media Collection – Wikipedia“, all by Jam Zhang, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence


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