Creating engagement with social media

As part of my Masters Degree, I researched and wrote a paper on the use of social media technologies in teaching and learning. I looked specifically at how it might relate to constructivist teaching pedagogy, and specifically, if social media could be an effective tool for assisting students in knowledge building and meaning-making activities. This post is second in a series examining the five main themes that I discovered in my research. The first post can be found by clicking here.


1 – Engagement

In examining social media use through the lens of constructivism, the first recurring theme was that of engagement.

While “about three out of four undergraduate students agree or strongly agree that technology helps them achieve their academic outcomes” (Dahlstrom, Walker, & Dziuban, 2013), and undergrads report owning two to three internet-enabled devices, almost 75% of US college facilitators still ban the use of smartphones in class.

In my career as an educator, I see this to be a common challenge. We continually try to engage our learners to become interested, and consequently, delve deeper into the topics at hand. Internet connected technology can be used to increase learner engagement. But while students seem keen to use their mobile devices, they often find them to be a distraction from what we are trying to achieve. Elkind (2004) proposed an answer suggesting that “technology is forcing educational reform, but we need to harness it to the best philosophy of education we have available. I believe this to be constructivism” (p. 312). That’s easy to say, but not as easy to implement. The shift isn’t simple to make, as it needs to happen at three levels: with the teacher, curriculum, and society. Teachers can effectively change their own teaching, but they may have less control over curriculum, and at the societal level, change takes even more time and effort. Communication needs to take place between all the stakeholders such as educators, parents, school boards, and government.

It is easy to find educators who want to get their students interested in the subject material. And I see the challenge myself in post-secondary education, where all too often, students have learned that to survive, they need to study and memorize the content expected of them in order to get them through the next exam. To be sure, this is a successful strategy. What it may lack in retention, it makes up for in efficiency. What interests me from a constructivist standpoint, is the number of studies that show that certain learning tasks can be enhanced by encouraging students to ‘talk it through’ with each other (Palincsar, 1998; Taylor & Cox, 1997; Teasley, 1995). In fact, students simply talking with peers about a reasoning task (without any teacher involvement) still showed an increase in success over students that worked on the problem alone. In other words, even though a teacher didn’t inject any new information, the ‘talking’ students still exhibited better learning outcomes (Teasley, 1995).

But students are talking all the time, aren’t they? We live in an era where learners are connected by so many connected and mobile devices, shouldn’t we be seeing an increase in learning organically? Not quite: “When left unguided, [emphasis added] students will use Facebook in ways that are both positively and negatively related to their engagement, studying, and on-campus involvement” (Junco, 2012, p. 169). From this, we must take heed not to leave students unguided, and hope for the best. We need to use the technology that they are familiar with using, to help them find greater success in what they are learning.

Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license.
Photo:NEC Corporation of America, CC-BY

To this end, when we talk about increasing engagement, we mean to specifically increase the learner’s engagement with the learning, actively working with the information they are gathering. This isn’t the same as simply ‘getting students interested’. Putting snazzy and modern graphics on the cover of a textbook might make it seem more engaging to the student, but their take-up of information in the book will likely remain unchanged. We do want to get students excited about the material, but then, I believe we have to go one step further, and encourage them to engage with the content directly.

All of which leaves us asking, “How do we do that?”

Social media presents an opportunity for educators. If we can avoid gimmickry, and create specific, concrete tasks for students to complete using Internet-connected social technologies, then we are aligning with the research that shows socially constructive learning to be beneficial. Engagement can be encouraged by getting students sharing interesting information with their class, connecting with experts in the field, asking questions that still confuse them, and supporting each other through the daily struggles of academic life. Many educators I know have had success with microblogging (such as Twitter or Today’s Meet), pin-boarding (like Pinterest, Tackk, or my favourite, Padlet), or even photo sharing with apps like Instagram, Flikr, or Apple Photo Streams. It is less important what the particular social app is, but the main goal is to get them to become more immersed in the learning, and talking to each other about it using interpretive conversation. Start off small, and in the words of Jean-Luc Picard, “Engage!”

engage meme

Click here to continue to part 2: Interactivity


Dahlstrom, E., Walker, J. D., & Dziuban, C. (2013). ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology 2013. Louisville, CO: Educause Center for Analysis and Research. Retrieved from

Elkind, D. (2004). The problem with constructivism. The Educational Forum, 68(4), 306–312.

Junco, R. (2012). The relationship between frequency of Facebook use, participation in Facebook activities, and student engagement. Computers & Education, 58(1), 162–171.

Palincsar, A. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 345–375.

Taylor, J., & Cox, B. D. (1997). Microgenetic analysis of group-based solution of complex two-step mathematical word problems by fourth graders. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(2), 183–226.

Teasley, S. D. (1995). The role of talk in children’s peer collaborations. Developmental Psychology, 31(2), 207–220.

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