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Social Networking and Social Presence

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Regardless of the social network, the results are clearly mixed. Faced with inconsistent findings like these, researchers are quick to point out the importance of up-front planning.





The posting below looks at some of the pluses and minuses of using social network systems such as Twitter and Facebook in classroom settings.  It is from Chapter 4 – Social Presence and Communication Technologies: Tales of Trial and Error by Patrick Lowenthal and Dave Muldein the book, Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Practice and Research, edited by Aimee L. Whiteside, Amy Garrett Dikkers, and Karen Swan. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2017 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Stanford Course Experiments with Ways to Recapture Dynamic Elements of In-class Teaching


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Social Networking and Social Presence


Social networking applications such as Twitter and Facebook have also attracted online educators because of their “social” capabilities; these applications alone have hundreds of millions of regular users. In addition, and perhaps even more important, many of these social network users are already adept (i.e., literate) with socially interacting with others in electronically mediated environments where cues are filtered out (Ostashewski, Reid, & Dron, 2013; Veletsianos & Navarrete, 2012). 


Dunlap and Lowenthal (2009a, 2009b) were attracted early on to the possibilities of using Twitter for social presence in online courses. They found that online courses often lack the just-in-time hallway interactions often present in face-to-face courses. Thus, they explored using Twitter to enhance social presence by providing a mechanism for just-in-time social interactions. They found that students who regularly used Twitter reported that it did help them get a sense that others in their class were “real” or “there.” However, follow-up interviews with students later suggested that although many students liked using Twitter, some hated it, and still many others actually preferred other ways of establishing and maintaining social presence (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2014; Lowenthal & Dunlap, 2011). 

Other researchers have since investigated using Twitter to increase student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction, engagement, and ultimately social presence in online courses (Munoz, Pellegrini-Lafont, & Cramer, 2014; Rohr & Costello, 2015; Thoms, 2012). However, overall, they have had mixed success. For instance, although Rohr and colleagues (Rohr & Costello, 2015; Rohr, Costello, & Hawkins, 2015) found Twitter was effective at encouraging engagement and community in large online classes, Munoz and colleagues (2014) found that Twitter did not help build a sense of social presence with culturally and linguistically diverse students. Bartholomew and Anderson (2010) also had mixed success using Twitter to post class announcements. Bartholomew and Anderson also pointed out that the instructor in their study made little effort to educate students on how to use Twitter in the first place. 


Facebook is the world’s most popular social network; there are over 150 million active users in the United States alone (Statista, n.d.). As such, there are natural benefits of using a social network for educational purposes when millions of learners already log in each day. However, this very affordance can also be a constraint. Facebook is more of a friendship-driven social network than other platforms like Twitter (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2011a); therefore, teachers and students alike can find it uncomfortable to “friend” each other (Wang, Scown, Urquhart, & Hardman, 2014). Despite possible constraints like this (which some address by creating special groups or avatars), educators (online or not) continue to experiment with using Facebook for social presence purposes. 

Online educators like to blame any shortcomings of online education on the LMS (Learning Management System) (Lane, 2009). Therefore, it is not surprising to find that many have turned to Facebook in hopes of a less restrictive experience. DeSchryver, Mishra, Koehler, and Francis (2009), though, found in their investigation of using Facebook as an LMS that participants did not post longer or more frequent messages on Facebook than the traditional LMS. Participants also did not report any higher sense of social presence using Facebook as compared to the traditional LMS. They explained that this could be due to the fact that they did not require students to “friend” each other. They used Facebook only for course discussions, and they still used the traditional LMS for other functions (e.g., grade book, calendar) (DeSchryver et al., 2009). The researchers also suspected that students’ reactions could have been influenced by the fact that discussions in Facebook are not threaded. Despite their results, DeSchryver and colleagues (2009) remained optimistic about Facebook’s ability to develop social presence and recommended further research in this area. 

Wang and colleagues (2014) also investigated using Facebook to create social presence in online courses. They were interested in how students use Facebook for personal and academic purposes. They found that Facebook strengthened relationships in both teacher-to-student and student-to-student interactions and that Facebook was useful for group work, especially in forming groups and facilitating discussion (Wang et al., 2014). 

Regardless of the social network, the results are clearly mixed. Faced with inconsistent findings like these, researchers are quick to point out the importance of up-front planning. For instance, Rohr and colleagues (2015) pointed out, 

From a learning-design perspective, Twitter’s use ought to be carefully considered for suitability to the course’s philosophy, content, and participants’ capabilities. It should be closely tied to other class activities and content, both in terms of topics and timing. Its reason for being used ought to be communicated to students, be it for communication of course logistics, reporting on current events, or other assessment-related activities. 

One additional thing appears to be clear. Just because learners are comfortable communicating in social networks does not mean that they are prepared to use these tools for educational purposes. Additional research is definitely needed on the power of social networks to establish social presence. 




Bartholomew, K.W., & Anderson, J.E. (2010). Using Twitter to deliver class announcements: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Issues in Information Systems, 1 (12), 83-87. 

DeSchryver, M., Mishra, P., Koehler, M., & Francis, A. (2009). Moodle vs. Facebook: Does using Facebook for discussions in an online course enhance perceived social presence and student interaction? In I. Gibson, R. Weber, K. McFerrin, R. Carlsen, & D. Willis (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2009 (pp. 329-336). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. 

Dunlap, J.C., & Lowenthal, P.R. (2009b). Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence. Journal of Information Systems Education, 20(2), 129-136. 

Dunlap, J.C., & Lowenthal, P.R. (2011a). Learning, unlearning, and relearning: Using Web 2.0 technologies to support the development of lifelong learning skills. In G.D. Magoulas (Ed.), E-infrastructure and technologies for lifelong learning: Next generation environments. Hersey, PA: IGI Global, doi: 10.4018/978-1-61520-083-5 

Dunlap, J.C., & Lowenthal, P.R. (2014). The power of presence: Our quest for the right mix of social presence in online courses. In A.A. Pina & A.P. Mizell (Eds.), Real-life distance education: Case studies in practice (p. 41-66). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. 

Lane, L.M. (2009). Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems affect teaching. First Monday, 14(10). 

Lowenthal, P.R., & Dunlap, J.C. (2010). From pixel on a screen to real person in your students’ lives: Establishing social presence using digital storytelling. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(1), 70-72. doi: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2009.10.004

Munoz, L.R., Pellegrini-Lafont, C., & Cramer, E. (2014). Using social media in teacher preparation programs: Twitter as a means to create social presence. Perspectives in Urban Education, 11(2), 57-69. 

Ostashewski, N., Reid, D., & Dron, J. (2013). Scaffolds not handcuffs: Bringing social media into the instructional design mix. In J. Herrington, A. Couros, & V. Irvine (Eds.), Proceedings of EdMedia: World Conference on Educational Media and Technology 2013 (pp. 2199-2204). Waynesville, NC: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. 

Rohr, L.E., Costello, J., & Hawkins, T. (2015). Design considerations for integrating Twitter into an online course. The Institutional Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(4), 241-249. 

Veletsianos, G., & Navarrete, C. (2012). Online social networks as formal learning environments: Learner experiences and activities. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(1), 144-166. 

Wang, R., Scown, P., Urquhart, C., & Hardman, J. (2014). Tapping the educational potential of Facebook: Guidelines for use in higher education. Education and Information Technologies: The Official Journal of the IFIP Technical Committee on Education, 19(1), 21-39.