Social Media in Higher Education: Fostering Learner Engagement Through a Sociocultural Approach

Social Media in Higher Education: Fostering Learner Engagement Through a Sociocultural Approach

Joe Terantino (Oklahoma State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-0119-1.ch001


This chapter presents a framework for utilizing a sociocultural theory (SCT) approach to design and implement social media-based learning activities intended to foster learner engagement in higher education coursework. The author discusses the current status of social media, especially as used for educational purposes, as well as the documented learning benefits and challenges. This is followed by an overview of SCT, including its key concepts such as mediation, the zone of proximal development, and scaffolding. Building on these key concepts four pedagogical suggestions are described for fostering learner engagement via social media: provide the foundation for a community of practice, design meaningful and authentic learning activities, guide learners' engagement, and assess learning as a dynamic social process. The chapter concludes with a discussion of suggestions for future research.
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Because of the widespread availability of the Internet, mobile devices, and social media tools, we now live in a world that is more interconnected than ever before. In fact, more than three billion people worldwide are actively using various social media tools (Kemp, 2017) to connect with friends, family, colleagues, and countless others from personal, professional, and academic networks. Traditionally, Facebook and YouTube have dominated social media statistics in the U.S.; however, in recent years younger adults and teens have gravitated toward Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. Furthermore, 88% of all adults 18 – 29 years old in the U.S. report using social media on a regular basis (Pew Research Center, 2018) to engage with others via text, audio, video, images, and combinations thereof. It is this high level of user engagement that distinguishes the more popular tools from others and provides unique opportunities to stay in touch, get up-to-date news, fill spare time, and share information.

Although the ubiquitous nature and significance of social media in our personal lives are easy to pinpoint, the potentialities for such tools to enhance student learning and foster engagement in educational settings are still emerging. Over the past two decades, educators have adopted various social media tools to design and implement learning activities. For example, Chugh and Ruhi (2018) report on 25 peer-reviewed studies that leveraged Facebook for educational purposes. Other publications highlight uses of Twitter (Bista, 2015; Evans, 2014; Kassens-Noor, 2012) and YouTube (Fleck, Beckman, Sterns, & Hussey, 2014; Orús, Barlés, Belanche, Casaló, Fraj, & Gurrea, 2016; Ricoy & Feliz, 2016; Terantino, 2011) in higher education. Thus far, several benefits of employing social media in education have been identified, including but not limited to increased learner collaboration and reflection (Cochrane & Bateman, 2010; Gao, Luo, & Zhang, 2012), increased connectedness with classmates and the instructor (Bowers & Kumar, 2015; Thai, Sheeran, & Cummings, 2019), and increased participation (Evans, 2014; Imlawi, Gregg, & Karimi, 2015). In addition, research in writing studies has identified the potential to reach a broader public audience as a notable advantage for increasing learner engagement (Walls & Vie, 2017). Each of these reports point to overall increased learner engagement of various forms; yet, utilizing social media in higher education also presents notable challenges. In particular, Manca and Ranieri (2017) describe the pedagogical challenges encountered when implementing social media-based activities, including the imperative for applying a relevant learning theory to the design and assessment of such activities.

To address this imperative and ensure maximizing learner engagement through social media tools, we must better situate this type of activity within an appropriate learning theory that enables educators to integrate uses of instructional technology with their pedagogical beliefs. Therefore, this chapter provides an overview for a sociocultural approach to designing meaningful and authentic learning activities to foster learner engagement in university-level courses through the use of social media tools. Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory (SCT) is an appropriate choice for the instructional design of social media-based activities, because it conceptualizes learning as a social process and highlights the impact that social factors and mediational tools have on learners’ development of higher order thinking skills (1978). The overview provided here includes a framework for designing activities, based on key SCT concepts such as development through social interactions, the role of mediational tools, the zone of proximal development (ZPD), and scaffolding. The chapter concludes with a discussion of suggestions for future research.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Mediation: A principle component of SCT. Human actions in the world are enhanced, controlled, and organized by internal tools, such as language, and external tools including physical artifacts.

Sociocultural Theory: A psychological theory that conceptualizes learning as a social process and emphasizes interaction between people and their social, cultural, and historical contexts.

Scaffolding: A teaching method used by instructors and more advanced peers to assist learners in gaining new knowledge and skills.

Project-Based Learning: An approach to teaching and learning that encourages students to actively engaged with and find solutions to real-world problems.

Community Of Practice: A group of people that share a common interest in a defined field or problem. The group members share information and experiences so that each person may learn from the others.

Learner Engagement: The quality and quantity of a learner’s participation in educational activities. Includes behavioral, cognitive, and emotional participation and connectedness.

Guided Participation: A process by which a more experienced person helps another person who is less experienced to become more familiar with particular practices.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): The area of learning that occurs when an individual is helped by an instructor or more advanced peer.

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