MET:Social Network Sites in Formal Learning Environments

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This page was originally authored by Benjamin Ferrel (2013).



This article uses the principles of New Literacies and the theory of participatory culture developed by Henry Jenkins (2009) to suggest several key reasons for integrating social networking technology into formal learning environments by leveraging contemporary information and communication technologies to empower students as active creators of knowledge and culture.

Social Networking Sites (SNS) have become ubiquitous within the student culture of primary, secondary, and tertiary educational institutions. However, within formal learning institutions, the integration of sites like Facebook into curriculum has been limited, and in the case of some primary and secondary school districts, systematically restricted. This type of institutional censorship inhibits schools from providing students with the education required to engage with online cultures and communities in as safe and productive of a manner as possible. Schools must provide students with the tools needed to successfully mediate their unprecedented access to information, and help mentor their development into healthy online citizens. [1]

With the rapid development of information and communication technologies, the line between formal and informal learning has migrated to a divide in the digital terrain. On the formal learning side students use educational sofware and engage in controlled and contained online experiences, and on the informal learning side is the participatory culture of Web 2.0, where software has created a platform where students are active participants in online communities, actively shaping their identities, and interpreting a powerful stream of multi-modal information. The study of New Literacies has developed a greater understanding of the skills required for students to engage in the complex interactions associated with the forms of communication that make up a student's online experiences outside of school. The skills that some students develop by actively creating and sharing online content and developing their online identity are becoming valued in the modern workplace. [2] Students who do not have sufficient access to either the required technology and networks, or to online mentorship and guidance, will not receive an important piece of their education. Therefore, as a fundamental aspect of education, students should be given open access to the internet and mentorship in being a responsible digital citizenship. Schools should strive to empower students by providing them with the skills needed to capitalize on the educational potential of participatory cultures. [1]

Participatory Culture

According to a study conducted for the Pew Internet & American Life project, over 50% of American teenagers have created media content, and approximately 30% of teenagers who use the internet have shared their content online.[3] One of the defining characteristics of Web 2.0 is the way that content is created, shared, and reworked or adapted amongst a cloud of users that are connected by threads of shared aquantinces, interests, or skills. User generated content has exploded in volume, and the websites with the largest number of users, such as Youtube and Facebook, are used almost exclusively for the purpose of displaying and sharing user generated content. The distinction between amateur and professional content has become much less significant, with video taken using hand-held mobile devices regularly being aired on national newscasts, and highschool students producing videos that are viewed many millions of people. This presents a substantial levelling of the content production playing field, resulting in a culture where creativity and self-expression have become highly valued, and clever teenagers can find ways to lobby politicians and start highly profitable businesses. This is what Jenkins describes as a participatory culture.


Jenkins (2009) defined a participatory culture based on five characteristics.

A participatory culture is a culture:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one's creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is know by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

Jenkins et al. 2009[2]

The social mesh developing on the platform of Web 2.0 has become a participatory culture in which people with access to the requisite technology can connect, create, critique, share, and revise content across a spectrum of interests and communication modes. Clouds of information and users are continuously driving the evolution of online culture, and as participation in this online culture grows, so to does its influence in traditional cultural venues such as the home, workplace, and school. This online participatory culture has empowered young people with increased agency in influencing the nature of their social arena, and as a result, online culture is becoming central to lives of young people capable of accessing the platforms. [4]

The first characteristic of Jenkins' definition of a participatory culture, that of low barriers to participation and expression, when considered in the context of online participatory culture, suggests that technological requirements and website restrictions produce gradients of accessibility to online participatory cultures across demographics and institutions (see Digital Divide). Limitations in the access to these online cultural platforms must be addressed in order to provide everyone with both the opportunity to participate, as well as the education to help them interpret and mediate their online experiences. Schools are a technological access point for students at large, and so limiting access to social networking and content sharing sites within schools disproportionately impacts students without access to the internet at home. Also, by pushing a student's interactions with social networking sites outside of the realm of formal learning, students are left to fend for themselves in developing the skills required to enter into online communities as a productive and engaged member. Instead of taking a restrictive approach to the challenges associated with open access to the internet, Jenkins (2012) argues that educational institutions should venture to help all students leverage the participatory nature of online social networking by supporting and encouraging the creation and sharing of ideas and knowledge, providing mentorship in the development of students' digital citizenship, and providing assessment and certification that adapts to a student's personal learning path.

Benefits of Incorporating Social Networking Sites into schools

The key, then, may be to promote features that are integrated with the learning goals of the environment. However, one of the affordances of open platforms is that participants are free to do as the please (Squire, 2006) and may gravitate towards features that do not serve the needs of the learning goals. Attending to which features users already see as interesting and important and determining how participation with these may be endogenous to learning goals could be another way to address this trade-off. (Halverson, 2011, p.65) [5]

Open, educated access

The incorporation of computers and digital technologies into school curriculum has been met with large amounts of enthusiasm as well as skepticism. The current legislation found in most jurisdictions formalizes the exclusion of social networking sites within the borders of formal learning institutions at the K-12 levels. Jenkins (2012) argues that the filters used to block unwanted websites, such as Facebook, often block sites desired by teachers for instruction (such as Youtube) or block traditionally valued literary works because of the presence of blocked words. This form of censorship is based on broadly imposed criteria that do much to hinder access to the valuable content available online. Technology-saavy students are also able to learn methods of circumventing institutional filters using information available online and developing a basic understanding of computer syntax and network protocols. [1] Instead of using algorythms to standardize and limit internet access based on parsable criteria, mature adult role models should provide guidance for youth navigating and mediating their online experience.

Jenkins (2012) argues that "school librarians can help bridge the gap between the excitement of having students experiment with new forms of social learning and new digital-media practices, and meeting the obligations of institutions to promote responsible citizenship." [1] According to Jenkins, responsible online behaviour should be taught and modeled by teachers, and librarians should act as "infomediaries" who provide guidance and instruction in how to find and assess reliable sources of information online. The role of helping students use the internet for research is not sufficient unless this is in an open access environment so that infomediaries can help students interpret the streams of information they encounter in their online social interactions. Libraries have traditionally been sites where students interact in a relatively unmediated way with large amounts of information, and therefore provide models for educators to consider how to approach new social media. Blocking access to unwanted online sites ensures that students will encounter the challenges and questions around digital citizenship on their own. On the other hand, providing an infomediary to help them shape their sense of ethics and morals relating to their online social experiences will allow students to confront these challenges with the same support that they experience in their traditional studies.

Jenkins (2009) suggests that engaging in a participatory culture has several benefits that should help to convince policy-makers of the importance of teaching students the skills necessary to engage in participatory cultures supported by Web 2.0 platforms. Immersion in web 2.0 environments requires students to draw on new literacy skills in order to consume, interpret, evaluate, and rework the multi-media signals they are responding to. As areas of interests will vary within a community of students, some students will only interact at a superficial level with particular study areans, while becoming deeply invested in learning complex skills and adding to fields of knowledge in other fields. Based on this variety, participatory cultures enabled through social networking have the potential to create a diversity of cultural expression, as well as the development of specific skills that are becoming recognized and valued in the modern workplace. [2]

Jenkins (2009) listed these new skills developed within online interactions as including:

  1. Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
  2. Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
  3. Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
  4. Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
  5. Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.
  6. Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
  7. Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
  8. Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
  9. Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
  10. Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
  11. Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.


Connected Learning

Connected learning is a model of learning developed to capitalize on information and communication technology in order to provide students with a production centered educational experience that focuses on peer-collaboration over open networks. Connected learning builds on the Barab and Duffy's (1998) concept of communities of practice [6] by employing the power of social networking technology to provide students with a extensive peer and knowledge network in order to develop their knowledge in areas that are of interest to them. Social software tools provide students with access to global communities in order to exchange ideas and build knowledge, effectively developing agency over their own education, development of expertise, and career planning. [4] Connected learning is therefore a hyper-modern expression of student centered learning pedagogy, however with connected learning, the student is both at the center of their individual learning plan and within the periphery of the learning plans of many of their peers. In order to attain this type of interconnected student centered learning, informal modes of learning must be incorporated into a student's formal learning experience. [4]

Affinity Spaces

The idea of affinity spaces was developed by Gee (2004) as an informal learning environment where a network of people which transcends age, race, gender, and class are connected through the pursuit of a common endeavour. Similar to a community of practice, affinity spaces provide individuals with the freedom to contribute in a way that most suites their skills and interests, while working with a group with a collective purpose. Affinity spaces may be based around specific subject matter, development and innovation around a skill domain, or even the development of fictional storylines. The benefits of affinity spaces lie in the generally authentic nature of the task involved, and the creation of transformative communication practices that result in knowledge building. Creating affinity spaces within schools would provide students with a platform to engage in self-regulated learning, and allow for peer-to-peer learning to connect novices with mentors besides their teachers. [7] Therefore, activities must be developed that use affinity spaces to allow students to develop their expertise in fields that they are interested in, and then deploy this expertise in meaningful interactions with their peers. The creation and development of affinity spaces can help instructors meet the need to support students' control over not just the format of their responses or methods of research, but of the entire process surrounding. [4]

New Literacies

(See also New Literacies) New literacies include reading, authoring, and navigating online and multi-modal texts and multi-media communication methods which are characterised by continuous change in how these mediums are used to communicate information. [8] The Handbook of New Literacies describes four principle components of new literacies:

  1. New technologies for information and communication require new social practices, skills, strategies, dispositions, and/or literacies for their effective use.
  2. New literacies are essential for full civic, economic, and personal participation in a world community.
  3. New literacies are dynamic and rapidly changing as the defining technologies evolve.
  4. New literacies are multiple, multimodal, and multifaceted.

(Coiro et al., 2008, p.42) [9]

The nonacademic communicative literacies that are practised outside of school by students using online social networking sites must be considered in the discourses around public education with the goal of formally establishing new literacies as being an important dimension of a student's overall development. [8] New literacies include reading, authoring, and navigating online and multi-modal texts and multi-media communication methods, and are characterized by need to adapt to the continuous change in how these mediums are used to communicate information. [8]

Participation Gap

The skills young people develop while engaging in the online participatory cultures of social networking sites have become a secondary curriculum outside of the official state curriculum provided within schools. The success of students to learn and apply the lessons of this secondary curriculum will be a component of what allows them to succeed in their adult lives, or what causes them to fall behind their more successful peers.[2] While some educators argue that students can acquire these skills on their own, there is research that suggests that unequal access to technology based on demographics will inhibit some youth from developing the skills required to actively participate as citizens. Some youth may have strong support of adults or positive role models as they engage in online activities, while many may be left without mentors to help in the development of their personal online practices and in linking online activities to meaningful educational opportunities. In order for the education system to provide all youth with the opportunity to fully engage in society, equipping youth with the skills required to actively engage in online society must become part of the mandate of public education institutions.

The Ethics Challenge

Traditional forms of training and socialization that have prepared countless generations for their roles in society do not apply directly to the public roles that young people find themselves in through their engagement with social networking sites. Issues of cyber-bullying and the posting of private or stolen information are symptoms of this lack of guidance that have emerged into mainstream culture, however there is a steady flow of lesser-known forms of exploitation and abuse that occur throughout the digital realm. Jenkins (2012) argues that instead of legislating social media sites outside of the boundaries of formal learning, policies should encourage educators to model responsible ways of acting in these new cultural and societal arenas.

Examples of Social Network Sites built for Learning

Participatory cultures present opportunities for youth to engage in a community in a way that is relevant to their lives and provides them with a sense of engagement and empowerment. The use of Web 2.0 social networking software for educational applications has been shown to facilitate active learning where students frame and build knowledge within their own experiences [10] Three examples are provided below which demonstrate different formats which can support social networked learning environments.

Quest Atlantis

Quest Atlantis is a virtual environment based on constructivist pedagogical theory where players develop the environment by building communities based on several different sets of architectural values and aesthetics. The environment is meant to provide an alternative for students to showcase their skills and knowledge in the medium of 3-D architecture and within a platform that allows for collaboration with peers using social networking technologies. [11]

Although enables users to create their own stories, read and comment on the stories created by others, and collaborate with and build on work done by other authors. Through the process of reading, writing, commenting, reviewing, and revising, users develop their skills of writing as well as their sense of connection with a community engaged in literacy and literary practices.


Ning is a platform similar in design to Facebook, but that allows for the creation of closed networks. It is a useful option for instructors who wish to create develop the use of social networking within their class, school, school district, etc. but who are either not comfortable with using Facebook or who work in an institution that does not allow the use of open social networks.

Stop Motion Video

Benefits of Incorporating Social Media in the Classroom by Jessica Shea:


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Losh, E., & Jenkins, H. (2012). Can public education coexist with participatory culture? Knowledge Quest, 41(1), 16-21.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Margeret, W., & Robison, A. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation: Chicago.
  3. Lenhardt, A., and Madden, M. (2005) Teen content creators and consumers: More than half of online teens have created content for the internet; and most teen downloaders think that getting free music files is easy to do. Pew Internet & American Life Project: Washington.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 McLoughlin, C., and Lee, M. J. W. (2010). Personalised and self regulated learning in the Web 2.0 era: International exemplars of innovative pedagogy using social software. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(1), 28-43.
  5. Halverson, E. R. (2011). Do social networking technologies have a place in formal learning environments? On the Horizon, 19(1), 62-67.
  6. Barab, S. A., and Duffy, T. (1998), From practice fields to communities of practice. Center for Research on Learning Technology Technical Report, 1-33.
  7. Zywica, J., Richards, K. A., Gomez, K. (2011). Affordances of a scaffolded-social learning network. On the Horizon, 19(1), 33-42.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Greenhow, C., and Robelia, B. (2009). Old communication, new literacies: social network sites as social learning resources. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14, 1130-1161. DOI:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2009.01484.x
  9. Coiro, J., knobel, M., Lankshear, C., and Leu, D. J., (2008). Central issues in new literacies and new reesarch. In J. Coiro, M. Knobel, C. Lankshear, & D. Leu (Eds.), Handbook of research on new literacies (pp. 1-21). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  10. Chelliah, J., and Clarke, E. (2011). Collaborative teaching and learning: overcoming the divide? On the Horizon, 19(4), 276-285.
  11. Peppler, K.A., and Solomou, M. (2011). Building creativity: collaborative learning and creativity in social media environments. On the Horizon, 19(1), 13 - 23.