Social Media CAN Increase Student Engagement, But Is It?

Earlier this week, Eric Stoller proclaimed that “Social Media Increases Student Engagement” on Inside Higher Ed . He went on to describe how we have adopted all these new tools, but questions whether these tools are actually providing revolutionary results.

“Social Media are only as good as we make them. The tools themselves do not build houses nor do they increase student engagement. We do. Practitioners actively create structures that enhance engagement. If there is a “secret sauce” for using social media to increase student engagement, it’s staring back at us in the mirror.”

Although I agree with Stoller’s sentiment, I disagree with his post’s title. In my opinion, I’d say “social media CAN increase student engagement”, but it depends on a few things.

  1. The intentions of those involved
  2. How we are defining engagement
  3. How we are measuring engagement

1. What is the Social Media Intention?

Social Media can be used to foster student engagement, but it depends on the intentions of students and educators. It also depends on the intentions of the people who design the tools. As Douglas Rushkoff points out in Program or Be Programmed, all online tools have hidden biases that have been designed by the companies that run them.

For higher ed, so much effort has been focused on using generic social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, products with a bias towards general social interaction, but they do not serve the specific needs of students or schools.

In order to “keep up with the times”, institutions have adopted marketing practices for the corporate social media-marketing world: maximizing likes, engagement, and followers. Is this meaningful engagement? What goal is it serving?

Of course in order to answer this question we need to define what engagement means.

2. How Are We Defining Engagement?

We have this conversation internally at Inigral and have adapted the question; what is meaningful engagement?

For example, our application data can tell us if a student logs into an institution’s network, browses a community conversation, and whether friendship requests are sent through the network. While all of this is some sort of engagement, what is the value of a visit compared to a friendship creation?

There are many more questions to be answered around this topic. Rey Junco’s research has shown that certain types of online engagement (i.e. creating Facebook events) are positively correlated with student outcomes, while other online behaviors (browsing other students photo’s) are negatively correlated with student outcomes. Full research PDF can be found here.

Of course this leads me to the final and perhaps most important question.

 3. How Are We Measuring Engagement?

Likes, comments, and impressions tend to be the accepted engagement metrics for an institution’s Facebook pages (I’ll stick with Facebook to keep things simple, but these metrics could be applied to other networks as well).

As institutions look to “maximize engagement,” what are they really maximizing?

One of the most poignant examples of this was brought to my attention by a social media manager at a college who shared her most popular Facebook post of all time. The famed post was a picture of a jar of peanut butter for National Peanut Butter Day. This anecdote made me wonder, if every student at an institution liked a picture the school put up everyday, would that do anything for the student or college?

Moving Beyond Corporate Social Media Speak

I believe higher ed needs to look beyond the corporate social media marketing “best practices”, and (as Eric Stoller says) look in the mirror to begin utilizing the internet to it’s full potential. If we continue down the path of generic social media marketing practices, institutions or students may not receive any better service, campus involvement, or data to track, manage and maintain a win-win-win student-to-institution-technology relationship. That may be a run-on sentence, but you get my point.

One last point, which I previously addressed in my Asking Why in Social Media post on Higher Ed Live, a recent study from Buddy Media examined which types of questions asked on Facebook Pages receive the most engagement.

It turns out that questions with the word “why” get half the engagement as other questions. Institutions of higher learning who are supposed to espouse critical thinking skills and create independent thinkers are discouraged from asking “Why?”. While this may seem like a shallow example to some, it exemplifies the problem of solely relying on “engagement” and dumbing down our content to students in order for them to “like” it.

Photo Credit Buddy Media -

 Outside the reigns of social media, this issue is well-documented. I agree with Eric’s sentiments that social media has a lot of potential as students are obviously spending a lot of time on it, but are the generic social media platforms and social media advice really the best thing for higher ed?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think the future of social media and student engagement will look like? Are we headed in the right direction, or have we not stepped back and asked the most important question? Why?

  • Kevin R. Guidry

    I thought the exact same thing when I initially saw Stoller’s post titled “Social Media Increases Student Engagement:”  Yes, social media can increase student engagement, but does it?  I’m glad to know that I wasn’t the only one!

    Even focusing on a link between social media and student engagement risks missing the larger point: “Engagement” is not the goal of most colleges and universities.  We often focus on engagement because (a) we have a solid body of research the links student engagement to positive student learning and other academic outcomes and (b) it’s much easier to measure engagement as a proxy than directly academic outcomes.  So let’s not forget that engagement is usually just a means to an end, not the goal itself.

    Minor point: I haven’t read Rushkoff’s book but the idea that you mention – biases in technology – is described by many scholars as “affordances.”  For example, much of Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet” focuses on affordances linked to generativity or, more simply, the properties of some technologies that seem to encourage us to create and build on top of them.

    • Brandon Croke

      Thanks for adding to the discussion Kevin. The word engagement means different things to different people, and I wish more “detailed” conversations were had around what it means, how we can measure it, and what engagement correlates with real education outcomes. 

      Thanks for the affordance reference, will definitely look into that more.