Should online courses be given through social media?

Topic 4: Design for online and blended learning

During my time as a PhD student at the department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University, I taught several courses in Geographical Information Systems (GIS). While these courses were much appreciated for being flexible, allowing students from around the world with various life situations to participate, they lacked many of the social aspects of learning. This is a common problem for online courses. Because people are geographically disconnected, they become socially disconnected as well. But we live in an age where people know how to connect digitally despite being far away from each other. We use Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Google + and similar tools and we interact there.

So why is it that we are so bad at stimulating collaboration and interactions in online courses when most people are good at social online networks? Why is it that even if there are discussion forums on the course platforms, few students use them to ask their peers for help? There’s something in the design of social networks, perhaps in the structure, that makes it more compelling. In discussion forums you can discuss things that are ordered as subjects. It’s like a public e-mail conversation (I often struggle to come up with a good subject line for my e-mails, and when thinking about it, that’s not how we normally converse IRL). On Facebook, however, we can share a photo of our dog while also engaging in serious political discussions, playing games, chatting privately, sharing news articles, and inviting people to parties. It covers more aspects of our daily lives, and therefore feels more realistic. Many of these activities are actually informal learning activities (McGloughlin and Lee, 2010).

The question is then, how can we design online learning environments that stimulate this type of interaction that Facebook does?

Bates (2016) describes the range of different approaches to online learning starting with online class notes, recorded lectures, webinars and instructionally designed online courses provided through learning management system (LMS). The fifth approach he describes is course “designs based on open education and emerging technology”, e.g. courses using social media tools. These types of courses are better at induce active learning among students, and are better suited for learning in the digital age. The drawbacks of such designs are described as requiring a lot of extra technology skills among the teachers, and that many approaches are so new that very little research exist on its effectiveness. However, if we are ever to be able to evaluate these teaching methods, we need to use them.

The concept of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) refers to the tools and services that learners choose to use for their own learning (Educause Learning Initiative, 2009). PLEs thus empower students to define their own learning path by choosing among a range of web-based tools where they can share resources and participate in collective knowledge generation. Dabbagh and Kitsantas (2012) developed a pedagogical framework for the use of social media “to support Self-Regulated Learning (SRL) in Personal Learning Environments (PLEs)”. They describe three levels of interactivity enabled by social media tools:

  1. personal information management,
  2. social interaction and collaboration,
  3. and information aggregation and management.

Taking the example of blogs, at level 1 instructors encourage students to write a blog as a personal journal where they can set learning goals and plan for course assignments. On level 2 the instructors encourage students to comment on each other’s blog posts. On level 3 the instructors encourage students to make the blog more visible to the public (e.g. through RSS).

From my perspective, these levels of interactivity seem very basic. In the Open Networked Learning (ONL) course we are instructed to do work related to all three levels. Many students, depending on their digital literacy level, will sort these things out without any problem at all. I agree with Bates that a lot of new skills are required for the teacher, who should not only know the topic to be learned and the pedagogic skills to help students learn, but also have a good understanding of the various digital tools out there. I’m finding that my participation in the ONL course is helping me to become just that teacher.


Bates. T., 2016. The 10 Fundamentals of Teaching Online for Faculty and Instructors. Contact North/Contact Nord.

Dabbagh, N. and Kitsantas, A., 2012. Personal Learning Environments, social media, and self-regulated learning: A natural formula for connecting formal and informal learning. The Internet and higher education, 15(1), pp.3-8.

Educause Learning Initiative, 2009. things you should know about… Personal Learning Environments. EDUCAUSE.

McLoughlin, C. and Lee, M.J., 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), pp.28-43.


5 thoughts on “Should online courses be given through social media?

  1. I too agree with you and Bates (2016) that a lot of new skills are required for the teacher, who should not only know the topic to be learned and the pedagogic skills to help students learn, but also have a good understanding of the various digital tools out there. Online learning is not something to be undertaken lightly. You need to do it professionally, or it is both more work and very frustrating.

    Bates, T (2016). The 10 Fundamentals of Teaching Online for Faculty and Instructors. Accessed 20 November 2016.


  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lina. It is interesting to me to read how you have identified the PLE as an environment that encourages more active learning online, as I am currently researching a (similar) topic, being how teachers experience learning through personal learning networks. I really like the way you were able to apply the work of Dabbagh and Kitsantas to the ONL learning experience. Perhaps using this framework we can look at more ways to enrich such a course, by giving students further experiences of each level (e.g. having students curate resources relevant to each topic to develop a shared open resource bank, thus extending level 3. Your post is thought provoking and very interesting – thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Kay! I’m glad you liked it, especially since this is your area of expertise 🙂 I realized that I could have written a lot more in this blog post, especially about PLE and SRL, but I didn’t want to make it too long. I will definitely use these ideas in future course designs!

      Liked by 1 person

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