13 Chapter 11: Utilizing Social Learning in Online Courses

You may have noticed that many online courses utilize social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. While there really is no one right way to utilize social media in a course, there are concepts and designs that work better than others. This section will cover some ideas and suggestions for social media usage in your course.

Designing for Social Learning

While there are many different ways to use social media in an online course, they generally fall into two different categories:

  1. Official Communication: Announcements and other course communications are re-posted on various social media outlets in order to boost their signal with all learners, or to encourage interaction with these communications.
  2. Social Interaction: Learners form connections on social media sites to ask questions, gain assistance from other learners, and possibly form future networking connections. These are less formal and easier to connect with than official course forums.

Additionally, some courses encourage participants to work on social media sites (such as blogs) to create content for the courses that is then submitted to other participants for peer feedback. Some courses (usually MOOCs, but not always) exist completely on social media outlets outside of an official Learning Management System. This form of learning is called connectivism, and MOOCs that are designed with this structure are referred to as cMOOCs (Siemens, 2005). For more details on this topic, see the section on Personal Learning Networks later on in this manual.

The key for designing for social media is to have a clear purpose for what you want to do and then to make sure that you stick with that method. If you are using certain social media outlets for official communication, then make sure this is clearly communicated in the design. If you want participants to use social media for interaction with other participants, then also make that clear.  However, creating a long list of rules for using these social media outlets will usually have a chilling effect on informal usage, so avoid placing a large number of rules.

Please keep in mind that social media is not a safe place for everyone. Bullying and harassment are a major issue on all social networking sites, with most failing to do anything to curb any of it. Make sure to allow alternatives to social networking for your learners, including everything from using pseudonyms to using alternative, lesser-known services to not using any social networking websites at all. Additionally, if you are creating a course for a government owned entity such as a public university, you will need to carefully follow government guidelines for student privacy. For example, in the United States, state universities have to follow FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) guidelines in relation to utilizing social networking websites:

The instructional designer you choose for your course should have a background in all learning design philosophies, including social learning. Be sure to seek their advice for how to design for social learning within your specific course.

Social Networking Websites

Here are specific suggestions for using various popular social networking sites.

First of all, you will want to find a short, but easy to remember code name for your course that is available across all of the social media sites that you want to utilize in order to help participants find your outlets more easily. It could be something related to the course number, ie “econ101mooc.” Space is a premium on some sites like Twitter, so be sure to keep it as short as possible.


Twitter can be a good site to broadcast quick announcements, ideas, relevant news articles, and links to full updates. Make sure your Twitter username is available, and make it match your course hashtag (i.e. “http://twitter.com/econ101mooc”). You can add a fuller course name in the settings. Also, make sure to update the avatar to match your institutional or company logos, and have a graphic designer create a header image that matches any other graphic art used for the course.

Twitter Hashtags

Conversations on Twitter usually revolve around hashtags. You can’t own these, but you do want to pick one that few people use in order to help keep the conversation focused on your course. Participants often search Twitter for course hashtags, so creating one that matches your courses Twitter ID (if you have one) will help put your official tweets in the search result. For example, you would check to see if “#econ101mooc” is used much, and if not – AND it is available as a username – use both of those.

Facebook Page

A Facebook Page (not group) can serve as another official channel for announcements, relevant web links, and other course communications. Your social media coordinator will need to create a Facebook Page with their account and then upgrade you and all other course instructors to group admins. You will want to use the same Page ID that you use for your Twitter username (i.e. “http://facebook.com/pages/econ101mooc”) for consistency. You can always make the display name more descriptive.

Facebook Group

While Facebook Pages tend to be more formal communication spaces, Facebook Groups are more focused on the members and therefore are more interactive. You can create a group in addition to the Facebook Page – some participants tend to favor one over the other for a range of reasons. As with Facebook Pages, you will also want to use the same Group ID that you use for your Twitter username (i.e. “http://facebook.com/group/econ101mooc”) for consistency. You can always make the display name more descriptive.

Google Account (Gmail, Google+, Etc)

As discussed previously, you may need a YouTube account and channel to host your course videos. It is usually a good idea to use the entire Google account that comes along with this. A Gmail account that matches your other social networks (i.e. “econg101mooc@gmail.com”) could serve as a great centralized email for the course (especially in MOOCs). Creating a Google+ page for your course can also serve as an alternative for users that are not fans of Facebook or Twitter. All of these accounts connect and interact smoothly. They also interact with Google Hangouts.

Google Hangouts and YouTube Live

If you wish to have a live online session with at least one or more people in your course, Google Hangouts or YouTube Live are good options. A Google Hangout will allow up to ten instructors or guests to interact online, while YouTube Live will allow unlimited numbers of people to watch a streaming session live. These are then archived on your YouTube channel. Just make sure to do a test run before really using Google Hangouts or YouTube Live as the settings can be tricky. Also be sure to set up the Google Hangout or YouTube Live through your course Google+ page or YouTube account in order to keep everything connected.

WordPress Blog

As you can see, there are many social media outlets to keep track of. One way to connect with all of them is to create content on a WordPress blog. Content created on a blog can automatically be posted to Facebook and Twitter through behind-the-scenes connections (see the “Jetpack” extension for more on this feature). This would be a good way to post announcements – create them in WordPress, automatically post them to social media outlets, and then copy and paste the message into an announcement in your course platform.

Hootsuite, Known, and Other Social Media Managers

There are also several other sites that can help you manage multiple social media outlets. Hootsuite and Known are two of the more popular ones. Other services can also work well. There are also several mobile apps that can help – for example, the iPad Twitter app lets you connect several Twitter accounts in one app. Additionally, Facebook has a mobile app specifically for running pages.


Slack is a newer messaging system that has been growing in popularity recently. It is a good tool for group collaborations that need to be asynchronous in nature. Groups can also share files, videos, images, and other documents within Slack easily. Additionally, Slack can integrate with many other tools like calendars and messaging systems. Slack groups can be organized by channels that are designated for specific topics, groups, or other configuration.

Alternatives to Popular Social Networking Websites

Some or even many of your learners may object to using certain social media tools for many reasons. Some may feel it is not safe for them to have an online presence (often due to real life threats or other issues). Some may object to the ads in various services. Some may not like their personal data being sold to advertisers. These concerns are valid, and you will need to explain these issues clearly to all learners. Additionally, you will need to embrace alternatives for those that have concerns. There are different ways to address concerns:

  • If learners want to be on social media but have concerns about their full identity being online (or maybe tied to specific contentious course content), then discuss the option of using a pseudonym instead of their real one. See “Should You Podcast Under Your Real Name, or a Pseudonym?” by Daniel J. Lewis (focused on podcasting, but applicable to any social media) for a good discussion of the pros and cons of using real names and pseudonyms.
  • If learners are concerned about ads or data, they could explore other services with different polices than the popular services like Facebook or Twitter. For example, see “What are the Best Alternatives to Facebook?” with a chart on how various alternative services handle these issues. Or look into open-source alternatives like Mastodon.
  • For learners that do not want to be on social media at all, create ways for them to complete course assignments in other ways. For instance, could they read other’s tweets and then email their responses to you, or post them in a close discussion board on your institutional LMS/CMS? This may not seem like an ideal solution to some learners, but it does respect the privacy of those that wish to stay off of social media. Some services will offer tools that will embed in courses – for example, Twitter offers a twitter hashtag search result widget that embeds web pages. Adding this in your course would allow learners to see Twitter activity without having an account. You will need to check with the service you want to use to see if this is possible, or search for third party possibilities as well.

Personal Learning Networks

Wikipedia describes a Personal Learning Network (PLN) as “an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from…. in a PLN, a person makes a connection with another person with the specific intent that some type of learning will occur because of that connection”. Connectivist MOOCs utilize PLNs as the main mode of course interaction, but they can also be utilized in any course. One of the benefits of connectivist learning is that participants retain control over their course work and can therefore display their accomplishments to anyone that they choose.

Many of the social learning tools mentioned above are typically used in PLNs. However, instructors should never assume that just telling participants to use these tools will encourage their usage. Lessons will need to be designed to specifically incorporate PLNs into the activities. Activities will need to encourage learners to post work to their social media sites, and then share the link with the course inside of the LMS/CMS platform. Additionally, instructors that are actively using the Twitter Hashtag as well as blogging about the course content will need to encourage participants to join in.

Additionally, a course hub of some type that pulls together participant blog posts, tweets, videos, images, and other work can help encourage learners to participant in social learning. A self-hosted WordPress blog with certain tools installed (see the “FeedWordPress” extension) can be one tool to create a course hub.

If you are interested in exploring these options for your course, be sure to find an instructional designer for your team that is familiar with connectivism and social learning. Further details on these topics are outside of the scope of this manual, but if you are interested in these topics, see the links below:

Diversity in Online Courses

One of the benefits of moving into online learning is the ability to connect with a more diverse audience of learners that many face-to-face learning experiences tend to lack. When adding on top of that a layer of openness or social learning, the diversity can increase even more. However, even within smaller groups that may share ethnicity or location, there are still many sociocultural factors such as religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, and geographic location that will bring in different viewpoints, opinions, and life experiences.

The first step in embracing diversity in online leaning is for instructors and course designers to become aware of the influence that their own unique social and cultural contexts have had on their views. No matter who you are, your unique social and cultural contexts have influenced what you know, how you learned what you know, and how you want to teach what you know. This also means that those unique sociocultural factors place a filter or worldview on your teaching and communication that could be confusing to others from different sociocultural contexts.

We all believe that respect is a major foundation for teaching. Before we ask our students to respect each other’s unique worldviews, we should consider evaluating our worldview to see how it influences our teaching and interactions. There are many ways to evaluate your worldview to develop a sense of cultural awareness. If you need a place to start, one option is the Cultural Awareness Online Continuing Education Course. The audience for this self-paced lesson is nurses, but the awareness it fosters can help people in any field.

Once you have a good idea of how your worldview affects your course, it might be a good idea to review your content and activities for possible issues. Then you will need to develop a system to communicate your expectations of respect and interaction with the learners in the course. Analysis into the Bystander Effect (see “Social Media: The Modern Stage for the Bystander Effect?”) as well as the concept of “the wisdom of the crowds” (see “The Madness of the Crowds” by Tim Hwang) has found that people will generally stand by when they see disrespect or attacks happening online (or maybe even join in the attack where they might not have said anything if they were the only one). Therefore, course designers need to implement guidelines for respect for diversity in their courses. The next section covers this issue.

Safety Issues and Codes of Conduct

Courses offered through institutions or companies often are required to adhere to various honor codes or codes of conduct at all times. However, not all codes are enough to deal with safety issues in all courses, and some institutions do not have them. Additionally, MOOCs will attract many participants that are not officially bound by institutional codes because they are not under the authority of the institution. This can possibly create unique situations when dealing with harassment and bullying that happens online. As an instructor, your top priority should be to create a learning environment that is safe as possible for all learners. Several years of social networking has basically taught us that the community does not always necessarily rise up and expel abusers or defend victims (Brody & Vangelisti, 2016). You will need to develop a Code of Conduct to spell out how you expect participants to act in your course as well as what will happen if they violate the Code. Even though many online courses seem to be fairly safe for most learners, please be prepared to point out the Code of Conduct and enforce it if necessary.

A Code of Conduct should include at least the following components:

  • Harassment free policy
  • Description of what counts as harassment
  • Description of what could happen to those that harass other participants (including you as the instructor cooperating with any legal action that might occur)
  • An encouragement to report harassment
  • A statement that declares these codes apply at all course related activities.
  • Links to all Privacy Statements of all services recommended in the course (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  • Links to avenues of reporting abuse on any services utilized in your course (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

For more rationale, details, and examples of Course Codes of Conduct, please see the following resources:



Brody, N., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2016). Bystander intervention in cyberbullying. Communication Monographs, 83(1), 94-119.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), 3-10.


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Chapter 11: Utilizing Social Learning in Online Courses Copyright © by Matt Crosslin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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