Social Media

Social media, or social networking sites, are websites and internet-based applications that allow people to connect with others and share content in real time. Over the past few decades, social media has evolved from early instant messaging, subject- and demographic-based chat rooms, and blogs to MySpace, Friendster, and LinkedIn and now to the proliferation of Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, among others.

Social media, or social networking sites, are websites and internet-based applications that allow people to connect with others and share content in real time.

So which social media are our students using? According to a Pew Research Center survey of 18- to 24-year-olds, 90% in this age group use YouTube, 76% use Facebook, 75% use Instagram, 73% use Snapchat, and 44% use Twitter (Perrin & Anderson, 2019). Fewer use Pinterest (38%), LinkedIn (17%), WhatsApp (20%), and Reddit (21%).

No social media platform is the “right” or “wrong” tool to use in the classroom. As with any instructional tool, social media is only beneficial if used in a purposeful, meaningful, and appropriate way. Consider the following questions when deciding whether to use social media in designing your course:

  • What is the pedagogical purpose? What is your objective in using the social media platform instead of using the learning management system (LMS), which is Blackboard at NIU, or other university platforms? Could you use a campus tool or application instead and achieve the same outcome? If you can use a campus tool to fulfill the same objective, it may be wise to do so.
  • What does the social media company do with the user data they collect? Are students’ data being mined for commercial or any other purpose by the platform company? What are the implications?
  • Is the platform accessible to all students equally? For example, is it designed for multi-device use or is it designed for single-device use? Does the platform support assistive technology tools for students with disabilities?
  • What are the long-term consequences of social media use in the context of your course? Could a single post from today negatively impact a student in the future? Could an opinion or viewpoint posted for your course “follow” the student and impede their educational or job prospects? (adapted from Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning, 2017)

While social media is becoming more popular within higher education contexts, it is important for those engaged in the use of social media in an academic setting to be sensible of the full spectrum of associated issues. Here are a few important considerations to keep in mind when deciding whether to incorporate social media into your courses:

Credibility & Privacy

Anyone with internet access can set up a social media account and post to it. Therefore, we can help students recognize that the credibility of content found on social media is questionable and should not be considered comparable to peer-reviewed or scholarly publications. As such, social media could prove extremely useful as a springboard for class discussion and analysis. For example, assessing credibility, research, and confirmation bias in view of the “fake news” propagated on social media, over the past few years especially, could become an educational exercise asking students to examine their own social media feeds to analyze and reflect on what they see for a course assignment submitted through the LMS. Through this assignment, students would examine social media academically but retain their mandated privacy of academic records by submitting work securely and privately.

… social media could prove extremely useful as a springboard for class discussion and analysis.

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

The content of social media could be available publicly, depending on the platform’s privacy settings and the settings required for student participation and instructor access. Even if it is private, it could still be made public by anyone with access (e.g. another student in the course) at any point the content exists online. As the Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning (2017) points out, “many employers now research a potential candidate’s social media profile(s) prior to making hiring decisions” (“Statement”). Online communications social media may be convenient ways to communicate with students and others or fun ways to create new opportunities for student learning. However, online communications, no matter who the sender or the receiver, should be considered permanent and may be difficult, if not impossible, to delete in the future.

FERPA provides students with access to their educational records as well as control over the disclosure of those records. Using social media in a course could violate FERPA if any of the following is disclosed without the student’s written consent: grades, class schedule, location, or course enrollment (“Statement,” 2017). NIU’s FERPA guide for faculty and staff cautions that

We should not display student scores or grades publicly in association with names, social security numbers, or other personally identifiable information. If scores or grades are posted, use only a coding method agreed upon mutually by the entire class, which does not include personally identifiable information. The list should be randomly generated, i.e., displayed in such ways that it not appears in alphabetical order by student name. (“Guidelines,” 2015)

If you do have students use social media for your course, make sure that your use of social media does not violate FERPA regulations. Using pseudonyms is one option for students who do not want to be identified publicly online. Using social media in more creative ways that don’t require students to share their social media activity with others is another way to maintain privacy of student records. Since FERPA does not explicitly cover social media, we must be careful when using social media as part of our course activities, especially as a measure of assessment.

If you do have students use social media for your course, make sure that your use of social media does not violate FERPA regulations.


Social media’s ubiquity makes it a tempting tool for classroom learning. However, we must be aware of the privacy laws that protect students, as well as ethical implications of requiring students to post class work in a public (or even “private”) social media environment. Consider your objectives for using social media before doing so, and assess whether those objectives could be met using more secure methods to share student work and course content.


Guidelines on the Integrity and Confidentiality of Student Records at Northern Illinois University. (2015). Retrieved from

Perrin, A., and Anderson, M. (2019). Share of U.S. adults using social media, including Facebook, is mostly unchanged since 2018. Retrieved from

Statement on Guidelines for the Use of Social Media as an Instructional Tool. (2017). Retrieved from

Selected Resources

Cooke, S. (2017). Social teaching: Student perspectives on the inclusion of social media in higher education. Education and Information Technologies, 22, 255-269. doi:10.1007/s10639-015-9444-y

Jang, Y. (2015). Convenience matters: A qualitative study on the impact of use of social media and collaboration technologies on learning experience and performance in higher education. Education for Information, 31, 73-98. doi: 10.3233/EFI-150948

O’Brien, M., and Freund, K. (2018). Lessons learned from introducing social media use in undergraduate economics research. International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology, 14(1), 4-16. Retrieved from

Samuels-Peretza, D., Camielb, L. D., Teeleyc, K., and Banerjeed, G. (2017). Digitally inspired thinking: Can social media lead to deep learning in higher education? College Teaching, 65(1), 32-39. doi:10.1080 /87567555.2016.1225663

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Suggested citation

Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2020). Social media. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from

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