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Autonomy Vital for using Social Media in Education

As part of my Masters Degree, I researched and wrote a paper on the use of social media technologies in teaching and learning. I looked specifically at how it might relate to constructivist teaching pedagogy, and specifically, if social media could be an effective tool for assisting students in knowledge building and meaning-making activities. This post is third in a series examining the five main themes that I discovered in my research. The first post can be found by clicking here.


5 – Autonomy

The fifth topic that came to light when assessing the educational opportunities of social media is that of autonomy. The ability (and in the case of adult learners, the desire) of the modern student to feel empowered and take control of their own education. And for the teacher/facilitator trying to create a constructive educational environment, this is certainly key. I have listed it last because it is not only important while working with learners, but that it also is an important goal for leaving the student with tools for seeking out further education long after they have left the classroom.

When using or adapting social media to an educational purpose, keep in mind that social media is all about giving the learner control. They are granted the autonomy to decide how to get themselves invested in a task (engagement), how to choose the social media tools to use (interactivity), proceed to build a response to the challenge (creativity), and how to judge for themselves whether they have learned what they need in order to feel successful (self-mediation). All of these previous topics I have presented now come together, and are drawn into a cohesive whole by the learner, when we give them their own autonomy. As a teacher myself, I have seen that when I do not give enough autonomy in the classroom, the students will take it anyways, resulting in a class that seems at odds, or even ‘out of control’.

While there is a definite benefit to granting the learner autonomy, the challenges can be difficult. It is often assumed, particularly in the case of millennial learners, that the student is well versed in the use of social media, and have innate skills in its use. This is not always true. While there is often talk of the ‘digital native’, it should be seen as a social distinction, not one of skill. Students of all ages will still need direction and guidance as to how to use social media effectively. Privacy is also a very real concern that students voice when asked to engage educationally with social media. Students value their privacy, and while they welcome educators connecting and working with social media, they can also be deterred from using social media if they feel that they are unable to keep a separation between their existing, personal lives, and that of their academic pursuits (Dahlstrom, Walker, & Dziuban, 2013). This creates a very real and challenging dichotomy, particularly in older grades, and in higher education, where students want more academic online interaction, but at the same time, are guarding their digital privacy. As an educator, it is important to get a sense of which types of social media are more personal and private. A few that come to mind as being more individual and private are Snapchat, Instagram, and Vine. However, it should be noted, that the ‘usage’ of social media tools changes over time. For example, as we see more commercial entities posting to Instagram, or students migrating to new sites such as Yik-Yak, Tumblr, or even Tinder.

software design should instead focus on the invariant aspects of practices that emerge independent of the specifics of the interaction

Dwyer & Suthers (2006)

Finally, the end goal of this challenge is to instil enough autonomy that learners will keep on going, even after they leave your class. Just because the course ends, doesn’t mean the learning has to stop. A student’s academic life should include their cultivation of a personal learning network (PLN), an online community that engages, supports, and continues to challenge the individual in their academic pursuit. How exciting it would be if the student is able to continue to connect with their newfound PLN, a network that was encouraged and built with assistance of their instructor in a class that they already ‘graduated’ from. So go out there and use social media to send your students off after your class with the autonomy to further their learning.

That’s the last post of this series on using social media in education! Go back to the first post if you missed any of it.


Dahlstrom, E., Walker, J. D., & Dziuban, C. (2013). ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology 2013. Louisville, CO: Educause Center for Analysis and Research. Retrieved from

Dwyer, N., & Suthers, D. D. (2006). Consistent practices in artifact-mediated collaboration. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 1(4), 481–511.