A New Perspective

Social Media, Digital Identity, and Student Learning Outcomes

Topics: Social Media, Student Experience, Student Affairs, Student Retention and Success, Career Services, Academic Support Programs, Academic Integrity and Student Conduct, Student Health and Wellness, Academic Planning, Academic Affairs


Continuing to Gain Mindshare

Social Media Has Broad Utilization, Especially Among Young People

Over the past decade, social media use has grown rapidly, especially among the Millennial generation and Generation Z. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 89% of 18 to 29 year olds use at least one social media platform. Eighty-one percent of teens also report having an account on at least one social networking site.

Facebook has primarily driven this growth. However, the explosion in the number of platforms has also contributed to the widespread adoption of social media.

Yet usage is not uniform across populations, and further research reveals differences based on income, location, and race and ethnicity persist. African-American internet users report the highest rates of social networking use with 80% of users on at least one platform compared to 75% of Hispanic users and 70% of Caucasian users. Regardless of the gaps in adoption, student affairs practitioners must begin to understand how these platforms affect their students and the outcomes they hope to achieve.

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Getting a Digital Introduction to the Institution

Social Media Establishes Initial Connection Between Colleges and Students

Social media use has already begun to affect the college admissions process, making Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube the first contact point for many students when they consider applying to an institution. From 2009 to 2013, the percentage of students using social media in the college search process has more than doubled.

Students use social media in their search process for a variety of reasons. They hope to find perspectives from acquaintances who have attended the institution, determine whether the campus has activities that are of interest, and learn more about the campus culture. The unofficial comments and informal photos shape students’ perceptions of higher education and of individual institutions.

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Social Media Captures Student Attention on Campus

Students Continue Digital Interaction with Peers and Resources After Enrollment

Once students arrive on campus, they continue to use social media to engage with campus life. Students search social networks to find co-curricular activities, academic opportunities, residential communities, and spirit-building events.

As students use social media to engage with opportunities on campus, they build a history of comments, posts, likes, and other actions that will shape their digital identities.

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Searching for Answers

Student Affairs Practitioners Look for Guidance on Serving Students

Growing social media use among students raises many questions for student affairs professionals. For example, some practitioners wonder which platforms to use, how to explain the value of social media, and how to help students understand the challenges and opportunities of these new communication tools.

To help students become responsible digital citizens, Student Affairs practitioners must become online role models for students. Professionals can demonstrate positive behavior online and set an example for students who often feel that administrators do not understand their use of social media.

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The Usual Conversations About Social Media

Commentary Focuses on Platforms, Crises, and Marketing

Unfortunately, the current state of research on social media does not address how student affairs practitioners can model good behavior and understand student interactions on social networks. Instead, it focuses on issues such as platform overviews, crisis management on social media, and program marketing.

Though these are worthwhile topics for discussion, they do not help student affairs professionals understand how social media affects students’ personal lives and academic outcomes.

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Our Goal: A New Perspective on Social Media

Reorienting Toward Learning Outcomes

Student affairs professionals should broaden their perspective by approaching social media as a new channel to achieve student learning outcomes. As a profession, Student affairs historically has tried to meet students where they are and push them to communicate with respect and civility, lead healthy lives, and find fulfilling employment, among other outcomes. Social media must become part of this mission.

To guide programming and initiatives around digital identity and social media, senior student affairs officers and their teams need to devote more attention to how social networking affects student professional development, communication, and wellness.

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A New Perspective