Posted by: Brynna Kaulback | July 5, 2014

Beyond the discussion forum: What social media offers the online graduate student

Pedagogy based on the use of social media is changing the assumption that the discussion forum is at the heart of online learning. Interaction on a broader scale, supported by social media, the use of hashtags, and the possibility of aggregating related posts has expanded ways that graduate students can relate to others outside their immediate classes and their institutions. Here I suggest three ways the online graduate learner can benefit from social media: to develop a scholarly identity, to publish to a wider audience, and to establish and cultivate a personal learning network.

One task of a graduate student is to engage in the practice of being a scholar. Becoming familiar with the jargon of a discipline, its concepts, and its assumptions can be partially accomplished through independent reading and writing and one-on-one professorial dialogue. However, acculturation into a scholarly community goes beyond the cognitive realm. One must learn the tacit knowledge of a field, the practices of a discipline and department (Gerholm, 1990). In Wenger’s (1998) terms, “It is not just the acquisition of memories, habits and skills, but the formation of an identity” (p. 96).

Many of the traditional means to develop a scholarly identity are simply not readily available in online programs – proximity to other researchers, the sub-culture of the graduate students, engaging in dialogue in the classroom, seminar or casual settings, with professors during office hours or more informal gatherings, or in campus sponsored scholarly activities. However, some online alternatives now present themselves. Interacting with others engaged in similar research or with well-known writers and scholars in one’s field is possible through their blogs or twitter exchanges, through online discussion forums, webinars, Facebook pages, or in pre-conference dialogue sessions. Through these engagements, students may lurk, study the exchanges, and, when ready, engage. Scaffolding in the form of course, program, or campus exchanges can prepare students for these more public connections. Social media also creates new scholarly norms which must be learned by those who will engage – the appropriate media, the formality or informality of posts, or the acceptable degree of citing and acknowledgment. In what way and how often, for example, does one post on the Facebook page of an admired, well-known writer or of one’s professor?

Another of the critical advantages that social media offers students at all levels is the opportunity to write in public as opposed to writing for an audience that consists of the professor and, typically, or at best, other students in the course. As Cathy Davidson points out, “… writing in public in different fields, writing with engagement about topics that matter, and learning to take feedback from others who are also engaged in public discourse” are opportunities presented by the present age. Blogging, posting in others’ blogs, or joining in scholarly or practitioner discussion forums means students can read in their learning area, articulate their thinking, and get feedback from a wider range of perspectives. An argument might be made here as well for initial ventures being made into the more closed, “safe” audience of known fellow students and professor. Davidson describes the imperative, “We live in a world of the Internet where now anyone with access to an Internet connection can publish instantly to anyone else in the world with an internet connection and without an editor. How are we teaching our students to live in this world?” She adds, “The act of writing in public breaks the writing classroom out of a process and circuit and audience that can sometimes be too insular, too hot house, where the person teaching the writing is the only person grading and commenting on that writing, or when the only readers who are not teachers are in the class, hearing the same lessons in writing.”

I know students who, in the process of developing their research, posted their dissertation ponderings regularly in their blogs. They got feedback from others who were engaged in similar research pursuits – students and more experienced researchers and writers. They didn’t wait for the final published document – they shared and dialogued as they went along. The learning process is more open in many ways in this new online world, not the least of which is acceptance of transparency in the process of getting there and in engaging with others thinking along the way.

Finally, social media affords the evolving scholar-practitioner with a way to build a personal learning network that can be the foundation for later practice and scholarly work. Through engaging and publishing as described above, as well as through other both on and off-line activities, the learner creates what my colleagues (Krisper-Ullyett, Levinson, & Reeves-Lipscomb) and I have described as learning bubbles, nodes of fellow scholars and colleagues, resources, organizations, communities of practice. In one of my nodes, or learning bubbles, are these three colleagues with whom I engage periodically to host events in a larger community of practice of which we are all members. In another, I interact monthly with a group of graduates and about-to-be graduates from across the country who share regarding experiences as post-docs. In a few others, I mostly lurk and read the blog of researchers whose work I admire and with whom I have intermittent contact. These are not new activities, in a certain sense, but social media makes the extent and nature of them different than they would have been to a student a decade ago – more frequent and far-ranging, less hierarchical, allowing me a window into a perspective that I would not then have had access.

Siemens, in his seminal article on connectivism defines the personal learning network: “Personal knowledge is comprised of a network, which feeds into organizations and institutions, which in turn feed back into the network, and then continue to provide learning to individual. This cycle of knowledge development (personal to network to organization) allows learners to remain current in their field through the connections they have formed”. He further describes “this amplification of learning, knowledge and understanding through the extension of a personal network” as “the epitome of connectivism”(Siemens, 2004). For the graduate student in a digital world, the evolution of such a network must be a fundamental undertaking, and these networks are the fruits of the engagements and publishing of the student in the world of social media.

Davidson, C. (2014, May 19). Writing (in public) across the curriculum [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Gerholm, T. (1990). On tacit knowledge in academia. European Journal of Education, Vol. 25, No. 3, Disciplinary Cultures, 25(3), 263-271.
Kaulback, B., Krisper-Ullyett, L., Levinson, L. & Reeves-Lipscomb, D. (2013, September 20). Supporting the independent online learner while supporting ourselves [Online forum post] Retrieved from

Siemens, G. (2004, December 12). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.


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