Social media and learner identities: facilitator or inhibitor?

Teri-Lisa Griffiths – Sheffield Hallam University
Jess Benton – L5 student

Short paper

Retention and engagement continue to be key priorities for Higher Education institutions. Previous research has identified learning communities of practice as a crucial component of retaining learners in higher study (Masika & Jones, 2016). Byrom & Lightfoot (2012) identified the barriers for working class students’ adaption to their university community, indicating that identity formation also has implications for social mobility. This project uses the starting point of social learner identity (Wenger, 2009) and its implication for retention as a way to examine how students utilise their online networks to discuss, share, and dissect their learning experiences. Some documented benefits to online social interaction include increased social capital and well-being (Ellison et al., 2007). However, the possible dangers of social networking include unfavourable comparison and pressure to feel constantly available and connected online (Fox & Moreland, 2015).

Using linguistic analysis to examine data from social media websites the researchers will analyse the potential facilitators and inhibitors to the formation of a positive and productive learner identity and communities of practice. The data will be collected from self-identified students on Twitter. Twitter was selected both because of the open nature of the data and the fact that it can form a ‘back channel’ or ‘conversational shadow’ to real-life occurrences (Zappavigna, 2012). Linguistic analysis will be focussed on sociological understandings of language, as a way to understand more about a specific aspect of social life. To do this, the researchers will utilise a software program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). LIWC categorises words to highlight the links between word usage and social development. The researchers will examine if linking student social media posts with their social development as students can lead to a new understanding of their experiences (Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010). In doing so, we hope to provide an insight into how institutions may use social media tools to engage positively with their students and perhaps support the formation of learner identities.


Byrom, T., & Lightfoot, N. (2012). Transformation or Transgression? Institutional Habitus andWorking Class Student Identity. Journal of Social Sciences, 8(2), 126-134.

Ellison, N., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The Benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(4), 1143-1168.

Fox, J., & Moreland, J. J. (2015). The dark side of social networking sites: An exploration of the relational and psychological stressors associated with Facebook use and affordances. Computers in Human Behavior45, 168-176.

Masika, R., & Jones, J. (2016). Building Student Belonging and Engagement: Insights into Higher Education Students’ Experiences of Participating and Learning Together. Teaching in Higher Education, 21(2), 138-150

Tausczik, Y., & Pennebaker, J. (2010). The Psychological Meaning of Words: LIWC and Computerized Text Analysis Methods. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 29(1), 24-54.

Wenger, E. (2009) A Social Theory of Learning In Illeris, K. (Ed.). Contemporary theories of learning : Learning theorists … in their own words. (pp. 209 -219). London: Routledge.

Zappavigna, M. (2012). Discourse of Twitter and Social Media: How we use language to create affiliation on the web. London: Continuum.


social media; student identity; social learning; retention; engagement; learning community

Relation to the theme

  • reaching and engaging different groups of learners
  • innovative ways of meeting learning outcomes and enabling learning gain