Should You Use Social Networks with Your Students Project Based Learning Lessons?

By Dr. Malia Hoffmann

Professor, California State University, Fullerton

Social networking is all the rage these days. So is Project Based Learning.  Humans are social beings and students are not the exception. So when sites such as MySpace and Facebook hit the stage in the early 2000s, it was no wonder adoption was swift.

Social networks afford the ability to connect with others instantly without having to be physically situated. This is perhaps why they are so popular amongst the youth.

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This youthful need to be socially connected tends to imply the social non-academic side of of social networks. However, in addition to non-academic social connections, social networks provide an opportunity for informal learning.

Especially during Project Based Learning opportunities.  Informal learning implies individually sought out knowledge that grows and develops the academic interactions that happen in school or are directed by their teachers.

Formal learning refers to information seeking that is instructor directed, and informal learning refers to the gaining of knowledge initiated by the learner for intrinsic quest of understanding.

Arguably, informal learning is the goal we’d like to see more of from our students. We strive to make our students lifelong learners, naturally hungry for knowledge, and independent seekers of understanding.

We can help facilitate this through the use of social networks.

In addition to non-academic social connections, social networks provide an opportunity for informal learning. Especially during Project Based Learning opportunities.
— Dr. Malia Hoffmann

Students are already using social networks to gain information whether it be Wikipedia or Google. These search tools are usually related to what they are watching on TV or what their friends are talking about.

However, there are many social network platforms that are available that can be used in increase that informal learning aspect that can be connected to your classroom content. Selecting one platform can be difficult.

Additionally, selecting one platform to increase informal learning can be a bit tricky. It won’t automatically be informal learning right away. That part takes time, and per the definition, can’t be directed or controlled.

However, with some modeling and guidance you can subtly make suggestions through those tools that will connect students to your content. Since there is a plethora of tools out there and there isn’t just one good one, I suggest getting connected with as many as possible.

If you are comfortable with technology, join them all. If you are a newbie to the social networking scene, start with a few of the most popular. To do this, I suggest asking your students what are their favorites.

According to my research of undergraduate students, their favorites were: SnapChat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr (Hoffmann, 2015). If you are a Google School, I’d throw in G+ (if you IT administration has it enabled for you).

Truth is though, it really depends on your age group of students. Elementary level students are probably not as involved in social networks as are middle school-aged students and older. But that doesn’t exclude elementary teachers from using them.

You would just choose different platforms. Take a look at my chart below to help you choose the right platform for you and your students.



Academic Example


Facebook (FB)

Perhaps the most popular, post picture, captions, videos, etc

Create a closed FB group, this way you don’t have to “friend” your students. It can be a place to post resources and/or pose questions.


Connected to Google accounts. A lot like FB (better in my opinion), has all the same feature. You can create “circles” that keep your contacts in groups.

That way when you share content you can pick the circle that would benefit the most from it.

You can also create a Google Community, that is closed like a FB group. You can organize into forums, resources, etc.


Every post is a picture and a caption. Very popular with students now.

Screenshot course material, pose a questions


Allows you to create boards, think virtual bulletin boards.

Create a board for each courses. Have your students follow you.


10 second bursts of pictures or videos, has a chat feature, and you can post in “your story” for students to be able to replay content over and over.

Take a quick video of you working out a problem or doing an experiment to peak interest for the next day’s class.


Think: “Micro Blogging”, 140 character bursts of info.

Share a link, an image, or a teaser for your course material. Pose a question. You want to spark conversation.


Another image rich source. More like a blog, but with focus on images.

Provide small pieces of images. Have students guess what it is or how it applies to your course material.


Voice or text communication tool. Works like a walkie talkie only recorded. You can create groups as well.

Share quick announcements or allow students to ask you/each other questions.

The idea is to start using the tools for formal learning and eventually, the students will begin to use them on their own, informal learning. If your students see you participating in their networks, they are more likely to think of your course content outside of your class.

This opens doors for communication and answering questions that they might forget to ask. I know there may be some obstacles to this. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Post them below.


Hoffmann, M. M. (2015). An exploratory study: Mobile device use for academics (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. (Publication no. 3685662)