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Social Media in Higher Education

Joshua Hutchinson

Northern Illinois University



Today’s students are the products of a digital world. For them, information has always

been available at the press of a button, and communicating with people hundreds of miles away

can be accomplished with a few simple key strokes. Growing up with this ease of access has led

to a shift in what students expect from peers, faculty, and institutions of higher education. This

shift is made increasingly harder to navigate as new forms of digital interaction become

popularized every day, and these platforms are capable of becoming obsolete as quickly as they

are established.

Higher education professionals today find themselves as the pioneers of this new, and

seemingly ever-evolving frontier. The aspect of this frontier that garners the most ambiguity,

and raises a great deal of questions is social media. Social media is the most versatile, and

volatile tool to emerge from the digital world. This is due to the wide variety of social media

platforms, and the fact that these platforms are constantly updating or becoming obsolete. Many

questions surround social media and what role, if any, that it should play in higher education.

The current state of uncertainty surrounding social media and its relationship with higher

education provides an opportunity for higher education professionals to define what this

relationship will look like, and establish standing best practices that can impact the future of the

field. This paper provides a review of the literature concerning social media in higher education.

The literature review will create a definition of what social media is, analyze how social media is

currently utilized in institutions of higher education, and provide examples of social media

integration into classrooms, and university initiatives. Based on the data collected from the

literature review this paper will formulate recommendations for the implementation of social

media in higher education.


Literature Review

The literature review will analyze research, and articles that investigate social media, its

influence and impact on students, and its relationship with higher education. The literature under

review consists of articles, studies, and reviews that were all composed within the last ten years.

Social media and higher education are very large topics, and this paper will break them down

into key areas in order to better understand them. This literature review will define social media,

address how higher education professionals currently utilize social media, and provide examples

of how social media has been integrated into classrooms and university initiatives.

Social Media

In order to study a subject or phenomenon like social media, it must first be defined in

order to apply a contextual lens to the research being examined. Unfortunately, in the case of

social media there is no truly clear, concise, and concrete definition (Tess, 2013). A leading

reason for the difficulty creating a definition for social media is that social media is constantly

changing (Tess, 2013). Developers are constantly creating new applications, updating features,

and adapting to the ever changing needs and demands of their users.

Along with the lack of a universal definition for social media, there also appear to be

disputes over the name as well. The terms social networks, social networking sights, digital

communication and collaboration tools, electronic media, web 2.0, and of course social media

were all found and used interchangeably throughout the majority of the literature

(ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies Rubrics, 2016; Ahlquist, 2015; Davis, Deil-Amen,

Rios-Aguilar & González, 2012; Heiberger & Harper, 2008; Junco, Heiberger & Loken, 2010;

Legaree, 2015; Nyangau & Bado, 2012; Tess. 2013). In several contexts, each of these different

names have been given their own specific definitions that differentiate them from one another

(Davis et al., 2012Nyangau & Bado, 2012; Tess, 2013). However, regardless of the presence of

other terms, social media persisted as the dominant term, and will be used as such for the

purposes of this paper.

While, as previously stated, there is no single definition of what social media is, there are

common themes that can be identified across the literature. The most obvious theme is that

social media are based within internet programs and applications (Ahlquist, 2015; Davis et al.,

2012; Junco et al., 2010; Nyangau & Bado, 2012; Tess, 2013), or as Tess (2013) refers to them,

web 2.0. Which is defined by O’Reilly (2005) as “active and open web architecture that enables

users to participate in facilitating active learning” (as cited in Ahlquist, 2015, p. 4). The second

overarching theme is the purpose of social media. Legaree (2015) outlined three main categories

that social media fall into: communication, collaboration, and media sharing. Davis et al. (2012)

echo this, and add that social media can also be used to create and share user-generated content

“through multi-way communication” (p. 1). Junco et al. (2010) also adds that social media

allows users to found, create, and share communities.

From these themes, we can build our own common definition for social media. Social

media are internet based entities that enable individuals and organizations to communicate,

collaborate, share, and create communities through multi-way communication methods. This

definition encompasses the many facets, layers, and dimensions of the various social media

platforms addressed in the current research, and will serve as the guiding frame work for the

remainder of this paper.

Platforms. There is no single social media. Though it is easy to identify the term social

media with a single entity, there are a vast number of platforms that fall under the definition of

social media. Social media entities such as blogs, YouTube, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, and

Facebook are just a selection of the platforms that have been studied, and represent only a

fraction of currently active services (Davis et al., 2012; Dunn, 2013; Junco et al., 2010; Lagaree,

2015; Nyangau & Bado, 2012; Tess, 2013). This section focuses on Facebook, Twitter, and

blogs as they most relevantly pertain to the research being analyzed throughout this literature


Facebook. Developed by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, Facebook has become the

proverbial face of social media (Tess, 2013). Facebook allows users to create profiles; engage

with other users and their profiles in an attempt to express interests and find commonalities; and

build connections around these commonalities (Davis et al., 2012). Facebook began as a private

social network that was restricted to the students of Harvard University (Davis et al., 2012). The

platform allowed students to connect and engage with one another across campus. Facebook

soon expanded to other universities, granting access to users that had an .edu email address

(Ahlquist, 2015). “Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe (2007), found that 94% of their college

students were users of Facebook” (as cited in Tess, 2013, p. A61). Today Facebook is an

international platform, connecting people around the world, and taking the concept of social

media global (Davis et al., 2012). Thanks to its worldwide circulation, Facebook reached 1.35

billion users by October of 2014 (Ahlquist, 2015). More recently, there has been an observable

trend of users, specifically those in the United States, leaving Facebook (Tess, 2013). However,

despite this decline, Facebook is still the most popular and widely used social media amongst

teenagers, and college age students (Ahlquist, 2015; Dunn, 2013).

Twitter. Twitter began in the wake of Facebook’s rise to popularity, and as the concept

of social media was in its early stages (Nyangau & Bado, 2012). Twitter offers its users a vastly

different method of social interaction than Facebook. Twitter users engage in microblogging

(Tess, 2013). Twitter utilizes tweets that restrict the user to 140 characters, which encourages

ongoing conversations and interaction (Ahlquist, 2015). Junco et al. (2010) characterized

Twitter as a condensed blog that operates through “the functionality of social networking” (p. 2).

Davis et al. (2012) stated that Twitter allows users to connect their account to other social media

services like Facebook, and allows for a much faster, and less involved processes. Twitter users

are able to share small amounts of content to large numbers of people in a very quick and simple

process (Davis et al., 2012). Because of these traits, Twitter is better adept at creating, and

cultivating dialogues than services like Facebook (Junco et al., 2010). The ease of access, and

simplicity of Twitter’s microblogging tweet format enables Twitter to be a faster form of

communication, and increase the rate at which information flows through the platform (Tess,

2013). While data shows that Facebook is by far the most popular and widely used social media

platform, Twitter has been steadily growing the number of users that it has (Ahlquist, 2015). In

2011 it was reported that Twitter had over 100 million users worldwide, and that there had been

an 80 percent increase in tweets since the beginning of that same year (Davis et al., 2012). The

platform’s prominence is emphasized by Ahlquist’s (2015) assertion that Twitter is the

secondary social media choice for teens.

Blogs. 1997 was the first time that uses of the word weblog were recorded (Tess, 2013).

By 2004, weblogs had become so popular and prominent in popular culture that Meriam-Webster

made blog the word of the year (Tess, 2013). With its foundation in the year 1997, blogging was

an established medium before social media was ever a concept. Blog’s recognition as word of

the year came about the same year as Mark Zuckerberg founded the social media cultural titan,

Facebook. With a history that predates social media, components and influences of blogs can be

found throughout most forms of social media (Ahlquist, 2015; Tess, 2013). Blogs provide users

with an outlet for personal expressions, and self-reflection (Nyangau & Bado, 2012). Tess

(2013) sums up blogging perfectly as “essentially an online journal” (p. A61). However, unlike

a typical journal, blogs allow for collaboration from several people (Nyangau & Bado, 2012;

Tess, 2013). Blogs also allow users to share their thoughts, opinions, and stories with other

people around the world who may share their interests, or are looking to learn more about

particular subjects (Tess, 2013). The blogging format also makes it easy for users to comment

on blogs, and share content that they find interesting across nearly any digital platform

(Ahlquirst, 2015; Nyangau & Bado, 2012). The versatility, and simplicity of blogs has

contributed heavily to the platform’s popularity. According to blog tracking services, there were

1,315,000 active blog sites as of 2012 (Tess, 2013).

Impact. Social media platforms were originally designed for, and targeted at college

students, as a means to help them build and maintain networks of relationships (Nyangau &

Bado, 2012). This is clearly demonstrated in the founding and early years of Facebook, as the

platform started as an exclusive service for Harvard University students, and slowly spread to

other universities across the country before being made accessible to the general public

(Ahlquist, 2015). With the foundation of social media being rooted in college and university

student culture, it comes as no surprise that 83 percent of internet users ages 18-29 reported

using social media (Tess, 2013). While 18-29 year olds have the highest percentage of

participation, the level of participation in nearly every other age group has been increasing at an

exponential rate over the past several years (Ahlquirst, 2015; Davis et al., 2012; Junco et al.,

2010; Nyangau & Bado, 2012; Tess, 2013). As the number of users grows throughout all age

ranges, the influence that social media has increases with it, and with this increase in users comes

an increase in the diversity of the services social media offers. As new technologies rise they

provide new avenues for engagement and interaction, and new ways for individuals to network

and connect with one another (Ahlquirst, 2015). The ongoing creation of new social media

technologies means that research in this area needs to be constant, and innovative (Ahlquirst,

2015; Davis et al., 2012; Tess, 2013).

Social Media’s Relationship with Higher Education

The introduction, and popularization of social media has drastically changed the way that

individuals interact with each other and the outside world. As college students make up the

majority of social media users, the potential impact that these services can have on colleges and

universities is significant (Davis et al., 2012). This potential influence has led many higher

education professionals to establish policies and procedures addressing the use of social media

on their campuses (Gonzalez, Davis, Lopez, Munoz & Soto, 2013). Several of the sources for

this literature review analyze the existing view points and relationships that universities and

higher education professionals have in regards to social media. This section establishes an

understanding of what that relationship looks like, and the role that social media currently plays

on college campuses. While social media is an ever-changing, and difficult to define concept,

one thing about it can be certain. Institutions of higher education, and the professionals who

work at them cannot agree on how these services should be implemented, or if they should be

implemented at all (Abreu, 2010; Davis et al., 2012; Legaree, 2015; Levine, & Dean, 2012; Tess,

2013; Wilson, 2013).

Professionals and social media. Recently higher education professional have been

facing increasing pressure to educate themselves about social media, and consider how they

might best implement it into their positions to best benefit themselves and their students. The

ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies Rubrics (2016) introduced a new technology


competency. This new competency primarily focuses on the need for higher education

professionals to be familiar with the physical technology that they, and their students are likely to

encounter (ACPA/NASPA, 2016). However, two of the technology competency’s areas directly

address what higher education professionals need to understand in regards to social media.

The “Digital Identity and Citizenship,” and “Online Learning Environments” areas of the

technology competency layout the components of social media literacy that professionals need to

be competent in, as well as what they should be prepared to educate their students on

(ACPA/NASPA, 2016, pp. 33-34). These areas also outline expectations for how professionals

should try to network with one another, and aim to educate each other through their use of social

media tools (ACPA/NASPA, 2016). This new competency prompted Ahlquist (2016) to outline

digital identity for student affairs professionals, and how to maintain it. Ahlquist (2016) defines

digital identity as “the self-presentation method one displays online, in both personal and

professional contexts” (p. 29). The competency rubrics, and Ahlquirst’s (2016) concept of

digital identity not only set expectations for how professionals should conduct themselves when

using social media, but also place responsibility on them to educate their students on the

importance of digital identity (ACPA/NASPA, 2016).

While the technology competency is new, it stands as a reflection of what professionals

in higher education have been trending towards over the last several years. There has been a

growth in the level of involvement that professionals engage in with social media (Gonzalez et

al., 2013). Faculty members have grown more willing to utilize different social media platforms

in their classes, and advisors have begun to experiment with connecting to students via Facebook

(Gonzalez et al., 2013; Junco et al., 2010; Legaree, 2015; Levine & Dean, 2012). A study

reported that 70 percent of faculty members use social media for personal use, and that that

number is increasing every year (Legaree, 2015). The same study showed that 55 percent of

faculty also use social media for professional purposes (Legaree, 2015). This trend goes beyond

just faculty. In a recent study 100 percent of institutional representatives polled reported that

their schools use some form of social media in their university initiatives (Barnes & Lescault,

2011). Based on these findings, it would appear that higher education is moving quickly to adopt

social media, and integrate it into its operations.

Critiques of social media’s implementation. While the ACPA and NASPA have

created a competency that requires higher education professionals, and by association the

institutions that they work at to become familiar with social media, and strive to establish a

digital identity, the use of social media in higher education still has its critics. While the benefits

of utilizing social media in higher education appear to be tremendous, and many researchers

advocate for its use (Abreu, 2010; Ahlquist, 2015, 2016; Herberger & Harper, 2008; Junco et al.,

2010; Tess, 2013), there are still concerns that need to be considered and addressed (Legaree,

2015; Levine, & Dean, 2012; Nyangau & Bado, 2012; Wilson, 2013).

A concern at the forefront of the use of social media in higher education is the lack of

training professionals have, and the amount of time it will take to develop this competency

(Legaree, 2015). Along with this concern, when looking at incorporating social media into

different aspects of their organization university faculty and staff are worried about the amount

of time that it takes to do so (Wilson, 2013). As previously stated, social media platforms allow

users to do a multitude of things. Profiles, posts, comments, and chats take time to create and

share, and if these posts are being used for an organized purpose then the organizer must take the

additional time to facilitate, critique, and guide the connections being made. One common

example is moderating posts or discussions to ensure that negative and controversial posts

handled correctly (Wilson, 2013).

This concern over moderating content for controversial or negative interactions also

brings to light the concern over a lack of policies and guidelines that dictate how higher

education professionals should interact with students on social media (Nyangau & Bado, 2012).

Should university officials initiate, or accept friend requests or followings from students? In the

case of a number of administrators, and even some faculty members, accepting students’ friend

requests on Facebook could open the door to potential ethical violations or concerns (Nyangau &

Bado, 2012). However, moral ambiguity aside, the lack of university dictated policies and

guidelines can cause other concerns. On some campuses social media is used by various

departments and individuals to varying degrees, and in vastly different ways without contributing

to an overall institutional mission (Davis et al., 2012). This can lead to communication issues, as

none of the interaction students are having with an institution share a common message. While

there is a desire for organic, and individualized interaction between university officials and

students, standards help prevent ethical and communicative issues from arising (Davis et al.,

2012; Nyangau & Bado, 2012).

The third concern universities and higher education professionals express when

discussing the use of social media is how institutions and practitioners go about adopting these

technologies (Lagaree, 2015; Nyangau & Bado, 2012) There is a question as to whether social

media technologies are being adopted for no other reason than because everyone else is doing it.

Due to the high level of participation demonstrated by college aged students in social media,

researchers wonder if their adoption is solely driven by a desire to utilize these tools in an

attempt to win students over (Nyangau & Bado, 2012). In some cases, social media has been

implemented without any purpose, plan, or evaluative process to gage the tools effectiveness

(Davis et al., 2012; Nyangau & Bado, 2012). This behavior reflects similar concerns that have

been expressed regarding the general use of electronic media such as videos, and PowerPoint

presentations by faculty members in class rooms. In the end, Levine, and Dean (2012)

summarize the issue best with the following quote, “technology is not going to make up for a bad

teacher” (p. 49). In this case the same is also true for university officials and higher education


Social Media Integration

As stated in the previous section, a concern expressed in regards to social media being

used in higher education is the lack of policies or guidelines that exist to help create a frame

work for how best to implement the technology. Despite the lack of preexisting case studies to

base practice off of, there have been several successful methods discovered for the integration of

social media into the field of higher education. This section will highlight cases were social

media platforms were used within classrooms, and incorporated into curriculum; used to

cultivate student engagement; and utilized to boost university initiatives.

Twitter in the classroom. While the use of social media by students, and faculty

members alike is higher than it has ever been, few studies focus on how this technology is

utilized in the classroom. In 2010, Junco et al. conducted an experiment that spanned a whole

semester. The study observed 125 students taking a first year seminar class, and throughout the

class Twitter was used for assignments and class discussions (Junco et al., 2010). Twitter allows

users to share condensed, 140 character tweets, in an interactive microblog (Tess, 2013). This

medium lends itself well to a classroom setting as it allows for the cultivation of highly

interactive exchanges, and resource sharing (Ahlquist, 2015; Junco et al., 2010; Tess, 2013).

The study observed that use of Twitter for “educationally relevant purposes” showed

increased levels of engagement with both their peers and their instructor (Junco et al., 2010, p.

10). The study also stated that the courses use of Twitter had a positive effect on the grades of

the students who participated (Junco et al., 2010). Junco et al.’s (2010) use of Twitter’s

microblogging platform to encourage class participation reflects methods being investigated in

the education of certain science disciplines. Several faculty members and various colleges and

universities have used blogs, and blogging platforms in their classes cultivate student discussion,

and provide different perspectives on course material (Davis et al., 2012).

Student engagement through Facebook. With 94 percent of college students being

Facebook users (Tess, 2013), utilizing the social media platform to engage students is in the best

interest of higher education professionals. According to a study by Heiberger, & Harper (2008),

Facebook utilizes Astin’s (1984) model for student involvement in the way that its users engage

with one another. Astin’s (1984) involvement theory outlines five postulates, or tenants, that are

used to identify involvement. Heiberger, & Harper (2008) compared how users engage with and

through Facebook with Astin’s tenants and drew several parallels between the two. Davis et al.

(2012) echoes this assertion, stating that social media platforms, when used for academic

purposes, increase student engagement at their institutions. This also reflects the results of Junco

et al.’s (2010) study on the effects of Twitter on college students in the classroom.

The study then goes on to prove how engagement through Facebook benefited students’

academic and social success. Heiberger, & Harper (2008) reported that the around 73 percent of

students who use Facebook for less than an hour a day, expressed having a stronger connections

to their friends as well as their institution. Around 63 percent of students who used Facebook for

less than an hour a day where involved in at least one student organization, and 15 percent of

students that spent six hours a week on Facebook also sent over six hours a week engaged in

student activates (Heiberger & Harper, 2008). These trends show that there is an observable

correlation between a student’s Facebook use, and their involvement and connection to the

university and those around them.

University recruitment. Studies surrounding how colleges and universities use social

media have been circulating since as early as 2007 (Barnes & Lescault, 2011). However, while

the previous aspects of this paper looked at the academic and involvement aspects of social

media, the majority of these studies have focused on how institutions of higher education are

utilizing these tools to recruit new students (Barnes & Lescault, 2011; Davis et al., 2012;

Nyangau & Bado, 2012; Sandlin & Peña, 2014; Wilson, 2013). These studies have analyzed

every aspect of universities’ social media strategies used in their recruitment and admissions

efforts, and how students respond to them. It comes as no surprise to platforms such as

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and even MySpace among the tools institutions have

begun to utilize over the last several years (Barnes & Lescault, 2011).

What is surprising about these studies however, is the overwhelming emphasis that has

been placed on blogging (Barnes & Lescault, 2011; Davis et al., 2012; Nyangau & Bado, 2012;

Sandlin & Peña, 2014). According to research, the number of universities that utilizing blogs in

their recruitment efforts has been rising rapidly over the past several years (Sandlin & Peña,

2014). Nyangau, & Bado (2012) reported that as of 2011, 66 percent of schools were using

blogs. When asked, admissions professionals credit the increase in blog use to the desire to

create an authentic portrayal of their institution (Sandlin & Peña, 2014). This emphasis on

authenticity is derived from students wanting to see how a university truly is, or an “insider”

view (Sandlin & Peña, 2014). In order to create more authentic blogs, and provide students with

a view point that appears to be independent, many schools are now using current students to

write their blogs (Barnes & Lescault, 2011; Davis et al., 2012; Nyangau & Bado, 2012). This

approach to student recruitment not only benefits the institutions that employ them, but also the

students who are exposed to this information. Students who read these authentic blogs are able

to create more accurate expectations of what their college experience will actually be like, and

are more likely to be engaged with the institution during their college career (Nyangau & Bado,



As social media begins to leave its adolescent faze and begins to become a more stable

medium, there are several steps that higher education professionals and organizations can take.

The first step to take is education. Since ACPA, and NASPA (2016) have now added a

technology competency to their Professional Competencies Rubrics there should be an increase

in the amount and quality of resources made available to help train higher education

professionals in the use and nuances of social media services. This also means that universities

and academic departments needs to commit to devoting time and resources to training their staff

and creating strategies and plans for how they would like to implement these tools (Wilson,

2013). The greatest strategy that can be considered when planning how best to utilize social

media is to be intentional with it (Davis et al., 2012; Nyangau & Bado, 2012). “When the first

student unions were created, responsible administrators hired staff members to create programs

and services for students in these campus centers” (Heiberger & Harper, 2008, p. 33). In this

same regard, institutions of higher education need to do all that they can to meet students where

they are today.


This literature review also covered several social media strategies that would be

beneficial to higher education professionals to consider when looking for promising practices to

implement. Junco et al.’s (2010) incorporation of social media platforms in the class room, and

the impact that it had on student engagement and academic success provides a model of how to

utilize social media through academia. While Heiberger, and Harper’s (2008) parallels between

Astin’s (1984) involvement theory and Facebook engagement provide a foundation upon which

institutions can create systems to better connect students to the institutions that they attend.

Lastly, the use of blogs, and the emphasis placed on authentic content by university recruitment

initiatives not only paints a vivid picture of how institutions can better recruit students, it also

provides an epistemological lens on what students are looking for and need from their social

media engagement with institutions and professionals (Sandlin & Peña, 2014).


Higher education is a field that seeks to innovate and improve itself for the betterment of

the students that it serves. In the digital age of social media, students and their needs have

changed faster than higher education has been able to keep up. Institutions and professionals are

adapting to technologies that are foreign to them, but that their students have always had.

Although universities and higher education professionals are begging to implement these new

technologies, there is still a great deal of room for growth and development.

This literature review composed a definition of social media, and analyzed several key

platforms that are already widely used by both students and universities. The review also

investigated the relationship between social media and higher education, reflecting on the current

views that professionals hold about these new technologies, and highlighting the concerns that

many hold about their implementation. Then examples of how social media has already been

integrated into academic, involvement, and recruitment initiates where presented and analyzed.

Lastly, recommendations for how higher education professionals and organizations can move

forward in utilizing social media were made based on the results of the literature review.

Social media has great potential, and can help higher education professionals better

connect with, and engage students. There is also great support and enthusiasm from

professionals, as well as professional organizations like ACPA and NASPA when it comes to the

development and implementation of social media within higher education. However, there are

still legitimate concerns surrounding how, and why institutions and individuals are using social

media. While these concerns need to be addressed, they should not prevent the use of social

media, as there have been several successful examples of how the technology can be used to the

betterment of institutions and the students that they serve.



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