Get access

The questionable promise of social media for education: connective learning and the commercial imperative


  • The authors recognize the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

  • Biographical Notes: Dr Norm Friesen is Canada Research Chair in E-Learning Practices at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. Dr Friesen is author of The Place of the Classroom and the Space of the Screen: Relational Pedagogy and Internet Technology (Peter Lang, 2011).

  • Lowe is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC)-funded postdoctoral research fellow in media studies at the New Media Studies Research Centre, TRU, Canada. Lowe recently completed an SSHRCC and British Council ORS-funded PhD at the Institute for Cultural Research, Lancaster University, UK.

Norm Friesen, New Media Studies Research Centre, Thompson Rivers University, Box 3010, 900 McGill Road, Kamloops, BC V2C 5N3, Canada. Email:


Facebook and other social media have been hailed as delivering the promise of new, socially engaged educational experiences for students in undergraduate, self-directed, and other educational sectors. A theoretical and historical analysis of these media in the light of earlier media transformations, however, helps to situate and qualify this promise. Specifically, the analysis of dominant social media presented here questions whether social media platforms satisfy a crucial component of learning – fostering the capacity for debate and disagreement. By using the analytical frame of media theorist Raymond Williams, with its emphasis on the influence of advertising in the content and form of television, we weigh the conditions of dominant social networking sites as constraints for debate and therefore learning. Accordingly, we propose an update to Williams' erudite work that is in keeping with our findings. Williams' critique focuses on the structural characteristics of sequence, rhythm, and flow of television as a cultural form. Our critique proposes the terms information design, architecture, and above all algorithm, as structural characteristics that similarly apply to the related but contemporary cultural form of social networking services. Illustrating the ongoing salience of media theory and history for research in e-learning, the article updates Williams' work while leveraging it in a critical discussion of the suitability of commercial social media for education.