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Guest Perspective: Social Media Curricular Innovation: Now That the Genie Is Out of the Bottle, Are Students Really Prepared?

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By Sharon Turner, D.D.S., J.D., Former Dean and Professor Emerita, University of Kentucky College of Dentistry

It is indisputable that social media is here to stay. It has many applications and comes with advantages as well as some very real disadvantages. It is important that dental and allied dental students be taught about social media’s potential benefits and its potential risks.

Sharon Turner, D.D.S., J.D.
Former Dean and Professor Emerita
University of Kentucky College of Dentistry

The use of social media is prevalent and rapidly growing with new applications continuously appearing in the marketplace. This interactive use of the web allows for creation and exchange of user-generated content, and the sheer pervasiveness of these media has resulted in social pressure to use this form of communication. Practitioners are disadvantaged from a practice-marketing perspective, and higher education institutions are disadvantaged with respect to student, faculty and patient recruiting, if they are not using social media.

Not all students enter higher education well versed in using social media as an educational tool, nor do they appreciate the professional responsibilities that come with its use. Both of these challenges suggest the need for structured curricular content related to social media. 

Using Social Media as a Teaching Tool  

Use of social media in the learning environment requires that both students and professors have knowledge related to the mechanics of how to use any selected social media application. Professors need to first decide which specific social media application to use. Next, they should set up a separate user group for each class or course in which the modality is to be used. It is also important to make use of structured instructional time to make sure that all students understand the technical aspects of using the application. 

The fact that students are “digital natives” does not mean they will be able to use the selected application in the way the professor intends to use it in the educational setting. Although it is counterintuitive to many faculty, “digital natives aren’t necessarily digital learners,” as instructional designer Brian Cowan points out.

Faculty also need to establish ground rules about how the selected form of social media is going to be used in the course. Such issues as scheduling times for out-of-class interactive activities, expected response time from the professor, proper etiquette, guidelines for appropriate postings, etc., need to be spelled out. The ground rules will be specific to the learning environment, but they will plant the seeds for understanding the boundaries students must learn with respect to the professional and ethical use of social media generally.

Professors must also understand research-supported learning principles that are reinforced by the use of social media tools in teaching. The advantages of using social media as an instructional mode include stimulation of active, interactive and peer learning; enhancement of knowledge assimilation; development of concise communication skills; communication enhancement between students and faculty; and stimulation of critical thinking, analysis and reflection.

Specific applications for professors’ use in the learning environment range from question-and-answer sessions for exam reviews to student assessment, course assessment and informal surveys to ascertain student understanding of subject matter covered in an individual course. 

Teaching Social Media and eProfessionalism

Why is there a need to add structured content related to using social media to the dental and allied dental curricula? Because students are not yet professionals, and they have not developed sound judgment about the appropriate professional and business use of social media tools.  

Most students have not developed an understanding of professional boundaries. The social construct that outlines appropriate professional relationships between patients and dentists is abstract, and it takes time and experience to understand that many of its rules are “unwritten.” Additionally, exhibiting professional conduct within the confines of the student role is equally as important. Lack of attention to these expectations can lead to adverse outcomes for students—up to and including dismissal from the program. More than one dental student has likely been invited to meet with the dean of student affairs after posting content that was unprofessional or that revealed the student engaged in unwise activity. One Facebook posting I remember well involved a group of students drinking beer in significant quantities at lunch before an afternoon laboratory session, during which the class would actually be “playing with fire.” 

Students have likely developed bad habits from personal use of some social media platforms. Case-based interactive instruction can give them concrete examples of inappropriate breaches of boundaries. Students may resist such instruction because they believe they are already familiar with various social media applications. Tara Hatch and colleagues suggest this response may be indicative of a phenomenon known as unconscious incompetence, in which individuals are not aware that they lack sufficient skill. 

Students, as well as many faculty members, also lack understanding about the potential liabilities of social media and how to manage those downsides. Within the dental curriculum, schools teach structured classes in risk management for other sorts of risk such as malpractice, sexual harassment and employee health and safety. It is therefore appropriate that schools ensure students are well versed in the risks associated with using social media in the dental professional setting. 

These risks range from embarrassment over widespread dissemination of material not intended for the public viewing, to breaches of privacy and confidentiality, unprofessionalism and legal liability under a host of tortious areas such as damage to professional reputation or defamation. Other legal pitfalls include, but are not limited to, copyright infringement and intellectual property violation. 

Appropriate Places in the Curriculum for Social Media Instruction

The Commission on Dental Accreditation mandates that dental school graduates be competent in use of technology in dental practice, communication, ethics, professionalism, understanding legal and regulatory issues related to dental practice, and practice management. Information about the appropriate use of social media in the dental practice setting, which includes observation of appropriate professional boundaries, can easily be added to courses that address these competencies. Courses in the behavioral sciences related to patient motivation might also be appropriate places to bolster student understanding of social media use.

Due to the nuances associated with developing an understanding of professional boundaries, the methods of teaching should be case-based, standardized-patient based or role playing, and they should involve significant class discussion. In clinical settings, role modeling by faculty is also extremely important and may require a conscious effort by faculty members to “debrief” with students outside the presence of patients.           

Institutional Steps to Mitigate the Misuse of Social Media

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, policy development at dental schools around the country is urgently needed. In their 2014 paper in the Journal of Dental Education, Rachel Kearney Henry and Chadleo Webb estimated that 35% of dental schools had social media policies in place. Unless there has been a major change in the last two years, the majority of our institutions have considerable work to do.

Most people are basically rule-governed—that is, they play by the rules once they understand the rules. However, the rules for social media use—encompassed in policies or guidelines—must be clear and concise. They should cover: 

  • Protection of student, patient and employee privacy rights.
  • Process for acquiring institutional approval for sites and guidelines for content, including use of university logos.
  • Definition of intellectual property rights for content developed for specific purposes.
  • Necessity of complying with existing institutional professional codes of conduct and/or behavioral standards.
  • Responsibility for postings on personal sites that adversely impact the institution.
  • Disciplinary actions resulting from breaches of policy in conjunction with institutional due process rights.

Institutional policies and professional association guidelines help guide dental professionals to harness social media for maximum professional benefit with minimum liability or disadvantages. The American Dental Association has published two sets of professional guidelines on social media use for practicing dentists. 


American Dental Association. The ADA Practical Guide to Social Media Planning . Chicago: American Dental Association, 2011.                                          

American Dental Association, Division of Legal Affairs. Social Media and Employment Guide . Chicago: American Dental Association, 2013.

Cowan B, Digital natives aren’t necessarily digital learners. Chron Higher Ed. November 6, 2011.

DiNucci D. Fragmented Future. 1999; 32:221.

Ebner E, Lienhardt C, Rohs M, Meyer I. Microblogs in higher education—a chance to facilitate informal and process-oriented learning? Computer Education. 2010; 55:92-100.

Forgie SE, Duff JP, Ross S. Twelve tips for using Twitter as a learning tool in medical education. Med Teach. 2013; 35:8-14.

Gonzalez SM, Gadbury-Amyot CC. Using Twitter for teaching and learning in an oral and maxillofacial radiology course. J Dent Educ. 2016; 80(2):149-155.

Hatch T, Bates H, Khera S, Walton J. Professionalism and social media: an interprofessional learning activity. Med Educ. 2013; 47(11):1136-37.

Henry RK, Webb C. A survey of social media policies in U.S. dental schools. J Dent Educ. 2014; 78(6):850-55.

Kaplan AM, Haenlein M. Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media. Business Horizons. 2010; 53(1):59-68.

Prensky M. Digital natives, digital immigrants. On The Horizon. 2001; 9(5):1-6.

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