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Nursing studies

Social media: teaching nursing students how to engage and be professional online

The University of Plymouth empowers students to make the most of virtual learning and networking

The University of Plymouth empowers students to make the most of virtual learning and networking

The way we educate nursing students in the UK has changed dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Universities closed and face-to-face teaching abruptly ended in March 2020, meaning a new way of delivering nursing programmes had to be developed.

Redesigning how nursing education is provided

Staff moved out of their offices and lecture theatres and into their homes to redesign, reorganise and deliver the content required to enable students to continue with their programmes, and ensure those at the end of their training could qualify on time.

The University of Plymouth empowers students to make the most of virtual learning and networking

Picture: iStock

The way we educate nursing students in the UK has changed dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Universities closed and face-to-face teaching abruptly ended in March 2020, meaning a new way of delivering nursing programmes had to be developed.

Redesigning how nursing education is provided

Staff moved out of their offices and lecture theatres and into their homes to redesign, reorganise and deliver the content required to enable students to continue with their programmes, and ensure those at the end of their training could qualify on time.

The pandemic saw a rapid move towards the online delivery of nursing programmes. At the University of Plymouth, we quickly adopted a digital approach, transferring existing modules and student support networks onto individual, electronic devices.

As nurse educators, we have always strived to provide innovative and inclusive ways to teach our students. When the first lockdown happened, our current cohorts were already equipped with the skills to engage in online learning, so transitioned seamlessly to using the internet and social media platforms.

Putting Twitter in a professional context for nursing students

Online teaching in social media and digital professionalism has been embedded in the undergraduate nursing programme at the University of Plymouth since 2014. As a small team of social media enthusiasts, we understood the importance of online learning and social media in nursing and wanted to find ways to teach this to our students.

What was initially a teaching pilot on digital professionalism became an assessed element of a module in the university’s undergraduate nursing curriculum and has continued to develop and expand through each academic year.

‘Concerns have been raised around breaching confidentiality and the blurring of professional boundaries’

Students are introduced to social media and integrated into online working using Twitter, with suggestions around who to follow and how to run your feed of information.

This gives them an insight into how a digital focus can enhance their studies and help them engage with a wide network of healthcare professionals. They are also encouraged to think about the digital profile of a professional nursing student.

How to maintain professionalism when using social media

  • Follow the social media guidelines set out by the Nursing and Midwifery Council. These provide an excellent basis for starting your digital professionalism journey. The RCN has also produced guidance and advice on using social media professionally
  • Always maintain confidentiality and be mindful about what you post; your digital image should reflect the nurse you want to be
  • Ensure all your posts and comments are appropriate to be in the public domain – nothing is private online
  • Make the most of the learning opportunities available on social media by connecting, communicating and collaborating with others

Social media provides a progressive way to learn

Nursing students at Plymouth are collectively known as the PUNCs – Plymouth University Nursing Cohorts – and have an established voice on social media. The @PUNC14 Twitter account has accumulated more than 5,400 followers over the past seven years and continues to grow.

Feedback from our students about the digital professionalism element of their studies has been overwhelmingly positive; they have found it a progressive and different way to learn something new, and a great way to network with their peers.

The @PUNC14 Twitter account has more than 5,400 followers. Picture: iStock

This is reflected in a 2018 study of first-year students’ use of social media in education, where the majority said that using Twitter had been beneficial to increasing awareness of nursing issues within their course. Many found it an engaging way to promote discussion and share information, and most understood the purpose of using Twitter.

The benefits of accessing online nursing networks

Research into the growth of online nursing communities on Twitter also shows that the platform can provide a social and professional space for nurses, and has the potential to influence the health and well-being of different population groups.

Teresa Chinn founded the @WeNurses account. Picture: Chris Balcombe

In 2012, agency nurse Teresa Chinn founded @WeNurses after becoming increasingly isolated while working in various clinical settings. This online community of professional nurses provides a platform to openly discuss issues related to nursing and healthcare and share thoughts on practice.

With more than 100,000 followers, it has since expanded to include CPD opportunities for all healthcare staff through Carrot Learning, which uses Twitter as a platform for social and creative learning.

In 2018, the University of Plymouth joined forces with @WeNurses to develop the WeLearn platform – a bespoke learning opportunity for nursing students, which encourages and enables them to become further immersed in the online world of social networking, teaching and support.

This unique platform guides nursing students through activities to enhance digital professionalism, and explains how to navigate the sometimes complex world of social media.

Tackling the challenges of social media

Digital professionalism is an important part of undergraduate nursing studies but is not without its challenges.

Concerns have been raised around breaching confidentiality and the blurring of professional boundaries, along with students struggling to differentiate between personal and professional identities when using sites such as Twitter.

At Plymouth, we don’t try to hide the negative aspects of using social media but examine them in a professional context, giving students the freedom to express their ideas and concerns.

Online learning remains central to semester planning

We are now well into the new academic year and the uncertainty around the pandemic means staff and students continue to face challenges.

With the introduction of the vaccine well under way, we hope to regain some much-needed equilibrium soon. But as teaching and learning using traditional methods may not be seen for some time, semester planning for 2021 will continue to focus primarily on online delivery.

We have learned that social learning does not need to be face-to-face in a classroom. As educators, we will continue to support our students and use our expertise to guide them in making a success of digital learning environments.


With thanks to Teresa Chinn MBE, co-founder of WeNurses and Carrot Learning, for her guidance and support in putting this article together

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