Tuesday, April 16, 2013


What If Colleges Used Social Media Well?

A savvy professor caught me in the hallway to discuss a presentation we had both seen on social media and its potential for local businesses.  She had a great question that really threw me: what if colleges actually used social media well?

I like the question a lot.  It requires some definition, but that’s fine.

By “colleges,” I don’t mean individual faculty, staff, or administrators.  I don’t even mean PR or marketing offices, who usually control a given school’s Facebook page.  (For my money, the “Monsters University” page pretty much defines the genre.)  I’m thinking about an entire college adopting social media thoughtfully and thoroughly.

As a thought exercise, it gets radical pretty quickly.  And that’s why it’s fascinating.

The animating principle behind the organization of traditional colleges was the scarcity of knowledge.  Before movable type, the scarcity of knowledge was based on the scarcity of print; “recitation” sections were literally recitations of texts.  (Even the word “lecture” comes from the Latin verb “to read.”)  In that setting, the model of one person standing in front of many, reading from a prepared text, made sense.  It was the only economically feasible way to share information.

With movable type the game changed a bit; it became possible to expect students to read outside of class.  (Now we’d call that “flipping” the class.)  They didn’t always do the reading, heaven knows, but it was possible.  At that point, the value added by the professor had to go beyond simply reading the text.  The professor was expected to analyze texts, to pit them against each other, and to help students develop the skills to interpret -- and even challenge -- the books themselves.  Entire academic departments sprung up to interpret the sudden proliferation of print.

In this model, information isn’t as scarce as it had been, but it was still expensive in large quantities, and the skills needed to interpret it took more development.  Professors were valuable in showing students how to handle the material, and in guiding them towards the “right” material.  The definition of “right” material changes over time, but the principle remains.

Now, with the web and social media, the entire concept of information scarcity is moot.   Now the role of the professor is something like “sherpa,” helping students navigate through mountains of information.  Students can access information from just about anyone and anywhere; the goal now is in knowing what to do with it.  

Colleges have fought the most recent shift.  We still allocate lecture time as if it were a scarce commodity.  Online classes are different, but for the most part, they’re still based on the traditional model.  They’re like filmed plays, as opposed to movies.  We charge higher rates than we ever have for access to lectures, even though information has never been more available from more sources more freely.  And we act as if the only way to learn information is to ignore most of what has come along in the last ten years.

Yes, I’m overstating, but not by much.  I’m not discounting individual professors’ innovations.  I’m looking at the institutional framework within which they’re contained.  We’re so wedded to the traditional ways that it’s actually controversial to award credit for skills and knowledge acquired anywhere except in a classroom.

And that’s just the teaching part.  

Some of that has to do with privacy.  Readers of a certain age will remember when it was common for professors to post grades on their office doors, alphabetically by social security number.  That’s unthinkable now, but it was once common practice.  The openness of social media coexists uneasily with privacy concerns, as Facebook users have learned repeatedly.  

But most of it, I think, is economics.  We can’t figure out how the producers of knowledge will get paid.  Since colleges are clusters of producers of knowledge, it makes sense that colleges would be uniquely skittish about this shift.  But the shift is happening.  

Wise and worldly readers, what would colleges look like if they used social media well?

I can't quite figure out what it means to use social media in the sense that you're proposing. What would the purpose be?

I've recently started to think that the Software Engineering programme that I'm involved with should have a Twitter presence; that would be another way of engaging with the broader community (potential students, alumni, current students). As you say, that's essentially PR & marketing (implemented in this instance by faculty).

Do you mean social media for credentialling? Community building? Or something else?
One thing that comes to mind is the sharing of information between faculty and classes. There could be a lot more cross pollination. If the history professor and the English professor were tweeting similar articles, that could broaden discussion, even in a face to face class.

One of the things that strikes me, as someone who uses social media to learn, is how I feel ahead of the curve. If I were in a class, I'd feel like I had something to bring to the table, more than just having done the reading. To me, social media is kind of a mindset. It's looking for connections between things, thinking critically about the information that's coming through your stream, and, if you have a blog, writing those thoughts down, and then responding to feedback.

Imagine if that's what your faculty and students were doing on a regular basis. Maybe students wouldn't passively wait fior the teacher to pass on information, but would have sought out and watched a TED talk related to the class and would bring that up.

Even in classes like nursing or biology, where it seems like there's a lot of content to convey, what if students came together in a forum or google hangout to discuss the material before class, to help others understand parts that didn't make sense. What if they shared articles for further explanation? What if that was just expected behavior?

That seems a little bit like what you mean?
Laura, my 400-level lit. students are doing what you talk about. We have the regular course content or structure, but all semester, as I run across other material online that's relevant (essays, blog entries, author tweets, etc.), I've just e-mailed it to the class. Sometimes required reading, mostly optional. About halfway through the semester, some of them started sending things to me too, to send to the class if I thought it was interesting / relevant enough. I didn't ask them to do it, but modelling the behavior seemed sufficient. Some of what I found, and what the sent in, I've already added to the syllabus for next semester, when I teach the course again. And so it goes!
I have tried on a couple of occasions to maintain a social media presence, in fact the students created a and maintained a page once where I was only contributing.

Other colleagues have maintained a Facebook presence which success went beyond coursework, they were even selling cars and used textbooks to each other.

There is no denying that the undertaking is time consuming: my colleague spent hours posting class notes on the web, but he is the small screen generation and teaches English, so a lot can be done with a keyboard.

Not practical for a Math person who would have to post graphical objects.

But these, of course, are actions take by individual professors, and not a college wide thing. If it becomes a college-wide thing, there will be issues of disclaimers and control of site content-- I pulled down a course website once because a big Kahuna started to vet/edit the website and there were no existing policies for the maintenance of such a site.

It is not yet the time for what DD suggests-- I have visited chat rooms associated with school I attended-- I never found anyone in the chat rooms there or contacted old school acquaintances, but did read some posts from former fellow students.
I think it would help to define what you mean by "colleges." Do you mean that university administration should provide incentives to faculty and staff to use social media effectively, either financial or in relief from other duties? Do you mean that all courses and research activities should be required to have some kind of social media component? I don't really understand what you mean when you say you are not talking about individual uses - what would the institutional end look like?
If you are talking about "delivery" of content, we've been sherpas since books became cheap. (And we've been evolving into another mode as new ones have become absurdly expensive.)

If you are talking about giving away much of what is done in a classroom in the form of free videos explaining how to do X or providing core course information in the free and open web, some professors at my college have been doing that (without extra compensation) for years.
Social media-based learning is real, but it becomes valuable only once students have mastered the basics of a subject through more structured, intentional, hierarchical methods of learning (books, syllabi, lectures, facilitated discussions with a plan, labs, etc). Otherwise, beginning students are immersed in a sea of random or nearly-random ideas and facts. I sure do not want to be cared for by a nurse who learned pharmacology through social media.
I remember when professors posted our grades, WITH OUR NAMES, on their door.
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