Don't be afraid to share

Social media allow users to share information about themselves and their interests. Sarah Cunnane examines their role in the academy

October 14, 2010

Do "too many tweets make a twat", as David Cameron maintains? Are social media becoming an increasingly useful and powerful force in higher education, or, as Bill Gates predicts, will they cause the death of the academy?

The experts seem to be divided not only on social media's future, but also on their present in terms of their use by academics, and the research that has been done has reached contradictory conclusions. A survey of UK institutions conducted by online consultants Jadu shows a high level of use among academics, with more than 70 per cent of respondents using social media in some way. However, statistics from the US Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, undertaken by Indiana University Bloomington in spring 2009, suggest that take-up is extremely low. Of the academics who responded, 79 per cent claimed never to have used collaborative editing software such as wikis or Google Docs, while 84 per cent said they had never viewed a blog, let alone written one.

Which survey gives the true picture? Can it really be the case that more than three-quarters of academics have had no exposure to or contact with the social-media explosion?

The social-networking website Facebook, which was launched in 2004 at Harvard University, now has more than 500 million members, while the communications platform Twitter, which started two years later, has more than 100 million users. The video-hosting site YouTube registers 2 billion views a day, and there are more than 80 million blogs around the world on a variety of topics. The quantitative potential of social media in higher education speaks for itself. According to the internet news blog Mashable, 85 per cent of students now have access to a personal Facebook account.

Yet some academics and administrators seem unwilling to come to terms with this technology. Indeed, some still refuse to use email. Terry Eagleton, distinguished professor of English literature at Lancaster University and visiting professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway, is one of the highest-profile individuals who refuse to bow to the increasingly technological nature of communications. He has argued that these online advances lead to academics "being robbed of the most precious medium of reflection, which is time".

Alan Cann, senior lecturer in biology at the University of Leicester, says it is very difficult to change the minds of people who disparage social media and dismiss them as useless - partly because it is hard to convey the nature of the experience to those with no familiarity with it. "It's frustrating because all of this is experiential," he says. "When you have someone who doesn't use Twitter, it's very difficult to explain the value of it."

However, Cann admits that he can sympathise with those who do not see the point of social media. "When I first saw Twitter, I thought it was the stupidest thing I'd ever seen. It took me a year to understand it and figure it out."

Although acceptance of social media has rocketed among the general public, many within the academy remain wary. At last year's Educause conference in Denver, participants in a debate about Twitter identified three main reasons why people may be put off using social media: they think the content is useless or frivolous; they dislike the distraction and prefer to spend time elsewhere; and they think it causes social myopia.

But Twitter has its advocates in higher education. One is Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, who has no doubts about the positive effects of social media on universities. "The availability of broadly online means of communication is completely transforming the way that we work in any aspect of education," he says.

Hall, who was the first head of a UK institution on Twitter, says his foray into the world of social media began with blogging as a way to solve an internal communication issue. He now blogs every Monday, taking up topics that he feels will interest his staff and students. His efforts have brought him a new audience, and not just online.

"I'll be walking across campus to get a sandwich, and people, from first-year students to staff, will stop me to talk about issues I've brought up in the blog. It introduces a very interesting culture of informality: people don't hesitate to call me by my first name because that's how I blog," he says.

Jim Groom is another academic who enjoys social media's ability to start conversations and broadcast information across campus. "It's great to see all this crazy stuff firehosed at you because you get a sense of what's going on," says the instructional technology specialist in the arts and humanities at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. "I love that all these voices are out there screaming this stuff. Social media become windows into the institution."

That notion is echoed by Perry Hewitt, director of digital communications and communications services at Harvard University. "There are so many wonderful stories about education, research, learning, deserving students and erudite professors. Social media feel like wonderful ways to share that out."

Another aspect of social media that can confound late adopters is the difficulty of reconciling the fast-moving nature of technology with the time it may take to gain popularity on social-media sites.

Mark Greenfield, director of web services at the University of Buffalo and a higher education web consultant, says: "If people put a Facebook site up, they want to see results within a couple of weeks. In fact, it takes time to build relationships."

It is important, however, not to determine the success of a social-media project on numbers alone. A university's admissions department could have 100,000 fans on its Facebook page, Greenfield says, "but if that has not impacted on enrolment then it really hasn't done any good".

Although social-media objectives should be tied to institutional goals, Greenfield warns against "analysis paralysis" - spending so much time on statistics that the relationship aspect of social media is ignored.

Social-media tools such as Twitter have not merely started new conversations between peers and across campus: they have also allowed individuals direct access to those in power. Not so long ago, students seeking information about a course or someone wishing to contact a specific official had to navigate through a series of websites and emails and play telephone tag; now it is possible to reach the people with answers or the ability to act via social networking.

In real life, it may be frowned upon - illegal, even - to follow the every move of the likes of Brian Cox, the University of Manchester physicist and science broadcaster. On Twitter, however, it is not only acceptable, but @ProfBrianCox probably welcomes the attention, too.

Some politicians have also been using social-media channels to communicate with the public. Lord Drayson, science minister in the UK's previous government, used his Twitter account to engage with the science community directly after concerns were raised that his additional role with the Ministry of Defence (as minister for strategic defence acquisition reform) would affect his commitment to science. Anyone who asked questions of @LordDrayson received a concise personal reply. Although his answers did not always placate his critics, such accessibility from a government minister was lauded as "extremely admirable" and "unprecedented" on blogs and other social media.

There are, of course, risks involved in joining the social-media world for individuals and institutions because your presence can leave you a target for detractors and critics.

In March, the Facebook page of Nestlé, the food and beverage company, was hijacked by Greenpeace activists. The protest was prompted by the corporation's alleged heavy-handedness in forcing the removal of a video from YouTube that criticised its use of Indonesian palm oil traders who were said to be destroying the rainforest.

The contest between the two bodies spilled over into other social-media sites as well as traditional print media. The end result was an embarrassing climbdown for Nestlé, which was forced to apologise and drop its palm oil supplier.

Clearly, organisations including universities need to be vigilant on many fronts to protect their reputations. "If there is a crisis, you need to take responsibility for your actions," says Greenfield. "Institutions need to be ready; (they need) to know if something bad is being said on social media and then know how to react to that correctly."

It is best, of course, to avoid ambushes rather than scramble around in their aftermath. To do this, he says, institutions must cultivate goodwill with an online audience by being accurate and honest.

"Be authentic, have integrity and a couple of years down the road, if there is a crisis, you will have built up enough trust with people to ensure that they still think highly of you."

Many organisations make the mistake of trying to over-regulate their social-media output, Groom says. "People are worried that someone's going to say 'dildo', and the whole thing will come to a halt because the sacred publishing engine has been sullied. But it has not happened - at least not at my institution."

However frustrating such attacks can be, the darker side of social media has emerged in the ease with which people can use them to attack and undermine others. This was illustrated in a case last month at Rutgers University where undergraduate student Tyler Clementi took his own life after his roommate streamed a video over social media showing him having sex with another man.

In another recent case in the US, an academic's son was convicted of identity theft, forgery and harassment after he used a series of online aliases to try to discredit a scholar who disagreed with his father's research on the origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Despite this, some say that the focus on the technology, rather than the perpetrators, is masking more pressing issues of bullying.

"We knew this would happen," says David Parry, assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas. "As soon as we had Facebook, we were going to get people who would commit suicide on Facebook. Bullying and social ostracisation has always taken place, especially among teens, and that has led to tragic incidents throughout history."

Parry pointed to the case of Philip Markoff, the medical student who is alleged to have killed one woman and robbed two others. He was dubbed the "Craigslist Killer" because he is said to have met all three victims through the classified-advertisements site.

"This creates a narrative of new technologies as things that violate privacy and cause people to die," says Parry. "But it's just that technology makes those occurrences more public and transparent; in the past we may not have heard about these events or fully understood their context because they took place in private."

The problem, it seems, is that traditional methods of support for victims of bullying or harassment in higher education have not evolved as quickly as social media.

"Things such as counselling and university outreach programmes aren't happening at the same speed as Twitter and Facebook," Parry says. "That's a tough bridge to cross and I'm not entirely sure how you would do it, but it's certainly something that needs to happen: these resources need to develop to the point that they are available all the time and very quickly."

It is not just academics and institutions that struggle to integrate social media into their work. It can prove difficult to encourage students to extend their use into the classroom, too. Cann weaves FriendFeed, a social- media aggregator, into assessment for one of his modules, but says he did so "reluctantly".

"Students are used to being heavily guided and focused on assessment - they're told that if you write this sentence you'll get these marks. Consequently, if you wave something in front of them and tell them that it's good but that they won't get any marks for using it, we know that the take-up is very low."

Far from encouraging their use in learning, Martin Weller, professor of educational technology at The Open University, believes that employing social media in assessment has resulted in less student engagement.

"If you force students to use these tools, you get a mandatory use of them. For example, a blog is often used as a tool for reflection, but as soon as you start marking it and making it part of the assessment, you find that the students use their blogs in a dutiful way."

An experiment at the start of the academic year at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania may suggest that, as critics argue, social media can cause more harm than good in the classroom.

For a week at the start of the most recent semester, the university blocked access to social-media sites. The idea was the brainchild of Eric Darr, the institution's provost and executive vice-president, who wanted to start a conversation about how students and staff use social media when they are on campus.

Anecdotal reports from staff and students suggest that those who entered into the spirit of the experiment were able to concentrate better on their studies. Ashley Harris, a senior at Harrisburg, found the blackout a boon: "I've been focusing a lot more in class. It's definitely going to stay off during school now."

Social media's potentially disruptive effects are a matter of concern not just for students. Increasingly, academic conferences integrate a Twitter wall into proceedings so that delegates - and speakers - can get instant feedback on the reaction of individuals to what is being presented. "Even if you're not into social media, there's this whole back channel that will change your perception of the speaker," says Weller. "If the feed's coming up behind you, your talk can get hijacked because people can then follow the feed rather than what you're saying."

That sort of thing perhaps deserves some scholarly research. However, those who wish to explore issues around social media and their use in the academy often find their efforts stymied by a lack of funding.

"I'm pissed off that I can't get a grant for my work," says Cann, whose research has moved beyond his field of biology to social media and technology in the classroom.

The difficulty, he has found, is that research councils are much more willing to fund a project with a tangible outcome, such as building a new social-networking tool, than they are to fund someone using existing networks to collect data. "It's reinventing the wheel: if I build something similar to Facebook, it won't be as good as Facebook because I wouldn't have access to the level of resources it has," he says.

"I don't want to be building some ghetto destination that students have to go to in order to get marks. If we want our students to build social networks that they will use, we need to use public destinations and online resources that people already have confidence in."

The UK's current focus on impact also hampers research funding in the field. As relatively new innovations, social media are seen as faddish and impermanent, still-evolving areas whose place in society is not fixed, Weller says.

"They also suffer from being the latest thing that's going to cause the collapse of society," he adds. "It may be that Twitter disappears, but it's never going to go back to a stage where there is no social networking and no interaction online."

Groom provides an example of using existing social-media tools to academic advantage rather than creating a new solution from scratch. A colleague wanted rare footage of civil-rights activist James L. Farmer Jr and was unable to locate it in the university's own archive. Groom advised his colleague to search on YouTube for the footage.

"Sure enough, there it was," he recalls. "YouTube is an insane archive. If you check the web for existing resources, nine times out of 10 it will deliver."

A fantastic amount of information now flows through social media, and this presents challenges as well as opportunities to academics. But some think it also poses a much bigger question about the continued existence of universities in their present state.

In a speech in August at the Technology Conference in Lake Tahoe, Bill Gates, the chairman and co-founder of Microsoft, made the audacious claim that traditional universities would be made redundant by the availability of information online.

"Five years from now, on the web for free you'll be able to find the best lectures in the world," he said. "It will be better than any single university."

Academics remain sceptical. "I think I'd rather eat glass than watch a lecture online," says Groom. "For us to hold this up as the future of education is desperate and false. Learning is far more complicated than (having) someone talking at you.

"The idea of learning online turns the idea of social media and Web 2.0 inside out. It's a misanthropic vision of the web replacing people with content."

Hall gives short shrift to those forecasting the end of the academy. "Anybody who tells you that the university is dead and that it's all going to be a matter of education via Facebook needs to remember that exactly the same thing was said in about 1995. The death of the university is predicted every 10 years or so on a cycle.

"You can't get a degree on Facebook; you can't get a degree from Twitter. Social media are forms of communication; they are no substitute for the university as the place where your curriculum is structured, where you learn. You don't get a degree for reading books; you read books to get a degree. The same is true of social media."

Of course, in most of the world, you don't get a degree for free either. And the cost of providing higher education in straitened times is giving social media extra impetus as some experts tout them as a way for universities to do more with less.

Groom says that the idea that social media could be used to plug the holes left by funding cuts will not address the loss of expertise and goodwill caused by job losses.

"It's like Jane Eyre: no one wants to look at the mad woman in the attic, which is the chronic underfunding of higher education," he says.

"Higher education has been underfunded for decades, and social media are not a saviour in that respect."

Although they have had their problems, social media continue to grow in popularity, and their presence in higher education is expected to expand accordingly.

Based on the "sea change" he has witnessed at his own institution, Groom believes that social media are gaining favour among academics. "Faculty no longer just dismiss Wikipedia or Flickr out of hand. Social media have been unbelievably powerful in challenging academics in places where they thought they were the experts."

Greenfield is similarly enthusiastic: "I expect that over the next year or so senior administrators are going to see the value of social media and start to bring a little more organisation and coordination to efforts in this area."

Weller, too, is upbeat. "You'll see social media gaining respectability and academics realising that they offer an efficient way to work - a way of maintaining a global network of peers without having to trot around to conferences all the time. I think you'll begin to see how social media impact on traditional academic practice now."

For the moment, most of those working in the field are happy to see that social media have shed the "fad" tag. The key factor to their gaining acceptance seems to be weaving them into institutional plans. "The more you can tie them to strategy, the more they are seen as natural and cohesive parts of an institution," says Hewitt.

But in the end, will social media help academics in their day-to-day work? Their global reach certainly helps. "If I'm going to do my job, how can I not be part of that global discourse? If I'm going to do my job locally, I need to know what's going on globally. If anything has lived up to its promise in education, it's social media," says Groom.

Although social media will no doubt evolve, they are here to stay. And as their use increases, the sector is increasingly becoming an academy of enthusiastic Twitterers. Or, as David Cameron might put it, an academy of enthusiastic twats.


Twitter: A microblogging service that lets users post status updates of up to 140 characters. There are more than 65 million tweets a day.

Facebook: Allows users to add people as friends and join relevant networks. It has more than 500 million users.

Wikipedia: A free, web-based encyclopedia with more than 16 million articles, almost all of which can be edited by anyone with access to the site.

YouTube: This video-sharing website was acquired by Google in 2006. Registered users can upload videos that can be viewed by anyone.

Flickr: Conceived as a chatroom to let people share photos in real time, Flickr has evolved to become a picture- and video-hosting web community.

LinkedIn: A business-oriented social community used mainly for professional networking. A new user joins the site every second.

MySpace: This social-media site is owned by News Corporation. It laid off 30 per cent of its workforce in 2009 after a fall in popularity.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication): Allows regularly updated content from blogs, news outlets, etc to be published in a standardised format. Aimed directly at academics and researchers, this social-networking site has become one of the sector's largest.

Foursquare: A location-based social-networking site. Users "check in" via text or other social media and are awarded points or badges.

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