Social Media in Academia — A Debate
What role should social media play in the college classroom?
We recently posed this question to two professors on opposite sides of the proverbial fence. Marcus Paroske is an assistant professor of communication. He enjoys being social, and many different media, but rarely uses any tools that combine the two. James Schirmer, assistant professor of English, incorporates social media tools like Twitter into his classes’ coursework. He tells us that, “like most tools, social media have no responsibilities, but we should be responsible in our use of them and encourage others to do the same.” Can the two find common ground about the proper place for social media in a university setting?
I was watching news coverage of the ravenous appetite for stock in the initial public offering of the social networking website LinkedIn not too long ago, and they were throwing some numbers around about the share of the internet that is devoted to social media. Forbes predicts that 2 billion unique users will use Facebook in the future. I can only imagine the percentage of users among UM-Flint students.
Now, I don’t use any social media cites, despite consistent prodding and teasing from friends and colleagues. The reason is largely personal. I continue to cling to archaic values like privacy and boundaries; I am also largely uninterested in what someone I met briefly two years ago thinks about some shoes they just bought. That probably makes me a social neo-luddite, and I recognize that almost all of my students rely primarily on social media for their primary communication.
In fact, social media is so common now that good old fashioned face-to-face spoken word is not a skill that we can assume students come to college with anymore. Actually reading an entire book and then sitting in a room physically with 15 other students while discussing its content for an hour is something foreign. Analog information, not at your fingertips instantaneously but as the result of careful and time consuming reflection, is a lost art.
So, what is the role of social media in the classroom? Minimal, if we want the classroom to take students out of their comfort zone and help them generate new skills.
Thanks for getting the ball rolling, Marcus!
This “ravenous appetite” you mention disturbs and perplexes me as making money wasn’t part of the original idea or intent of the internet. That a potentially important service might go under due to lack of funding or investment is a specter that haunts some of my online work.
What’s interesting to me, though, is that I use social media (primarily Goodreads and Twitter) for the same reasons that you don’t. I value boundaries and privacy, too, and social media provide me the opportunity to take control of and develop an identity conducive to my goals and relevant to my interests. Like you, I’m uninterested in trivial updates, so I tend to not follow people who post such things. Social media present us with choices and I don’t think choosing not to open an account is enough to make you a neo-Luddite.
However, I’m unsure about any connection between social media and a student’s ability to read a book and then discuss it in a classroom setting. If this is foreign for some students, isn’t it more indicative of lacking confidence and/or experience? If a student has limited or no incentive or opportunities to read and discuss prior to entering our classroom, I don’t think we can fault social media. I mean, I struggled as an undergrad to read and discuss in a classroom setting and I graduated three years before Facebook was born.
For me, the question about social media’s impact on education isn’t so much “should” as it is “how.” For instance, students are already on Facebook (and may access it during classes). How we address, ignore, or even reject that says something about our pedagogy.
We can probably agree that, as an overall tool for identity management, social media is what you make of it. There are of course broader issues of data security that are implicated, but if one is willing to run that risk (or doesn’t care that companies are examining the pictures on your website to see what branded products you use) then use away. But make no mistake; all of these companies are about to go public, which definitely makes them money makers. How that changes their role in society will be important to watch.
In the classroom, though, I wonder if we should take the presence of these tools for granted. You push the question of “how” not “should” as if social media is a fait accompli in pedagogy. Well, let’s lay out some possibilities on “how” then. There is a weak sense of social media, where the tools are used for basic communication about material not directly related to course content. You tweet “Don’t forget papers are due next week” or put some links up to websites related to the course on Facebook. There is also a strong sense of social media pedagogy, where course content itself is filtered through the technology. Video lectures on Youtube? Classroom discussion via Twitter?
You don’t have to be Marshall McLuhan to know that “the medium is the message.” The strong sense of social media, I contend, makes it much more difficult to deliver richness and detail in our communication with one another. Part of the whole point of social media is convenience, that I can collect information quickly and often in a truncated form. Sure, I could hold office hours on Facebook. Indeed, I am confident many more students would interact with me if I did. But the possibility of an in-depth conversation is lost.
And I agree that using social media doesn’t prevent one from being able to read a book. But what I worry about is that soon everyone will take social media pedagogy as the norm, that they will stop asking “should” and just assume “how,” and so then asking a student to read a book becomes something bizarre or unjustified. As you say, they’re already on Facebook in the classroom anyway. Multitasking is the default now. I don’t see anywhere else in society where skills of actually being together with each other, focusing on one thing is required (we don’t even find people to date in non-digital spaces anymore!). I would hate to lose that.
There are issues of data security in being online at all, even via email, and while we do hold the ultimate choice in whether or not to use social media, there can be a point at which social media use us. This is one of the many reasons why I’m on Twitter and not Facebook. I also agree that users of social media should keep a close eye on financial developments related to the services they use.
Part of social media is convenience, yes, but I view it as more about connection, whether it’s a blog post about last week’s class or a tweet about an upcoming deadline. As such, I implement social media in my courses in ways that scaffold aspects I think we both value: critical thinking, reflective practice, etc. Blogging functions as part of writing traditional research papers; tweeting supplements in-class discussion about assigned readings. Social media don’t replace in-depth conversation or reading books, but offer another way for me and for students to share what’s important.
Am I taking the presence of social media for granted? I will say that I have come to see social media as an irreversible fact as internet piracy. As much as the RIAA attempts to curb the illegal downloading of music, there’s really no stopping it. If the U.S. government increases its efforts to shut down websites that enable such downloading, other websites will continue to pop up. Internet piracy presented an opportunity for the music industry to rethink their distribution model, to provide access to their product in ways more consumer-friendly. That the RIAA instead took to suing music fans is both disappointing and troubling. Does social media present educators with a similar opportunity? I like to think so. Will we squander it as the RIAA has? I hope not.
So how would we squander it? If the folly of the RIAA is to defend an antiquated model of disseminating content at the cost of allowing new innovators to overtake them as a way to connect musician with patron, then our folly as educators would be to cling to the old industrial model of education (sitting in a room for a set amount of time, diligently taking notes and then passing an exam based on your ability to remember those notes) and let others step in to provide socially mediated education. The Khan Academy is at the gates!
But college pedagogy has been rethought countless times, to adjust to the vast changes in society over time. The strong core of civic engagement, service learning and experiential education at UM-Flint, I believe, is one of our greatest strengths. Not too long ago, embedding those ideas into the college curriculum would have been rare. Finding ways to do it requires experimentation and a willingness to fail in the interests of perfecting the craft of teaching,
I like your idea of using social media as opposed to letting it use us, James. You have determined that certain tools (Twitter) work better that others (Facebook), and it is incumbent on all of us to carefully examine how social media serves us, rather than using it for the sake of newness. For example, I was a late adopter of Powerpoint as a visual aid during lectures. I study public address; surely, I thought, the spoken word is best when students carefully listen rather than just jotting down some notes on the screen and tuning out until the next slide. I decided to use Powerpoint first in my most complicated class, History and Theories of Persuasion. And you know what; the student response was so positive that I could not abandon Powerpoint after that. When students say “That tool made it much easier for me to understand and engage the material” that is the only and best standard of successful pedagogy that we ought to have. Being careful that the next generation of tools do that is the key.
Regardless of our relative early/late adoption of social media and/or technology, I think we are in agreement about how to approach both, Marcus. If we come to use social media like Twitter and technology like PowerPoint from a point of critical examination rather than “for the sake of newness,” there is that potential to better fulfill our educational mission. That we remain open but critical in what we introduce to and use with students in the classroom is crucial. This is even more important right now, given the speed of technological progress and its cultural influence.
Because of this speed, I cannot help but wonder if college pedagogy has been rethought enough. Of course, this may just be an expression of my own impatience, and an unfair comparison, too, given all we do as college educators. However, I do think that just as we model good academic discourse through our speaking and writing, we can and should model good use of social media and/or technology. There is a kind of tacit model produced when we use social media and/or technology in our courses, but how often do we engage students in discussion of whether or not that model is successful? It’s clear that you have engaged that discussion and benefited from it, just as I have in talking with students about social media.
These are brave things we’re doing, Marcus, both in taking pedagogical risks and being vulnerable to and with our students as well as discussing those risks and vulnerabilities with fellow faculty. This is part of the reason why I accepted the offer to participate in this dialogue. Any time we have to engage fellow faculty in questions like the one’s posed I see an opportunity for us to challenge and reaffirm our commitments to higher education.
UM-Flint student Amy Livingston recently published her thoughts about how the institution utilizes social media on the Yahoo! Contributor Network.
What is your take?
Comment on Amy’s piece or submit your thoughts to Pillars.