The social academy?

You’re all very young, so you’ve probably never even heard of Bebo. But actually, Bebo was the real thing in social networking before Facebook got going properly.

Anyway, I first came across Bebo (and social networking) in 2006, when a colleague in my then university asked to see me urgently and rather urgently implored me to ban access to the website, particularly in the library, but also everywhere else. Students were, he told me, logging in to it at all times and were neglecting their studies. Some could even be seen looking at Bebo during lectures (on their laptops, no real smartphones in use back then) and inviting others to look over their shoulders. The world as we knew it was about to end.

It was not just my colleague who was concerned. A few weeks later I received an email from a student, complaining that she could not get access to computer workstations in the library because other students were on Bebo and were preventing her from using them for her studies.

Nevertheless, I decided I would join Bebo, which I did that year. And as I became aware of it I also joined Facebook in 2008; and Twitter in the same year. As some readers will know, I am a regular twitterer, though a more restrained user of Facebook. I occasionally use WhatsApp and Instagram.

Fast forward to the current decade, and Bebo has been bought and sold and bankrupted and re-released as something entirely different; but Facebook and Twitter are still very much there. In universities in the meantime the discussion is not about whether or how to ban social networking on campus, but how and whether to include it in the academy’s armoury. This has become even more important as students have tended to move away from other forms of electronic communication (including email).

An interesting study carried out in the University of Glasgow revealed that 68 per cent of students think social media can enhance their learning experience; though it also concluded that inexpert use of social media can make it all go badly wrong. Overall, it is hard to ignore social media – and universities cannot operate in an environment that is divorced from the experience of their students. Back in the early 1960s I learned to write with a nib pen that you had to dip in an inkwell every few words. We don’t use that now, nor should we expect students to use the technological equivalent (for them) of the inkwell.

Universities are generally taking a more direct interest in social media as marketing tools. But the more interesting potential lies in pedagogy, not least because social media, as the name implies, provide a social experience which can be an enabler for learning collaboration. Some interesting work on this has been done by Dr Fiona Handley at the University of Brighton.

The significance of social media in higher education is not that universities can invade their students’ social spaces, but that they can adopt the look and feel, and the potential for learning interaction, that social networking platforms provide. That is the place to start.

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9 Comments on “The social academy?”

  1. Vince Says:

    What’s your feeling on the MOOC’s today. And have you seen Marc Levoy’s photography course on YouTube. Sponsored and delivered at Google.

  2. paulmartin42 Says:

    On the day that AOL & Yahoo rebrand as OATH & the part-time Twitter CEO mounts another charm offensive it is worth observing what is now happening in University Libraries: books are obsolete, as far as most students (& Pearson) are concerned. Since “2006” we have seen Blackboard sold off by Microsoft and Google morph into the enemy along with Whatsapp, if the traditional media are to be believed. Amazon too is faltering, drone-wise at least.

    So as we attain Peak-Social I am optimistic since be it Bingo for the U3A or the nearest chip van for our teens there will always be a requirement for physical space for Jaw-Jaw. Indeed the same way that vinyl is replacing CDs … maybe that retro Nokia just-calls-only-phone might make a comeback.


    • Yes, we don’t know how technology will develop. Vinyl is making a comeback, but the main thing replacing CDs is the MP3 (or other file formats).

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Yes, it is worth stressing that in spite of the hype “Vinyl still remains a niche product, accounting for just 2% of the UK’s recorded music market.” https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2014/nov/27/vinyls-making-a-comeback-dont-believe-the-hype

        • paulmartin42 Says:

          Anna, I have just seen a copy of The Beatles Vinyl Collection HELP LP in my local (north Aberdeen) newsagent (available directly too from DeAgostini). No copies of the Guardian, no CDs and on close inspection of the Music Mags no MP3s either.

          I look forward to the follow up series – maybe indyref speeches by Alex Salmond set to Beethoven.

          • Anna Notaro Says:

            Paul, I did’t wish to underestimate the fact that vinyl culture has experienced a remarkable revival in our digital times, in fact that is an interesting paradox. The reasons for the resurgence are several: it is a tactile object, with special audio qualities, it is characterised by a long tradition; it is a commodity that can be owned and collected (unlike streaming of music) and it is endowed with its own peculiar poetics and politics. It appeals to the generation that grew up with such a format, but also to youngsters, what better format to covey the sound of the ’60s (The Beatles in your example) than that? Vinyl is only one example of an outmoded technology that becomes a powerful fetish with market value (albeit limited as I mentioned in my previous comment). Behind all this lies a desire for connection which is emotional and symbolic. This is particularly significant in the context of our technologically accelerated culture where technology, and in particular social media, as described in Ferdinand’s post, is reshaping the way that we communicate, interact and think of others and ourselves.

  3. Gordon Dent Says:

    This seems counterproductive to me. If marketing departments push stuff into young people’s social network feeds the young people will either find a way to block them (this is what I do, and I’m not even young) or will move to other social network platforms that marketing people haven’t yet infested.


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