Posted tagged ‘Facebook’

The social academy?

April 3, 2017

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.

So how are we coping with social media?

October 16, 2012

I tend to be an early adopter of new technology and all things online. But when it comes to the social media, I was a late developer. I first became aware of the whole scene when, as President of Dublin City University, I was approached by a colleague who wanted to block access by students to Bebo. You may not even remember Bebo now, it’s so very 2007. But in that year it was suddenly all the rage, and students were hogging access to library workstations while chatting to their online friends.

The early lead enjoyed by Bebo was, as we all know, wiped out by the all-conquering Facebook. And along came Twitter also. One of the perhaps unexpected consequences of the social networking revolution was that older online vehicles began to fade. From about 2008 you could see students gradually abandoning the use of email, as their virtual interaction moved to Facebook. Twitter, which was not initially popular with students but was more influential amongst more mature internet users, eventually also caught on and brought the culture of mobile phone texting to internet communications and commentary.

But it has to be said, the academy was nonplussed. It simply could not understand what this was all about. Academics are, in terms of social trends, not always at the cutting edge, and Facebook and Twitter just seemed alien to many of them. Even now, more than half a decade after social networking really took off, most academics have no social networking presence at all; and while universities in their corporate sense do, most have absolutely no idea how to use it. Indeed the risk is that the university world will finally come to grips with Facebook and Twitter just as the online world is moving on to something else.

I recently had a long conversation with an old friend who is a very senior professor in another university. For him, the social media represent a flight from intellectual discourse to ephemeral trivia; a whole generation of young people turning their backs on scholarship in favour of gossip.

For me, it is very different. I suspect some find the social media so difficult because they make directly visible the conversations that previously took place privately in the pub or in a student residence. But this interaction always took place; what’s new is that it is now on the same platforms that also support, or could support, academic conversations. We must not only get used to this, we must be anxious to have some of our scholarship in the places where students, and others, actually want to be. We must look again at how we communicate what we do, and how we engage our partners in the educational journey. And maybe we should remember that pretty much the same reservations were voiced about the printing press when it first emerged.

As for me, I joined Bebo, Facebook and Twitter in 2007. I have no regrets. It is time to harness social networking, and not resist it.

The Twitter revolution

February 21, 2011

What do TCD Provost candidate Colm Kearney and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have in common? They are both aware of the potential of the social media in winning hearts and minds. Kearney was first out of the gate in the campaign for Trinity College’s top post and had a well prepared machine up and running immediately, of which his Twitter account was perhaps the most innovative element. He also has a Facebook account, but I don’t think he has yet put that to work, and indeed may not yet know how to do so.

And Hillary Clinton? Well, she has let it be known that she wants the State Department to use the social media to create a channel of communication with young people in the current areas of turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa.

Whether either of them will use Twitter to practical effect remains to be seen, but it is interesting that both understand the significance of the medium. For anyone following the events right now in the Arab world, doing it via Twitter is a disturbingly different experience. Someone recently suggested to me that getting your news from the BBC is like having afternoon tea at the Ritz Hotel, brought to you on a trolley with a table cloth and in a silver kettle. Getting the news from Twitter is like drinking from a street fountain. It’s different, and you need to know how to do it, but you get something that is both more pure and at the same time less refined.

So for example, I have been following events in Libya on Twitter over the past 20 minutes. During the few minutes it has taken me to write this post up to here, a total of 420 tweets have come in about Libya. Some are sarcastic comments (one suggesting for example that the speech by Gaddafi’s son Saif was scripted by US far right columnist Glenn Beck), some are heartbreaking pleas by Libyan exiles hoping for news of loved ones, some are apparent comments from the current trouble spots, some are short pieces of analysis by news reporters, some are announcements by governments and agencies. Is it accurate? Well, the Twitter world is saying right now that Gaddafi has fled, perhaps to Venezuela. The major news sites seem to know nothing of that. By the time you may be reading this you’ll know, perhaps, what is true. So you cannot be sure about the precise accuracy of what you are reading, but you are getting the full force of the news, rumours and arguments swirling round the system. And you keep an eye on the source of what you are reading.

So what about the TCD election? Yes, it has its hashtag, but so far it lacks the sense of immediacy or the excitement that this should generate. Statements there are genteel rather than challenging, and in so far as the candidates are turning up (and not all of them are) they are massaging their voters rather than challenging them to think. But it’s a start, and it would be churlish of me not to say that I am quite impressed that Colm Kearney has gone out there and tried it. Maybe it’s a good sign and we can hope for a communications revolution in Irish higher education. That is what I have wanted to start, and someone needs to take it forward.

At the cutting edge

January 9, 2011

Is this part of your day: do you switch on your PC some time in the morning, log in and check your email? Do you perhaps access a news site to catch up with the latest developments? Do you Google something you want to find? Do you send some emails, and work on a document in Microsoft Word or a similar program?

Is that you? You do know, I hope, that you are a complete and utter dinosaur. Much worse, you are so last year. The kids on the street make jokes about the likes of you.

Seriously, the online word is changing at an extraordinary pace, and those of us whose task it is to teach the young are often seriously out of step. The intercultural boundaries between the young and the slightly-older are constantly being redefined, and create barriers with serious implications.

Last week I attended a workshop in the United States in which we were told that young people, including students, no longer much bother with ‘the internet’. For them going online means going on Facebook via their iPhones. If they need anything else, it will be on one of Twitter, Wikipedia or youtube. Some are toying with Foursquare. But the very idea of messing around in the undefined prairies of various dot.coms and whatever it is you do on Outlook or Thunderbird strikes them as totally bizarre, and nerdy in a pipe-and-cardigan-and-slippers sort of way. Owning a PC, to many of them, is like owning a steam threshing machine, and laptops are rapidly going that way also. It’s all on the iPad or other tablet, or their smartphone; or it’s nowhere.

The impact of technology change and convergence is something we now seriously under-estimate. Many institutions are busily trying to upgrade from the day-before-yesterday’s technology to yesterday’s, and the gap may be widening. It’s not just the cost of constant changes, but getting into the mindset of how all this develops.

We can still insist on the use of certain technologies for students. In fact, two US academics at the workshop argued that professors need to lay down the ground rules, and that students ned to deliver their work accordingly. But if our ground rules seem wholly out-of-date as far as the students are concerned, it has implications. For better or for worse, we ned to keep pace with the world in which our students move, and we need to engage with it even when we think it’s going backwards.

It is indeed not always easy to see how intellectual inquiry can thrive in the Facebook world. But in the end, Facebook is just a medium, not a message, and we need to adapt to its idiom. In fact, we must stop always just catching up; we need to be ahead of the curve.

Losing our attention span?

July 4, 2010

I think we’ve been here before. When I was 10 years old a professor of something or other (I think it was sociology) from England visited my school, and he had a very stark warning for us young students. We were likely to be the last generation, he said, that could face the rigour of tackling an argument or understanding a treatise. And why? Because of television advertising on ITV (and I guess, Telefis Eireann, as it then was). As these pesky commercials interrupted everything every 15 minutes, our brains would adapt and would be unable to focus on anything for longer than that. For good measure, he also pointed to the growing popularity of tabloid newspapers, and their tendency to wrap up every story, no matter how complicated, in three paragraphs. At least I think that’s what he said. It took him longer than 15 minutes, and my mind may have drifted; or maybe I was just thinking, what a load of codswallop.

Anyway, the professor’s intellectual heirs have continued banging this drum (as no doubt his intellectual ancestors did, from the first moment that the printing press distributed leaflets with bite-size arguments). The most recent drum banger is Professor Gary Small of UCLA (Los Angeles), who is quoted by the Daily Telegraph as warning us about the internet, and all the Twitter and Facebook stuff. It is developing ‘new neural pathways’, he says, and we should be very afraid:

‘Deep thought, the ability to immerse oneself in an area of study, to follow a narrative, to understand an argument and develop a critique, is giving way to skimming. Young users of the internet are good at drawing together information for a school project, for example, but that does not mean they have digested it.’

All my life I have listened to people telling me that modern technology, communications or media are leaving us unable to handle big themes and arguments and are making us skim along the surface of knowledge without really taking anything in. I’m never sure what I am supposed to conclude from this – am I supposed to take a sledgehammer and destroy all that annoying computer hardware, televisions and so forth? Or am I just supposed to expand my complaints inventory and join the ‘Oh-aren’t-we-all-getting-so-thick’ brigade?

I don’t actually care about the new neural pathways, I see absolutely no evidence of a new more stupid generation. Nor do I believe that the availability of much more information, and of hyperlinks to pursue it, has killed good analysis. If there is evidence of anything at all here, it is the fear of the unknown, and of the impact of technology as it changes our lives. Right now the Amazon Kindle, and the iPad, and other devices (another post on this coming up) have helped to grow the number of readers of serious books, and news sites on the internet, including those undertaking serious analysis, are thriving. I believe that there is a natural instinct in humans to look for explanations, and the availability of information to pursue this is developing rather than hindering analytical skills. I am not of course saying that everyone does this well and that information is never misunderstood or abused – but that’s not a new problem.

So for heaven’s sake let us stop worrying about new ways of finding and disseminating information. Let us just harness it.

Higher education as a social media space

May 20, 2010

One of the things I have discovered over the past couple of years is that if I want to have an online exchange of views with students, I really must not choose email. As far as I can tell, students rarely read their email these days, and if they do it is perhaps once a week. It is not an effective, and certainly not an instant, medium. On the other hand, if I try to reach them on social media sites such as Facebook, the results are instant, and while the social networking slang is informal and irreverent, the quality of any exchange there is far better than you could get by any other means.

What should we conclude from this? First, we should be aware (as I am sure most of us are) that social networking is the main forum of choice for electronic interaction by most young people; if you want to find them, that’s where you have to go. I occasionally look at Facebook sites that have been set up for ‘official’ purposes by universities, and usually I am shocked at how bad they are, looking like a formal suit grouped awkwardly with the jeans. Secondly, we need to look again at how we build our online teaching presence and what kind of ‘look and feel’ we create there. We need to capture the social networking idiom for this.

As young people weave their way through online fashions, they have opened up a greater cultural gap between themselves and their higher education teachers than has, arguably, ever existed before. Academics need to bridge this gap if they are to be properly credible to their student audience – and it’s not necessarily an easy task. But it’s a task we must address.

The decline of email?

November 20, 2009

In a post I wrote in July of last year I celebrated the availability of email as a communications tool and described how it had changed my working (and indeed social) life. Back then, and maybe until last month, I assumed that email would continue to grow and would also play an important part in the students’ learning experience. Indeed an Australian report of 2003 placed some emphasis on the academic uses of email.

But in this most unpredictable age, things may turn out differently. Last month at a meeting here in the university some colleagues explained that they had found that the use of email by students was in steep decline. Whereas in the recent past announcements issued by email would have reached the target audience quickly and reliably, their experience now was that a majority of students would not read the information in a timely manner or at all. Email was no longer a reliable communications tool.

At first this seemed highly counter-intuitive to me. I do not believe, on the whole, that technology is ever ‘un-adopted’. Once in regular use it is developed and improved, but not abandoned. So how could this be happening to email?

I suspect that it is not that students have  moved away from electronic communication, but rather that they have moved to other platforms. It is interesting, for example, that about half of all messages I get from students now come via Facebook rather than email. It is in many ways the same thing of course, but using Facebook allows the student to integrate their more formal correspondence with their social networking. Many students who are hoping to talk to me seem to wait until they see me log in on Facebook and then grab me there with instant messaging.

So if I am right, what we are seeing is not a move by students back to the age of paper and quill pens, but rather to newer and (for them) more exciting formats for electronic communication. This also shows that modern technology doesn’t stay modern for very long. And it suggests that we need to develop our online tools so that they have the look and feel and functionality of what students are used to and like in their social lives.

So if you’re an academic and you are not on Facebook, think again. You need to be where your students are, at least some of the time.