Posted tagged ‘social networking’

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.


The academic network

September 28, 2015

No doubt the internet creates challenges for academic integrity, but it also provides interesting tools for scholarship. One of these (founded in 2008) is the website, which allows academics to upload their published or unpublished work and get readers, citations and comments. It is intended partly as a tool for academic interaction and the exchange of ideas – a worldwide network of colleagues and contacts one might previously have found only in one’s immediate circle of collaborators.

The publishing house Sage has also created an academic networking site, Methodspace (mainly, I suspect, as a prospecting tool to find promising authors).

More mainstream social networking sites also contain pages that link particular groups of academics.

It has often been suggested that, for many academics, the primary community to which they belong is not their institution but their discipline. As a lawyer, for example, I am often more connected with law academics in other universities than, say, biochemists in my own. As it becomes easier and easier to network with these colleagues across the world, will this further loosen institutional cohesion? This is one of the challenges facing universities today, one that makes it important to present faculty with opportunities to link across disciplines and promote a sense of institutional relevance.

A global academic community is one of the real benefits of today’s technology, and should be celebrated. But a university that is able to bind together its members in an overall purpose is also still important, particularly as cross-disciplinary insights become more and more relevant to global problems. Universities need to be able to work with both dimensions.

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.

Online worlds

July 30, 2011

I recently attend a dinner party at which there was a lively debate about the online experience offered by social networking sites. The overwhelming majority view of those present (average age probably around 58) was that the internet was destroying the traditional concept of a ‘community’ by persuading social networkers that what they were experiencing represented genuine social interaction. It was however not, one person present suggested, a real experience st all: virtual networking was at best a fantasy. A real network needed real human interaction, real meetings, the touch of another human, and people looking into each others’ eyes.

Well, yesterday and today I have been in Los Angeles attending Vidcon, which describes itself as a ‘yearly conference for people who like video’. In fairness, that doesn’t describe it at all. It is a conference for those who reach out to the world on youtube, who broadcast themselves or who ‘follow’ others who do so. There are probably some 4,000 or so people attending the event. I am here to accompany my son, who is an enthusiastic fan of several youtube broadcasters.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but what I have found can best be described as a very lively and very real community. Many of these people have never met ‘in the flesh’ before, but they relate to each other instantly and know each other almost intimately. The opportunity to meet probably adds something, but it isn’t what has established the spirit of community: that derives specifically from the online element.

Maybe we just need to reconsider what constitutes ‘community’. In fact, through email and the web and social networking I know people all over the world, and often feel that they are part of that more intimate circle we regard as genuine friends. So on the whole it is my view that the internet, far from destroying the concept of a community, has enhanced it. If it shut down tomorrow, I would feel a great sense of personal loss.

So I feel that we should stop worrying about all the nasty things we fear the internet is doing socially; instead we should embrace it.

Putting your university on Facebook

April 22, 2011

The online phenomenon of recent years has been, as we all know, the story of Facebook. Celebrated in a Hollywood movie and, equally significantly, on Wall Street, the social networking site has not just become the platform of choice for young people’s online experience, it has redefined what for many it actually means to be online. It has become so fashionable that some young people now have Facebook as their sole online location – they never access any other part of the internet.

One big question raised by this trend is what higher education institutions should be doing about this. So far, while most universities have a presence on Facebook and many are probably wondering whether they should expand their visibility on it, the majority use it unimaginatively. Some – and Stanford University is an example – treat it as they would Twitter (which they will also use unimaginatively), putting on news items that the typical Facebook user will simply ignore. Another example is Oxford University, whose Facebook site is worthy – and that would not be a compliment in the eyes of typical readers there. Just occasionally you get a university trying something different: an example is Texas A&M University, who have made an effort to give their Facebook page a different look and feel.

Overall, however, universities are too often building a social networking presence without apparently having any idea what social networking actually is. Much of the material uploads tend to be automated, and no attempt is made to catch the typical Facebook mood.

Universities may not want to adopt social networking sites as the platform on which to conduct education or provide educational tools, but at least in networking and marketing terms they should take a much more professional approach. If they want to engage students, then at least when advertising their wares they need to do it on the students’ terms. And so far there is very little sign of that.

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.

What kind of smartphone are you?

April 27, 2010

Technology rules not just what we do these days, but who we are. The gadget you take out of your pocket or briefcase when making a phone call, or when taking notes at a meeting, or when checking the score in the latest football game, will tell everyone exactly what kind of person you are.

An interesting perspective on this was considered yesterday in BBC2’s Newsnight programme. Their economics editor Paul Mason looked at the impact of social networking on the British general election; but as part of that he pointed out that social networking was now largely conducted on mobile devices, and for many that meant Apple’s iPhone. Politicians on the other hand were still largely Blackberry users, and this meant that the nature of their mobile device use was fundamentally different from that of the politically engaged general public, who were more likely to be iPhone junkies. Blackberrys, he suggested, were modelled on the idea of distribution of command and instruction, whereas iPhones were based on interactive opinion building and information sharing.

And so what does all this mean? It seems that who we are is now increasingly connected with the technology we use. The gadgets become extensions of ourselves and we become extensions of them; they are part of our intuition rather than just instruments of utility. Companies that ‘get’ that, as Apple undoubtedly does, will dominate in the future. And people who ‘get’ that will be the dominant political forces. And right now in the UK, there is at least a chance that the mood of this election will have been fashioned by Twitter, Facebook and the iPhone. Interesting.

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.

Virtual social fabric

August 2, 2009

A few days ago, as I was walking down Grafton Street in Dublin, I heard a shout somewhere behind me and, a few moments later, someone was pulling my arm and shouting excitedly. I turned and found a young man, maybe 25 years old. ‘I’m a follower,’ he shouted.

Well, before you start thinking that I must have started some strange cult, I should explain that it transpired that the excitable young man was ‘following’ me on Twitter. I’m not sure that what I offer there is in any way sensational, but my friend on Grafton Street was excited, really excited. We chatted for a few momemnts and then, as I needed to get to my next meeting, we parted company. And so one of my Twitter ‘followers’ had been able to meet an online acquaintance and so make his twitterings more real.

Are such encounters part of a real social connection? No, according to the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. It was reported today that he believes ‘social networking websites, texting and e-mails are undermining community life.’ Apparently he feels that social networking sites on the internet provide only ‘short-lived friendships, with quantity becoming more important than quality.’

I would not wish to dismiss out of hand what the Archbishop is saying, because it is true that online friendships and relationships have a different quality that can sometimes produce disappointment. But then again, is that not what society is like, regardless of the medium or forum where it is experienced? In fact, could it not be said that all the online opportunities for forgeing relationships, starting with email, created new communities that have done much to bring social experience to those who might otherwise experience only loneliness?

The archbishop is reported as saying that all these new networking experiences should be abandoined in favour of ‘face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations’; and reading that made me think that, in fact, he is simply displaying an older generation’s detachment from the kind of social interaction that new technology has brought. In reality, all social interaction has its ups and downs, its opportunities for happiness and the risk of loss. And what we need to do is not to want to turn the clock back, but to be alert to the needs of others, and to be supportive of them when we see them.

I have 123 ‘followers’ on Twitter; not many, but still. I must talk more to them.

Just between you and me

March 4, 2009

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently a professor at Dartmouth College in the United States got into difficulty when what she thought was her largely private home page on the social networking site Facebook appeared in a student newspaper; which was unfortunate, because on that page she admitted taking materials for her lectures from Wikipedia and made some derogatory comments about colleagues. The faculty at the College took all this in their stride and not much happened, but it may be that such incidents will make academics cautious about venturing into the world of social networking.

In fact the online world more generally can be a hazardous place if you are given to frank comment. Back in the early 1990s when I first became a regular emailer, a friend of mine who had been doing this for much longer told me: ‘You should never put into an email to anyone what you don’t want your mother to read or what you don’t want to see quoted on the front page of the newspapers’. I understood the wisdom of that advice when the latter occurrence happened to me a few years ago; I inadvertently posted an email intended for four people to a much larger group, and the slightly awkward content (I had expressed my irritation at something) found its way into the Irish Times on what was probably a slow news day. Served me right.

Of course, very little of what we do on the internet is really private. Whatever we do, and however quietly we think we do it, we leave easily found traces of it all over the place. Far better, then, to think of the internet as very large room, where we can stroll around, and even spend confidential moments in a quiet corner; but we are still in view. Seen positively, we are part of a community that is both larger and at the same time more intimate than anything we can easily find in ‘real life’. We are able to experience both the risks and the personal rewards of this community membership.

When I write something by email or on a website, occasionally I stop to reflect that what I am writing could easily become public property, either through error or misjudgement, or in my case also through the Freedom of Information Act. But I don’t mind. I am not here to conspire or hide, I am here to experience the ebb and flow of this vast opportunity for interpersonal contact. I am here, I hope, to open my mind.