Twitter in the Tower

My university’s PR department recently invited me to talk about the benefits and limitations of using Twitter in support of research and teaching. As a communications professor (trained as a sociologist), I spend a lot of time playing with digital media, experimenting with and thinking critically about how technology affects intellectual labour, the delivery of education, and social relations among faculty, administrative staff and students.

Universities are confronting the effects of social media, as are medicinepublic healthlawgovernmentpolicing and other major societal institutions. Incidentally, these institutions were also forced to confront and adapt to the introduction of myriad other kinds of technology, from presentation software like PowerPoint to the Internet, video recording, the microphone, the fax and photocopier, television, the telephone and…well you get the picture. One recent experimental study concluded that if used effectively and in support of sound pedagogy, Twitter has potential for enhancing student learning and increasing engagement. Another study  provides a compelling argument which challenges the transformative potential of social media in the classroom. Funding agencies, such as Canada’s Tri-Council (SSHRC, CIHR, NSERC), are more assertively encouraging grant recipients to promote ‘uptake’ of their research to a variety of end users (e.g. policy makers, community organizations, clients and consumers of social services, etc.), and have developed knowledge mobilization strategies to advance this agenda. Although tweeting about one’s research is not in itself a strategy for dissemination, if used effectively it can support a range of knowledge mobilization efforts, such as producing documentary filmsbrochurestheatre, and other media that advance the core findings of funded scholarship.

In my presentation I covered how I use Twitter in five different ways, and referenced a recent online conversation I had with other professors who use Twitter in their work (here’s the Storify version of that conversation).

Research: Twitter is both an object of analysis and the medium through which I do some of my research. Some of this work examines how social media is altering the ways institutions and actors within the arenas of politics, business, and civil society communicate. I’ve explored how Twitter and Facebook have affected local and national political campaigns, been used to promote NGO and nonprofit causes, as well as how corporations use digital media as a tool for managing crises and restoring reputational damage. I am also increasingly conducting “live research”, which involves monitoring social media for “hot” events in several areas of substantive interest (e.g. public health, environment, and homelessness). This blog post about the 2011 Ottawa endoscopy infection scare (which I’m presently developing into a journal article) was written over the course of several days after news of what occurred was first live-tweeted at an Ottawa Public Health news conference.

Building Profile: I described in my presentation how I use Twitter to supplement traditional knowledge dissemination and profile-building activities, such as writing for peer-review and attending scholarly conferences. In practice, this involves linking peer-reviewed research (my own or work by others) through my Twitter feed if the research addresses a contemporary issue or event that may be generating or attracting policy or media attention (see examples here and here). I will admit to having felt uncomfortable about “flogging” my own work in this way. Eventually I came to realize that I write not just for myself but in order to be read, not only by other academics but a variety of audiences: policymakers, journalists, community organizations, activists and people in business.

Professional Networking: if funded, my next project will apply ethnography to examine the occupational rhetoric and culture of public relations in an agency setting. Although I worked for a brief time in a PR firm years ago, my knowledge of the cultural milieu of PR agency life remains essentially impressionistic. Importantly, no serious qualitative research into PR agency life has ever been done before. Twitter has been a valuable tool for helping me to network and build rapport with public relations educators and practitioners, both of whom spend a lot of time using social media in their work.

Twitter has also been instrumental in helping me to meet and learn from other researchers in my field and other disciplines. In addition to using Twitter to search for and share research, I also use Academia.edu, a social network for academics, to assist with literature reviews and to ask questions of other scholars who post their work (published and unpublished) on their profile pages.

Teaching: I described how Twitter allows me to share links to news reports, clips from films and other pop cultural artefacts, as well as current or emergent research about course-relevant themes and topics. Sometimes this has taken the form of what I call a “trailer tweet” that provides a snapshot to help focus a broader discussion. To prime my second year communication studies class for a lecture about the Frankfurt School and its critique of the culture industries I tweeted (during the early days of the Occupy Movement in the fall of 2011) an interview with Theodor Adorno in which he talks about the relationship between popular music and protest.

I have also used Twitter to pose trivia questions that relate to course material and to solicit feedback from students following lectures or presentations. All of this activity is used to supplement other efforts of communicating with students in person, on the course website, and in the classroom. It’s unclear whether this activity has made a lick of difference in terms of enhancing student learning and increasing engagement. At this point I would conclude that while it may be helping to keep students aware of the course between classes, it hasn’t helped foster intellectual curiosity, analytical thinking, or debate. Yet I remain interested enough to continue experimenting and evaluating, and learning from others who are doing the same.

Personal: I also talked about my use of Twitter for things that have nothing to do with my work. Twitter is one media platform among several others I use to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues, and to share aspects of my personal life that are not directly related to my work: the funny things my kids say, promoting social causes I care about, and my love of music, sport (especially cycling and running), and even television (although, technically, as a communications professor I only watch and talk about Mad Men for the science). It’s also a great space for participating in crowd-sourced satire.

Some might dismiss this activity as excessively mundane, but so what? University professors log on, goof off, and look things up too. My friend Richard Smith, who is the Director of the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology (CPROST) at Simon Fraser University, writes that while tweeting about silly things “might not be the most edifying use of a communication medium…we can all afford a bit of drivel in our lives. At the very least, it shows others that we are human, too.”

Finally, I concluded by summarizing what I see as some of the main benefits and potential drawbacks of the time I spend playing around and working in the digital mediascape. While it has certainly contributed to and enhanced my research, profile building, networking and teaching, it is also a demanding activity that takes time away from other things I could be doing, like preparing for a class, finally finishing that journal article or enjoying an extra 30 minutes of sleep. There are also important ethical questions relating to privacy, power, and identity, among other issues, that I can’t possibly address here but which I think about often. Moreover, I remain unconvinced that social media is truly as ‘transformative’ as digital media enthusiasts would tend to argue . Finally, I also reflect a lot on the self-promotional nature of this activity and of the dilemmas this raises about the commercialization of academic work.

If you’re a university or college professor who embraces, is curious about, or refuses to use Twitter in your research, networking, or teaching, I’d love to hear from you. I’m also keen to hear from students about their experiences using social media in the classroom. And if you just want to tweet me what you thought of this week’s episode of Portlandia that would be cool too. You can find me on Twitter @josh_greenberg.

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5 Comments

Filed under Higher Education, Social Media, Technology

5 responses to “Twitter in the Tower

  1. Thanks for sharing this post Josh. Several thoughts come to mind. First, I’ve been thinking about transmedia recently and wonder whether this would be a useful way of engaging students in their studies by effectively ‘gamifying’ their proactive investigation of a topic across relevant and various social media. In that way, Twitter could become a signpost, a narrative medium, an opportunity to co-construct communications/knowledge and so on.

    That leads into my second thought which is derived from reading about how Apple wants to disrupt the education model with more interactive learning materials and formative feedback etc. I like the idea of such materials, but already invest a lot of time preparing study materials and offering feedback – mostly unpaid. It seems that (as with textbook writing) there is little recognition of the intellectual and economic value of academics/educators. Should we stop creating materials and instead act as curators for what already exists via online and social media (and our own more academic research)? Do we engage students more in creating their own learning materials?

    Thirdly, where does the personal and instituational boundary lie with our engagement in social media. Your promotional activities seem primarily for your own work, but of course, that should be interconnected with the organization’s reputation. At what point does the organization interfere and start to cite policies etc at you?

    Finally, you talk about how you use Twitter and mention lack of participation by students. My experiences tend to reflect this with perhaps 10 per cent max of undergraduate classes, and up to 50 per cent of practitioner classes, making a connection via Twitter. Few reTweet or comment, but to be honest, I think I don’t do enough pro-actively engaging with their social media presence either. But one thing that I have noticed, which I find odd and annoying is the way some undergraduates send Tweets either instead of, or to follow up, emails. This happens at any time of day or night with the expectation of an instant response. As Twitter is a public medium (ie they aren’t DM’ing), others could get the impression that I’m non responsive. But when someone sends an email at say 11pm, then 2 minutes later a Tweet saying you haven’t replied, it is clearly their expectation not my engagement that is questionable. But is this the future? I do hope not!

    • Josh Greenberg

      Thank you Heather for your feedback. You raise several important issues, which I’ll try my best to address. Your notion of ‘gamifying’ student use of social media is interesting and potentially fruitful. I suspect it would be more relevant to social science students who are engaged in debate about current issues and events, and for students in professional programs in particular (journalism, public relations, etc.). I’m not yet convinced that enough students are using Twitter or Facebook for much more than socializing, gossiping and a little bit of news gathering that we ought to invest much time and energy in trying to refocus their time spent on more lofty pursuits.

      To your second point, this raises both an important economic observation and a pedagogical one: economically, most students cannot afford tablet computers. I have learned this the hard way this term in my PR course when I assigned a novel study as one of the course requirements and did not order hard copies of the book as I anticipated most students would take advantage of the cheaper price and order to their Kindle, iPad or other tablet device. In a class of 31 students, there is 1 who owns an e-reader. So it’s fine for Apple and other technology companies to propose a ‘transformation’ in how students learn, but I hope that universities will do their due diligence to ensure they are not going to create a digital divide that will make it even more difficult for students to learn (the cost of tuition is tough enough). In terms of pedagogy, I think you raise an even more important question about the role of the professor/teacher. I don’t know the answer other than to say that while it may not always be necessary for educators to be the sage on the stage, I also think that our role is to foster analytical thinking, promote the development of debating and discussion skills and teach students how to evaluate evidence in service of an argument. Technologies are getting more sophisticated but they will never be able to do these things.

      In my presentation, I was asked by one of the communication staffers whether I have both a personal and professional account on Twitter. I responded that I do not for two reasons: first, I have enough on my plate than to manage two Twitter accounts; second, and more importantly, the distinction between my personal work and professional work is often difficult to distinguish: social media is in some cases an object of cultural analysis (i.e., how people use it and why) so that requires participation in conversations about things that might appear quite mundane or banal, such as the back channel chatter about television. But I think her question (and your observation) is important. Our university has a social media framework which, when first released had rather strict language about appropriate terms of use — something to the effect of not posting anything that might embarrass the university. Thankfully those guidelines have been softened, I presume to encourage people to actually use it, not to mention fostering an environment that supports free speech.

      To your last point, one of the PR officers noted research which indicates that students still prefer to keep their personal lives online separate from their lives as students. Intuitively I think she’s right although I also believe there’s increasingly more blurring across boundaries. I often poll my class to see how many have a Twitter account and the numbers are roughly close to what you’ve listed. I have also had instances of students who send me DMs as a mode of professional communication (“Dear Prof, when will the PPT slides be posted?”) rather than email, which is more appropriate (or in-person, which is preferred). I don’t require that my students use Twitter, mostly because I know there is still uncertainty and skepticism, but also because when we start requiring them to use any type of technology that’s when it will become less enjoyable.

      Thanks again for the comments.

  2. At York the Institute for Research in Learning Technologies has been providing discussions spaces for faculty using twitter in the classroom for a couple of years. The Knowledge Mobilization Unit has combined our twiiter for researchers sessions with those from IRLT to deliver a 2.5 hour session offered to faculty and research staff. In addition to twitter we are building capacity around a variety of social media platforms for researchers. These tools are increasingly becoming part of the scholar’s tool kit and we are seeing scholarship on these tools emerging from academics who are not only using social media but making part of their inquiry. What we need are more peer leaders who can lead their colleagues and deminstrate the added value of social media to an academic career. Thanks for being one of these leaders with your post.

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  4. Pingback: Communicating Beyond the Academic Community - Research to Action - Research to Action

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