Category Archives: Research

Higher Education 2.0 (Take 2)

In May 2010, the Huffington Post reported the results of a survey which found that 80 percent of university and college professors were using social media in their research and teaching. I blogged my reaction to the story, expressing surprise, picking at the survey’s methodological problems, and identifying what I considered to be its weak contributions to our understanding of social media use in higher education.

The e-learning company Pearson, which partnered with Babson Survey Research Group to complete the original report, announced yesterday the results of a follow-up survey of 1,920 faculty. Exploring 9 different types of social media among professors, the study reports that professors consider YouTube to be the most useful social media tool by far — nearly 1/3 of respondents report instructing students to watch online videos as part of their outside class work, and 73 percent say they find YouTube videos valuable for classroom use.

As with the previous survey, the current study notes no statistically significant difference in social media use across generational lines. In other words, junior faculty are no more likely to be using social media for research or teaching than more experienced professors. Both studies report variation by discipline, with liberal arts and social science faculty reporting higher levels of interest and use.

When I was a student, which really wasn’t that long ago, my professors used to show videos on Betamax or VHS tapes (by grad school we were on to DVDs) when they wanted to illustrate an idea or theme in the curriculum. If we missed a class, or if there were additional audio-visual materials the professor deemed important, s/he would place them on reserve in the library and we’d watch them there.

I reflect on this not for nostalgic reasons, but because there is really nothing in the current survey to suggest that faculty use of a tool like YouTube is about anything other than convenience. Faculty appear to be utilizing video sharing tools for purely instrumental reasons — the content is more portable and its use in lecture scenarios more seamless in relation to other technologies (e.g. PowerPoint, Prezi, etc.).

But this doesn’t make faculty use of YouTube social. In fact, the faculty surveyed for this study report that they see very little value in using social media for collaborative learning, sharing, or content development and production. Notwithstanding the popularity of YouTube, other social media tools, notably Facebook and Twitter, were panned by almost half of the survey respondents for not only lacking pedagogical value but even harming classroom learning.

The study does not explore why faculty find some tools more useful than others, or under what circumstances they might consider social technologies to be more or less appropriate. This is a methodological blindspot which raises some important research questions that warrant further study.

Have faculty carefully considered the benefits and limitations of social technologies, only to conclude they don’t resolve a pedagogical problem?

Is the problem that faculty don’t understand or see the pedagogical benefits of social media for teaching, research and collaborative inquiry?

Do faculty not have the capacity or skill sets to keep abreast of a rapidly changing media landscape, choosing instead to stick with the instructional technologies tools they already know and trust?

Is the problem one of philosophy and not one of technique per se? Are faculty threatened by the loss of steering control that social media may introduce into a classroom situation?

Addressing these questions is important if we’re to fully appreciate and understand the relationship between social media and higher learning. If you know of any research that does so, please let me know. And please do use the comment field below to raise additional questions, or to share your observations or thoughts about those I’ve posed.

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Congress 2010: Academics Unite

The 2010 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences officially kicked off today in Montreal. The largest academic party in Canada, Congress brings together several thousand scholars, students, practitioners and policy makers to share ideas, debate current issues and events, and advance and promote new research.

It is also a hell of a good time (yes, we academics can be fun…sometimes). Congress provides a venue for nerds like me to meet up with old grad school buddies and former colleagues who have since scattered across Canada and internationally to take up positions in universities, research institutes, government and the private and nonprofit sectors.

Congress hosts the annual meetings of more than 70 associations representing a wide range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, from art history and classics to journalism studies and political science. I’m a member of two associations, the Canadian Communication Association and the Association for Nonprofit and Social Economy Research. Our meetings are scheduled for next week, which puts me in Montreal from June 1-4. Until then I’m busily preparing the slides and speaking notes for the 3 talks I have agreed to give. Here’s a very brief summary:

June 1 – Talk of the Enemy: Adversarial Framing and Climate Change Discourse

This paper was written with my collaborator Graham Knight (McMaster University). Our interest is in exploring the communication strategies of activists and counter-movements who are locked into contentious struggles over policy, public opinion and media attention. In particular we look at the rise of adversarial framing in the debate over global climate change. Adversarial framing is a form of reputational assault — it’s a rhetorical strategy designed to vilify and malign the moral character, competence, credentials and associations of one’s opponents and adversaries. The debate about climate change provides a fascinating laboratory for exploring the claims-making practices of global warming realists and climate change skeptics and our paper focuses on two high profile Canadian examples from each camp.

June 3 – Reframing Social Justice

I was invited by Concordia University’s Leslie Shade to participate in a roundtable discussion with other scholars and public interest activists to discuss strategies and tactics for increasing a “Connected Understanding” of vital social justice issues. This connectivity means many things and we will be discussing the following questions: first, how do we develop diverse modes of research dissemination that will impact policy outcomes for the public interest; second, should we engage in scholarly-activist activity through our research and teaching (and if so how should this be done); and third, what steps (if any) can be made to build a sustainable infrastructure and network of academic-activists who might work collaboratively on research topics of mutual interest that can impact and influence public discourse and policy?

June 4 – Communicating Homelessness and Social Housing in Canada

I have convened this special roundtable to discuss the intersections of policy advocacy and media discourse about homelessness in Canada. Acting as both moderator and speaker, I will discuss some of the findings of a longitudinal analysis of media coverage about homelessness in four Canadian cities (Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa) on which I served as principal investigator. My doctoral student, Gina Grosenick, will present some of the findings of her dissertation research, which explores how nonprofit organizations in these cities have developed advocacy strategies through a ‘negotiation’ of the opportunities and constraints for communicative action. I’m also looking forward to the contributions of two professionals whom I hold in very high esteem: Kate Heartfield, a member of the editorial board at the Ottawa Citizen, will discuss the production pressures newsmakers face in reporting on complex social policy issues; and Michael Shapcott, Director of Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at The Wellesley Institute in Toronto, will speak to the implications of media representations for social justice advocacy.

In addition to the above presentations I am also looking forward to meeting up with my good friend and collaborator Charlene Elliott from the University of Calgary. Our textbook, Communication in Question, has sold very well and our publisher has requested a second volume. A lot has changed in the world of media and communication studies the past 3 years and we will be updating some of the existing chapters and rounding out the book with exciting new content. Stay tuned!

If you find yourself in Montreal next week, please drop me a note and come say hello. I will also be live-tweeting at the other sessions I attend. You can find me on Twitter here.

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#highered 2.0? I don’t think so…

Social media has been the focus of a growing body of research in the past few years. In the social sciences and humanities, a corpus of critical work is building around themes as diverse as usage patterns, impacts on cultural production, ethics, privacy and surveillance (see here and here for examples). Outside the academy, research by consultants, PR and marketing firms, independent analysts and “embedded scholars” has explored how a range of individuals and groups (Canadian MPs; CEOs; celebrities; nonprofit organizations; etc.) are using social media, and the burning question of whether your organization—government, corporate, nonprofit—is ready to launch a YouTube campaign, set up a Facebook Fan Page or jump into the Twitterverse.

Largely ignored in this body of articles, white papers, briefs and reports, are examinations about the impacts of social media within higher education, especially with respect to how academics are using these technologies in their research and teaching. Academics are an important demographic for consideration because, arguably, we are the ones most directly in contact with the teens and twenty-somethings whose lives are increasingly shaped and defined by social media ubiquity. Not only do we have a privileged vantage point for observing and understanding how students use social media, but we are also positioned to teach them how best to utilize the means of information available so they may engage in reflective thought and discussion. This has always applied to Chaucer, Marx and Pasteur. It should apply to Twitter, Wikipedia and Facebook as well.

According to a report published in the Huffington Post, 80 percent of university and college professors, particularly those in the social sciences and humanities, are using social media in their research and teaching.

My immediate reaction was surprise. Drawing on my own experience as an active social media user and professor in a middle-range Canadian university, my observations of my colleagues’ social media practices falls well short of the impressive numbers in the Huff Post headline. Granted, several have a Facebook account, which they mostly use to keep in touch with family and friends, or to post photos and share links to news stories. Many of them also use YouTube videos for illustrative purposes (as my own profs did with film or television recorded on VHS tapes). But I can count on one hand the number who maintain or regularly visit a blog, who use Twitter for research or networking, or have even heard about Chatroulette or Foursquare.

This disconnect between my experiences, my intuition and what the news headline suggests motivated me to review the Pearson data more carefully. Here’s what I concluded:

1. Suspicion: the numbers may be inflated due to sampling error

a) Approximately 10,000 surveys were distributed to Pearson customers with fewer than 1,000 surveys completed. A 9.5% response rate does not in itself fall outside the norm for online surveys, yet the possibility of a selection bias remains because we unfortunately know nothing about the sampling strategy.

If, for example, the subject line of the recruitment letter said “Faculty Social Media Use Survey,” non-users would almost certainly opt out of participation. Active social media users, dabblers and the curious would be more likely to respond, thus explaining the finding that 80% of faculty are using social media. The Slideshare file (linked above) provides only the thinnest information about the study’s sampling strategy. Without knowing more about how the survey was distributed, or the efforts taken to ensure balance in the results, we are in a weak position to assess the quality of the research.

b) Similarly, the study reports that 38% of respondents teach online courses—these courses would almost certainly have a class blog for discussion, Slideshare presentations in lieu of lectures, or embedded video and podcasts to make course material more interesting (all of these are defined in the study as examples of “social media”). In any case, one can legitimately ask whether the results might have been influenced by an oversampling of faculty who may already use these technologies by virtue of the types of courses they teach.

2. Where the Personal isn’t Professional

The study reports that 71% of respondents have watched an online video or listened to a podcast (how frequently or in what context remains a complete mystery – does downloading the latest episode of The Age of Persuasion to my iPod count?). It also notes that barely 20% of survey respondents use YouTube in their teaching and hardly any actually communicate with their students via Facebook (12%) or Twitter (3%). Although a slightly larger number of respondents report using Skype to communicate with colleagues, it’s questionable whether their use of VoIP extends beyond its most basic phone-like functionalities.

A surprising finding from the study is that a professor’s age or years of experience did not appear to determine their social media use.

With the exception of “creating a video/podcast”, the survey respondents reported using social media applications overwhelmingly for personal rather than professional purposes. And while respondents report seeing some value in using video, podcast and blogs for classroom instruction, the vast majority of them judge social networking platforms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook) to be an unworthy tool for research, for collaboration or for teaching and learning.

What to Conclude?

I encourage my students to assess research for the empirical and theoretical contributions they make. In other words, what is new about this study and why is it meaningful? The Pearson study is important because it attempts to fill a gap in knowledge about social media and the academy. I commend the authors for establishing a baseline upon which to build future research.

Ultimately, however, the study falls short on both empirical and theoretical fronts. Empirically, it doesn’t actually tell us anything groundbreaking. What value is there in knowing that 90% of academics are passive social media users? Is it to inform the development of how learning technologies are introduced on campus, or to inform research that might explore how changes in media technology is altering the research, teaching and learning environments? A cynic (not me) might even question whether an academic publisher is motivated here by ulterior  purposes. The important point is that the study doesn’t ask and it certainly doesn’t tell us why these data are interesting. It also does not explore what is arguably the more meaningful question: why are educators under-utilizing available technologies? Is it because they don’t understand what these platforms do? Is it because they are ambivalent about its use? Or, if a recent study by the Ontario Coalition of University Faculty Associations offers any insight to this question, is it because they are deeply suspicious about its value and threatened by what it does to their working environment?

Theoretically, the study makes a very weak contribution. Most strikingly, it does not tease out what is actually social about these technologies. In one sense, it fails to provide a conceptualization of each technology, so we are left to conclude that Twitter=Facebook=Slideshare=Flickr=Skype. Each platform not only has different functionalities but they also enable and demand different modalities of user participation. It isn’t surprising that professors will look to YouTube as a video archive to assist with lecture preparation; but that doesn’t make their use of YouTube “social”. Professors have used video to enhance their teaching for as long as portable video technology has been available.  All this study tells us is that academics are probably treating YouTube more as a content container than a content sharing platform. The fact that so few college and university faculty are using new technologies to communicate the results of their work (what we have now begun to call ‘knowledge transfer’), to network with other scholars, or to share and co-generate new ideas with their students, leads me to conclude that very little has actually changed with respect to why professors use media technology. Ultimately, it’s this pattern of under-utilization that for me is most theoretically interesting. The Pearson study, in placing its emphasis on the headline-grabbing 80% figure, misses this point entirely.

Pearson has offered scholars and practitioners an opportunity to begin an interesting discussion about how social media is transforming our institutions of research and higher learning. There are important research opportunities, policy questions and pedagogical discussions to be had. I propose that we explore these issues more fully and move away from chasing headlines.

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