Tag Archives: Higher Education

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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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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#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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Public Health Gets its Groove On

A story published in yesterday’s Washington Post reports that for the “global generation,” public health is a “hot field” of research. Although this demographic isn’t defined, let’s assume that it comprises primarily university and college-educated youth with a cosmopolitan sensibility. Echoing some of the conceptual underpinnings of Ulrich Beck’s second modernity thesis, the notion that the processes of modernization have generated unplanned side effects that present themselves as new problems in the forms of risks, the article claims that curiosity and awareness about public health dilemmas and problems is essential in the “flattened, crowded and worried world of the 21st century.” To paraphrase Giddens, risk and danger have become secularized as part of a world structured mainly by humanly created risks which can be assessed only in terms of generalisable knowledge about potential dangers (Consequences of Modernity, p.111).

The article notes that one of the major forces driving this new interest in public health is the way in which media and communication technologies “put students in touch with far-flung people and institutions,” thereby creating demand for knowledge that will enable them to navigate the global village with a greater sense of security and safety. Enter public health studies.

“Observers also credit a flowering of social consciousness in today’s students,” the article reports. “While the causes of their parents’ generation were fueled by protest and relied heavily on symbolic victories, the interest in public health reflects this generation’s more communitarian and practical outlook.”

The article tilts heavily toward an epidemiological approach to public health that relies on a rational self oriented toward stabilizing their identity in a culture of anxiety and risk, mentioning issues of communication and mass media only obliquely. It’s certainly a truism that “nearly all health stories in the news — from the possible hazards of bisphenol A in plastics and the theory that vaccines cause autism, to racial disparities in health care and missteps in the investigation of tainted peppers — are better understood with grounding in that discipline.” Public health advocates and practitioners would also be well served by acquiring a better understanding of communication practices and technologies and of understanding that they can be both produce and potentially alleviate anxiety — no doubt this would also  facilitate the development of more effectively articulated arguments for advancing public health objectives.

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