Social Media's Slow Slog Into the Ivory Towers of Academia

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Underpinning a disdain for social media in higher education is the assumption that incoming students have an inherent aptitude for new technologies

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"If you took a soldier from a thousand years ago and put them on a battlefield, they'd be dead," Howard Rheingold, a professor teaching virtual community and social media at Stanford University, told me one morning via Skype. "If you took a doctor from a thousand years ago and put them in a modern surgical theater, they would have no idea what to do. Take a professor from a thousand years ago and put them in a modern classroom, they would know where to stand and what to do."

Terms like "digital native" and "digital immigrant" have been used by marketers as a way of differentiating generations.

This tale is not new. The vaunted halls of academia move slowly and cautiously. Research is produced, reviewed, and vetted to be given credibility, and there are times when this deliberate pace poses problems for professors, philosophical, pedagogical or otherwise. But the rise of social media may change that. With social media becoming increasingly pervasive on college campuses, in classrooms and in dormitories, a shift in how higher education approaches the medium is under way, if at a much slower rate than in the professional world.

For the last several years, teaching social media has been reactionary, found either in non-matriculated night classes for the working professional or in business schools for the budding marketer to learn and hone his or her online and social marketing skills.

"Some people were affected directly in their everyday lives by this thing called social media," says Mihaela Vorvoreanu, an assistant professor of computer graphics technology in the College of Technology at Purdue University, who teaches a doctoral level research seminar in social media. "They had to figure it out. There was no choice about it. They had to learn about it." So they went back to school to learn how to create Facebook campaigns, how to incorporate SEO best-practices, how to blog, and how to create social media strategies.

But as social interactions and technologies mature, there has been a swing in the pendulum. Professors are now approaching the teaching of social media from a pedagogical perspective, as much as a practical one.

Teaching Social Media Theory

In communications, business, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and information technology departments across the nation, theories of social media -- and how to teach it -- are becoming more prevalent. Sarah Smith-Robbins, professor and Director of Emerging Technologies at the Kelly School of Business at Indiana University, teaches a course called "Social and Digital Marketing." "We go over the theories behind social media: why do things go viral, the social theories of how people act and how they communicate to a network, or one person at a time, and why do certain tools work they way they do for us," she says. With an obvious slant towards the professional, these theoretical questions help students grasp the fundamentals of social media, outside of posting personal status updates on Facebook or Twitter. Instead of understanding social media as products, students are encouraged to treat status updates as part of a larger information ecosystem.

"As faculty, we're always trying to engage our students better," Smith-Robbins says. "If we see them using a tool like Facebook, there's this huge temptation to say, 'Well, I use Facebook in class,' because that's where they're at. More times than not, it doesn't work because it has to be a pedagogical decision first, rather than a technology decision. Plus, all these tools have their own culture and if you try to use them for something different, you're more often than not going to make mistakes."

With social media being a pervasive, if not invasive, aspect of our lives, it makes perfect sense for the Ivory Tower to embrace social media from a theoretical perspective to help students understand the technology and its effect on their daily lives, as well as the epistemological question of "how do we know what we know?" At Bradley University, Heidi Rottier started a social media class in the university's marketing department and has now, with her marketing department colleagues, created a Social Media minor to address this issue.

"Helping [the students] understand that in all they do, in all the traditional media world, now has to be translated and useful in the social media world," she says. "Our thought in creating the concentration was we wanted students who were uniquely prepared with a strong marketing background to then do the social media side."

Each discipline approaches teaching of social media differently: The medium is relatively new enough that there's no canon shaping social media, just conceptual frameworks for looking at the effects of social media on students' lives and communities and on society as a whole. The task of academics is to give students a vocabulary to understand these perspectives, tools to make sense of the theoretical discussions and think critically about social media.

The Anti-Social Media Faction

However, not all academics are embracing the teaching of the social world. "There are people who are anti-social media, who couldn't care less one way or another," says Reynol Junco, a professor in the Department of Academic Development and Counseling at Lock Haven University. "Opinions run the gamut from hostility to preaching of the benefits of social media. The assumption from faculty is that students are on Facebook and not doing anything else, and taking all their time away from study."

Junco teaches a Social Media in Higher Ed course, exploring multiple ways social media can be pedagogically incorporated into higher education. "It amazes me how many courses are out there about social media that don't use the tools in the course," said Smith-Robbins. "It's like studying to be a doctor and never touching a body, and then going into practice. You gotta get your hands on it, know how it works. You can only theorize about how these communities work if you're not willing to actually go in and see how they function."

Professor Vorvoreanu agrees: "I don't think you have the credibility of doing research, of writing about, unless you get to really know that culture. And the best way of knowing the culture is to actually be immersed in it."

This anti-social media outlook cited by several professors is endemic in an educational system that has, as Rheingold puts it, "no positive incentives for innovating in pedagogy."

Social media creates an opportunity to change this outlook -- whether through, as Rheingold says, deprogramming students in the way they learn by using the tools available to them, or by throwing them out into the business world, via internships, armed with theories of social media. Of course, the latter has led to an even more interesting set of assumptions.

The Myth of the Digital Native

Underpinning a disdain for social media in higher education is the assumption that incoming students already have an inherent aptitude for new technologies. Students in Professor Smith-Robbins's class kept running into a strange obstacle at their various internships. Many of them were born after 1992, right at the beginning of the popularization of the Internet, and their employers, executives at Fortune 500 companies, believed the students inherently understood social media.

Terms like "digital native" (those born during or after the introduction of digital technology -- computer, Internet, etc. -- and have an assumed greater understanding of how technology works because they've been using digital technology their entire lives) and "digital immigrant" (those born before this introduction and have had to adapt and adopt the technology at a later point in life) have been bandied around by experts and marketers as ways of classifying and differentiating between generations, and, more importantly, the expectations of those who fall into either category.

Professor Vorvoreanu pointedly declares these terms a myth. "It's a myth that's harmed this current generation," she said. "And the way it has harmed them is because it has stopped educators from teaching what they need to teach. It has scared educators into thinking students know more than us. God forbid we learn something from our students. And, so, we assumed these kids already know, and we don't teach them. And we expect them to know things and we grade them; we evaluate them; we hire them based on what we think, we assume, they know. And they don't. How would you know this stuff if no one ever bothered to point it out to you that this is something you should be learning, because everyone assumes you already know?"

Another set of issues stemming from the notions of "digital native" is the lack of critical literacy. Since students of the Digital Age have not had to acclimate to this sweeping change from analog to digital and are assumed to possess some innate technological knowledge based solely on the year they were born, they don't necessarily have to acclimate to the sheer velocity of recent innovations.

"We have on our hands the last generation of educators who do remember life before these tools, and so therefore, we have an opportunity to teach some critical literacy that these students may not get otherwise; this generation may not get otherwise," Smith-Robbins says.

One of the ways to approach critical literacy is by changing the pedagogy. Rheingold, who is at the forefront of the social media classroom, believes in collaborative learning. Rheingold puts the onus on the students to learn not just from him, but from each other. Instructors can serve as a facilitator, but the student has to want to be there, process that information, and use that information in a productive way.

"The students teach each other much more than they used to," he said. "They need some guidance on how to do that, and they need a little bit of an awakening because they've been in a kind of test-trance for so many years."

As the study of social media swings from the practical to the theoretical, many institutionalized issues will arise -- from internal politics to claims on which department owns social media. But what seems clear is that teaching social media through a traditional mode will not suffice. And, while 'digital native' is a misnomer at best and marketing myth at worst, students (and recent professors) growing up in the Digital Age will have a different set of expectations -- about education, about professors, about life -- upon entering school.

"The issues around social media -- community, identity, presentation of self, social capital, public sphere, collective action; a lot of important topics from other disciplines -- aren't really being raised in academia," said Rheingold. "They ought to be because these topics, not only academically, in terms of the shifts in media and literacy that they're triggering in the world, are where the students live and work."

Image: Creative Commons.

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Josh Sternberg is a freelance writer, former adjunct professor and recovering communications professional based in Brooklyn. He blogs at The Sternberg Effect.

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