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

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."

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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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