"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."