Connected Learning

What higher ed can learn from social media.

October 20, 2014

The headlines are legion, the sentiment, widespread: “Why Social Media is Destroying Our Social Skills” (USA Today). “Evidence Grows That Online Social Networks Have Insidious Negative Effects” (MIT Technology Review).

The rise of social media, many fear, is ruining authentic interpersonal relationships. No amount of social media, we are repeatedly told, can ever equal face-to-face interaction.

Social networking has altered our very vocabulary.  And it’s not just a matter of “tweets.” Consider such words as “like” or “follower” or “network” or “hashtag” or “endorsements” or the verb “friend.”

Face-to-face interaction, long upheld as the gold standard of social connection, has increasingly been supplanted by social media as the dominant way that the young interact and communicate and develop social competencies.

Nor are social media tools confined to the young. Social networks offer professionals a forum for showcasing their expertise, staying in touch with current trends, and expanding their web of professional contacts. For corporate leaders, social media provides a vehicle for making decision-making more transparent.  For workgroups, social media provides mechanisms for collaborative work projects.

Facebook, Instagram, Linked In, Reddit, Tumbler, Twitter have reimagined social connectivity. Whereas email or texting were digital versions of the letter or phone call, social media is about creating and sharing content and information within communities or networks.

These platforms have greatly extended social networks, increased the immediacy and timeliness of communication, and make interaction less hierarchical and more interactive and multivocal. Monologues can be replaced by complex dialogues. Above all, these tools promote sharing and collaboration.

To be sure, not all the effects of social media are unabashedly positive. Anyone who has tried to speak to an audience frequently sidetracked by email, texts, tweets, and Facebook updates recognizes viscerally that perpetual distractibility is one consequence of the social media revolution.

What are the implications of social media for pedagogy?

1.  It reminds us that interaction need not be face-to-face to be authentic and meaningful.
Although it is sometimes said that social media undermines interpersonal social skills, discouraging prolonged, in-depth, intimate conversations in favor of all-too-brief interactions, in actuality social media increases the frequency of communication, complements face-to-face relationships, and enables long-distance interaction. It’s number one casuality: Social media sharply reduces time spent watching television passively and alone. Social media, in short, not only increases opportunities to connect, but ways that individuals can communicate.

2.  Engagement is more important than ever when students have ready access to other forms of intellectual stimulation.
It’s not that attention spans have shrunk, but that students shift their focus to those matters that seem most salient.

3.  In the cyber realm, words matter more than physical appearance, body language, eye contact, gestures, and other social cues.
Authority in online communication depends more on the power of ideas than on those things that matter highly in face-to-face communication: an attractive appearance, a resonant voice, a dynamic or charismatic personality.

4.  Social media cohorts are socially generated.
In cyberspace, social media connects individuals on the basis of pre-existing connections, common perspectives, and, above all, shared interests. To be sure, this pattern of “assortative matching” has provoked concern that social media reinforces social fragmentation.  In practice, however, such networks are generally larger and more diverse than those formed in entirely face-to-face environments.

5.  Authority within social media hinges on expertise.
Excluding celebrities, whose fame draws followers like moths to a flame, demonstrated expertise and valued opinions is what lures social media followers or recommenders.

What, then, are the implications of social media for teaching? While modalities of teaching have evolved, with hybrid and online learning becoming ever more central, it is not clear that the full curricular and pedagogical implications that social media has revealed have been understood. (For evidence, take a look at a recent workshop on social media held for faculty and students at Harvard.)

Here are a series of lessons that social media offers.

1.  The constraints of time, space, and location no longer matter.
The divides between in-class and out-of-class and even between one campus and another can be overcome. At UT Arlington, Pete Smith, the Vice Provost for Digital Teaching and Learning, pairs his course in Russian with students at a university in western Siberia.

2.  Back Channel Communication does matter.
Social media reveals that informal communication can be as important and even more compelling than formal communication. Tom Garza, a distinguished professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and Director of the Texas Language Center does something incredibly fearless in his classes: He projects social media commentary on the class on a screen in real time. This, in turn, can provoke discussion within the classroom.

3.  Reading can take new forms.
Reading isn’t eroded by social media—it just takes different forms. As monograph sales fall and as scanning appears to overtake close reading as the preferred form of consumption of “printed” words, the actual amount of reading undertaken has not decreased.  But the kinds of reading undertaken has changed, with users sharing textual passages and commenting upon them.

4.  Multimedia Communication and Collaboration can transform students into creators of knowledge.
If intellectual interchange is one of teaching’s most important goals, we can promote this in new ways. We can encourage annotation, commentary, responses, debate, and role-playing in virtual environments.

5.  Social Authority is the measure of success in cyberspace.
Just as “likes” in social media depend on evaluation of the persuasiveness or credibility of a comment, we might incorporate a recommendation and commentary system into online interactions in courses, and incorporate these judiciously in our evaluation of student performance.

6.  Cohorting lies at the heart of social media.
Hang-outs provide an instant way to break students into small groups. This can be done self-consciously by an instructor, dividing students according to readily identifiable characteristics. But social media suggests that this is more effectively done “organically,” as students themselves identify commonalities or shared interests or debates that they’d like to participate in.

7.  Social media, ironically, can individualize the user experience.
Much as social media sites customize the user experience, so, too, can instructors. Real-time diagnostics can allow instructors to embed remediation, devise personal learning pathways, and tailor readings and assignments to students’ interests and learning needs.

8.  Dashboards, Notifications, and Timelines are essential elements in user engagement.
Dashboards can help students, instructors, and advisers to visualize levels of student engagement, areas of confusion, and progress toward concept and skills mastery. Notifications can prompt students about assignments, activities, or announcements.  Timelines can allow students to record their progress through learning experiences.

9.  Connected Learning offers a promising alternative to an emphasis on the solitary learner.
Social media has changed the way that people socialize and play.  Connected learning offers a new model for promoting student engagement. Connected learning is learning that is social, participatory, problem-based, and outcome-oriented. Examples might include transmedia storytelling or analysis (for example, illustrating how a passage in a play has been interpreted in multiple ways by combining film clips, a glossary, and student-written commentary), game-like learning (for instance, through role playing activities like those in Mark Carnes’s Reacting to the Past immersive learning games), and challenge-based learning (in which small groups of learners collaborate in solving  a complex problem).

10.  Higher education has an exciting opportunity to reach new audiences.
Many academics fear for the future of higher education. The increasing reliance on adjuncts, the shrinking size of graduate enrollment in the humanities, the challenges posed by for-profits and MOOCs all contribute to trepidation about the future.  In fact, the future is bright—if institutions reach out to new audiences of learners: To pre-college students seeking preparation aligned with the college curriculum; to degree completers, who attended college but never received a degree; to life-long learners; and to working professionals seeking to upgrade their skills or to retool for new fields.

Much as social media allowed individuals to greatly expand their networks, so new delivery models can allow high education to serve groups that have been unserved or poorly served in the past.

Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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