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Social media technologies have been a part of the college and university culture for well over a decade. The power of these connected tools and apps has afforded students, staff and faculty the opportunities to expand how they communicate, teach, learn, research, interact and share.

That being said, social media and digital technologies are not neutral. These platforms come with cultural, social and political context -- often engineered to encourage social interaction, engagement, and some form of addiction. (You can listen to more thoughts on this topic via @BreakDrink episode 7: “The Tech Curmudgeons.”)

Nora Young describes the disembodiment of digital culture in her book, The Virtual Self. There are ways technology is shaping us socially and this, in turn, has impacted our professional lives, especially in higher education. That being said, technologies are not "infinitely malleable," as we have witnessed "the character of digital technology to decontextualize and recontextualize, to remix and reassemble." The message from Young and a number of scholars who are exploring the impact of social technologies in our society are issues that I can say resonate in both my teaching and research practice.

Social technologies are impacting how we work, learn and engage with one another both inside and outside our institutions. Now social media posts, retweets, comments and shares are just part of being in a very connected higher ed community. For many of us who reside in these networked spaces to connect, learn and engage in the profession, you will most likely see real social attributes and identities shared within our digital profiles. We can no longer use the expression “in real life” or IRL, as your online self is your real, off-line self. In addition, how we behave inside the screen, on the web and in our networks has real-life implications for our selves outside a device, platform or digital space.

Just the Beginning

As I continue to read emerging perspectives on social technologies and talk with professionals, I believe we are just in the early stages for understanding how these networked spaces influence and impact the work we do in higher ed.

Digital culture is changing. Although our digital selves are not entirely "embodied" by technology, we do seem to live and work more online. For some, there seems to be fluidity between the online and off-line self; however, each person I speak with may interpret and approach this continuum differently. From observing interactions online to conversations about digital experiences, we are beginning to understand how emotional, intellectual and personal practices conducted by our online selves are being translated into our professional lives off-line.

In postsecondary education, it is becoming increasingly vital to share your work and practice online. Open and digital channels help colleagues solicit advice, seek out support/collaboration, offer free professional development, share information and resources, and learn in networked communities with common interests. Besides developing a digital presence, higher education staff, administrators and scholars are utilizing social media and digital technologies to support their work, add to their professional development, engage with peers, learn in the collective and publicly in digital spaces and places.

This leads me ask these vital questions of those working in higher ed:

  • How does being part of a digital learning network support your professional learning and development?
  • How are you shaping your online identity and presence to share your professional values?
  • How can your networked communities expand your knowledge and learning to enhance your role on campus and the work you do?
  • Why might others consider finding networked peers and practitioners to scaffold their own career goals?

Growing Challenges

Although there are benefits to “working out loud” and online, there are also challenges and issues as we repurpose social, digital spaces. The stakes are high, as an increasing number of higher ed professionals participate in online social networks with minimal institutional guidance for sociotechnical support or training (Pasquini & Evangelopoulos, 2017). Social and digital networks are connected, public and scaled. As I dig into the issues and affordances of being part of a connected professional network, I am curious as to how my higher education colleagues are:

  • Evaluating social media and digital platforms for professional learning and development in the field;
  • Establishing effective strategies for developing, creating and improving their own digital identity for networked practice;
  • Developing ways to create, facilitate and sustain a professional learning network or a digital peer community; and
  • Identifying the benefits and challenges of open, networked practices, specifically for implications and influence among higher education administration and professional staff.

This research for investigating networked experiences, both individual and collective practices, is critical for the institutions we work for and organizations that seek to support professional learning and development for postsecondary educators.

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