Back in Blackout

Students who loathed a Pennsylvania university's weeklong campus ban of social networking sites last year won't be happy today. But the university hopes they'll learn something.
September 21, 2011

Considering that only 10 to 15 percent of students fully cooperated with the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology’s ban on social media sites last year, the extent to which it succeeded in provoking genuine thought about how (and how much) such sites should be used is debatable.

All the more reason to try again -- the operative word being “try.”

“We did it in the first place last year to raise awareness, particularly in the classroom, about the uses of social media and how it impacts the business of learning,” said Eric Darr, the university’s provost and creator of its now-famous social media blackout. And even though the vast majority of students bypassed the university’s network and logged in to sites such as Facebook via their smartphones or at home (Harrisburg is non-residential), about a quarter reported better concentration, more interest and more productivity in the classroom during the blackout.

And now that the shock of the first blackout has died down, students may be more receptive to this year’s experiment. After those five days, which came as an unwelcome shock to most of Harrisburg’s students, faculty and staff, many actually had eased up on the criticism. According to a report summarizing the results of post-blackout surveys and focus groups, in which a quarter of students and 40 percent of faculty and staff participated, 32 percent of students disapproved and 23 percent approved of the blackout before it took place.

After the blackout, 42 percent approved and only 16 percent disapproved.

“Some of them said, ‘We’re actually looking forward to you doing a blackout again,’ ” Darr said. (Whether they feel that way after 8 a.m. today remains to be seen.)

Darr wanted this year's first-year students to experience life -- or at least, classes -- without social media, but for those who have already gone through it, this year’s blackout is also longer; it runs through 8 a.m. next Wednesday, rather than a Monday through Friday.

Any longer would have been a significant imposition on university business, Darr said; after all, faculty and staff are subject to the blackout, too, and it applies to the institution’s learning management system's wiki and chat functions. Had the goal of the experiment been to change behavior, the blackout might have been extended -- and it may be, some other year, Darr said.

But for now, that’s not the objective. “We’re just simply trying to get people to think about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” Darr said.

Darr is making some changes this year, though, in hopes of reaching a broader audience on the campus -- which as it happens won't have learned that the blackout is to be reprised until this morning, on its first day. Mainly, he wants to get students more engaged. They might be more willing to participate and reflect this year because rather than having to write about the experience -- many would “rather have a root canal,” he said -- students will be able to keep video journals. The reflection is still optional.

The university plans this time to keep better track of what sites people do visit. So, for instance, if students turn to the location-based (and college-embraced) networking site Foursquare when they can’t access Facebook, MySpace, Twitter or LinkedIn, does it suggest they can’t get through the day without their social media “fix”?

From the survey, Darr gleaned that it is indeed possible to be addicted to social media -- and some at Harrisburg are.

“It is remarkable to note that 40 percent of the student respondents spend between 11 and 20 hours a day using social media sites,” the report reads. “Further, it is somewhat disturbing to note that several faculty and staff reported spending more than 20 hours a day on social networking sites. Clearly, this level of usage would interfere with many of life’s routine responsibilities.”

Seventy-six percent of faculty and 44 percent of students surveyed last year said they “learned something” from the blackout. For example, students reported gaining a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Facebook (don’t use it for document sharing), or that they felt less stressed when they didn’t have to worry about responding to friends’ messages in a timely fashion. Face-to-face communication also became more frequent.

Other, lesser-known sites that will be blocked include Bebo, Orkut, Hi5 and Plurk. All forms of instant messaging are also subject to the blackout. Last year’s blackout corresponded with the university’s annual social media summit, where speakers address various topics related to social networks; this year’s comes a week after.

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