Academia Embraces Social Media
Contrary to myth, the college classroom is a rapidly evolving place.
Josh Sternberg begins a piece on “Social Media’s Slow Slog Into the Ivory Towers of Academia” with this insight:
“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.”
It’s a really provocative statement that rings true. Until one thinks about it for a moment.
The reason soldiering and doctoring have changed so much in the last millennium is the advent of technology. Every tool used by and against an infantryman has changed substantially in just the last hundred years. A soldier from a thousand years ago would have no idea what a rifle is, much less a helicopter, tank, or fighter jet. Similarly, medicine has gone from outright quackery to a highly developed science so everything in the operating room would appear magical.
What about college teaching? Well, it’s true that a lectern, students, and books have remained constants. So, a professor transported from another era would in fact understand the situation. He’d have no clue what to teach, of course, unless he were teaching medieval literature or some other subject where knowledge hasn’t grown radically. But, yes, he could stand in front of the classroom and talk.
On the other hand, that’s not exactly all professors do. Research tools are vastly different now than when I was an undergrad, much less a century ago. A professor from 1975, much less 1011, would have no idea how to operate a computer, much less navigate the Internet. All but the most crotchety have been using electronic mail for years.
And even the lecture hall itself has evolved, with all manner of technological tools often employed. But, for some subjects, the tried and true methods pioneered by Socrates continue to dominate.
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.
This is just nonsense. The Internet as we know it, that is, the “World Wide Web,” was envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and the Mosaic browser came on line in 1993. We were using this technology at the University of Alabama by the time I finished my dissertation in 1995. And by “we,” I don’t mean the cutting edge science geeks; I mean ordinary students even in non-technical fields.
It’s just nonsense that academia moves slowly and cautiously. The very nature of higher education means that it’s populated by people excited by the latest innovations and looking to leverage it to improve their research and teaching. Academics are at the cutting edge of technological progress–often creating the change!–not laggards.
When Steven Taylor and I got to Troy in 1998, we were appalled at the horrendously backward PCs in faculty offices. Within a year, we were not only using modernish PCs (486 machines, I think) but had taught ourselves HTML and crafted our own websites for each of our course, putting syllabi, course outlines, and various other instructional materials online. Were we ahead of the curve at the institution? Yes. But we were hardly alone even at Troy. And, within five years or so, it was just standard practice everywhere.
It’s true that the nature of scholarly research and the peer review process can show down the publication of knowledge. Crafting of datasets takes time and, by definition, it means that scholars can only study the past. It’s impossible to get ahead of the curve on a rapidly-moving subject like the global financial crisis or the Arab Awakening because, by the time the piece is written, reviewed, and published events have moved several months. But instant analysis is, almost by definition, not scholarly.
Yes, social media is changing this in some regard. Professors like Glenn Reynolds and Dan Drezner, for example, were on the cutting edge of blogging. And academics quickly embraced Facebook, Twitter, and other tools for managing the flow of information, networking with likeminded others, and, yes, getting their thoughts on breaking issues out quickly.
It’s remarkable how quickly this change has occurred. While there has naturally been resistance to the idea that professors should spend time blogging or tweeting that could instead be used to write publishable papers, most now see these as complementary, not rival, activities. And the academy is well ahead of the media and big business in adapting to this new environment.
“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?”
But, again, this just demonstrates how quickly the professoriate adapts. The natural inclination when encountering something new and shiny is to see how it ticks and figure out how to apply it to one’s teaching and research. That’s the exact opposite of the impression Sternberg seeks to give.