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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael says:

    I was surprised to learn just yesterday that a friend of mine who is an English professor is having her students create a WordPress blog and their assignments are submitted in the form of entries on their blog.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Michael: And professors have been doing this for years now. Not all of them–or even most of them. But there’s constant experimentation in how to do things more efficiently and make things click for students. If doing the same task on a blog makes it more engaging than doing it on paper, then why not?

  3. john personna says:

    Academia is moving fast compared to Academia (compared to its own history), but slow compared to industry. There have been no transformatoinal icons in the style of eBay or Amazon.

    So, maybe the glass is half-full, but it might still be half-empty.

    (I think we are starting to see some hints of real traction, but no more. Stanford’s open enrollment AI course is just a pilot. It doesn’t dominate in the Amazon style.)

  4. steve says:

    Had this discussion with a couple of computer science profs. Almost everything kids do is online now. Teachers use social media as it fits their needs. Lots are using it among themselves to keep up on latest developments. Almost every lecture is now computer assisted. I am not sure what point Josh intended to make.


  5. john personna says:


    Interesting, but here is the key question: When you say “everything they do is online now” do you mean that classroom hours have actually been reduced? Or are lectures “traditional” while assignments and tests are online?

    What Josh/Howard are saying is that the lecture portion is still locked in a time and space. It is analogous to your Ford dealership being “online” but you still have to go down to see them to select and buy a car. As opposed to the Amazon/eBay model where you do not leave the house.

  6. To add to James’ post:

    -The peer review process has actually been accelerated because of technology. E-mail alone has streamlined a process that you used to require snail mail. From there, many journals now have really useful online tools for submitting reviews.

    -The above is also true about the submission and editing process.

    -I now use Wikis in my classes for student-generated study guides and there are any number of tools that have emerged over the years that have altered the way faculty and students interact.

  7. @john personna:

    What Josh/Howard are saying is that the lecture portion is still locked in a time and space. It is analogous to your Ford dealership being “online” but you still have to go down to see them to select and buy a car. As opposed to the Amazon/eBay model where you do not leave the house.

    This is not entirely true. There has also been the development of wholly online learning with the ability to deliver education globally and asynchronously. I have been teaching such classes for over a decade and have seen the technology evolve to include a number of really useful tools that could make the online experience fairly close to the in-class one (although I am still of the opinion that in-class instruction where professor and student are in the same physical location is superior to a purely on-line experience).

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Professors Joyner and Taylor, sensing a diss, leapt to defend academia from attack.

    “To the tower!” Professor Joyner cried.

    “Which one?”

    “The ivory tower!” Professor Joyner yelled, adding, “Duh. No man calls us out of touch and lives!”

    Professor Taylor grabbed his vorpal sword. His eyes shone with the fire of deep knowledge. He knew without even looking it up who Millard Fillmore’s vice president was. He totally did. He joined Professor Joyner on the battlement and said, “Should we Tweet this?”

    “Already did,” Professor Joyner said smugly. “I Tweeted the hell out of it. Now, let’s go blog these b*stards back to high school!”

  9. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I believe we have the makings of a book series. Not one with a wide audience,granted, but a series.

  10. john personna says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    [i] have seen the technology evolve to include a number of really useful tools that could make the online experience fairly close to the in-class one

    That really reinforces what I said above, that while we are seeing movement, we haven’t seen the triumphs we’ve seen in other “industries.”

    To give it scale, when I went to college in the late 70’s and early 80’s, zero percent of my class load as a chemistry major was remote learning. It was all location based. So what is the percentage today?

  11. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    I see graphic novel potential here.

  12. Interesting challenge to the Sternberg article, thanks. I think you’re right that some in academia are not moving slowly and cautiously. But by and large, most of our colleagues are talking around the edges of this without actually using social media in any academic way. (For example, they may be on Facebook as “regular folks” but not interacting there with students. Or not interacting with them beyond the purely social.)

    I think another drag on social media adoption, and online teaching/learning in general, is the physical infrastructure of campuses. Physical classrooms and dorms have to be filled. Period. Or heads will roll. At least this would seem to be the case at public universities running on tax dollars.

  13. john personna says:

    A slashdot submitter makes a good catch:

    “The Terms of Service for the Stanford Artificial Intelligence class points to how the free class this fall will be used for ‘developing and evaluating the Online Course prior any commercial release of the Course’ by a startup called KnowLabs.