söndag 20 maj 2012

Students' attitudes to social media in higher education

I wrote on the blog about a study of ours about social media in higher education a year ago (actually 15 months ago). At that time many things were still unclear about our study. We have now collected new material (we actually did that half a year ago). Ph.D. student Pernilla is writing up an article about it - her first - and I'm helping her out. The preliminary title of the article - which will probably be changed later - is that same as the title of this blog post. This blog post is based on a discussion we had this past week when we were hashing things out, trying to find the "core", and refining the basic argument that we base the article on - what is we want to say in this specific article? It is very easy for the text to "sprawl" in several different directions, and we recurrently have to prune it down to something that is easier to handle. What fits and what doesn't fit here? What should stay, what should be developed and what should be taken away (or saved for later)?

We have been discussing what to make out of our material, i.e. what specific issues, problems or perspectives to focus on in the analysis of our material. The one point that has been with us from the start is the idea of "two separate worlds". Instead of using social media for everything and all of the time, many students feel a need to separate and perhaps even erect a barrier between their personal/leisure use of social media and using social media for learning, in school/higher education. They don't want me as a teacher to know as much about them as their friends do. This separation of uses is contrary to how many others imagine we will use social media in higher education ("just hook'em up through Facebook").

Another idea, or lens with which to look at the material concerns the relationship between social media, formal learning and hierarchies. Social media flattens hierarchies and can decentralize education (we can learn/reach resources anytime and anywhere). We usually think this is a good thing, and for the most part it might be. But perhaps there are some uses for hierarchies now as then (as well as for secrecy, c.f. Wikileaks)? Perhaps (some) hierarchies are necessary in a university setting? It is after all not possible to disregard the fact that it is part of my job as a teacher to evaluate and grade the students' performance, so in some respects, my opinions (about the topic and about students performance in learning the topic) in some sense really is more important than theirs. So, what does that say about the desirability or necessity of hierarchies in higher education?

These two ideas (two separate worlds & hierarchies) jell just fine. You have a model with on the one hand private, relatively non-hierarchical uses of social media and on the other hand relatively hierarchical school/higher education uses of social media. This is a structure, or a lens that we can use to interpret and analyze our material.

This all has just been background for the real topic of this blog post and that is what we decided to take away from the analysis of our material (below). We came to the conclusion that while interesting, it just didn't fit this article. It could instead perhaps become another article in and of itself - instead of trying to squeeze too much into the same article.

So the basic idea (label: "networking") is that many students push the idea of using social media in higher education not as a pedagogical tool - to pass a course or learn a specific topic better - but in order to network, i.e. to get to know new people and add them to an expanding network that you might have use of later, to get your first or your second job and for the benefit of your career.

The problem is that this idea is more difficult to "add" and integrate to the mix above. Rather than just two arenas; personal life and professional life (school/higher education), in order to analyze "networking" we would need to add a third arena which is the salaried work our students aim for landing after they graduate. This introduces not just a new, separate arena (professional life/work/career), but also a new tense, i.e. the future. Our students haven't finished their education and using social media for networking purposes and for the benefit of their future careers is a way to bring the future to the present. The future casts a shadow over current activities and the students try to adapt to this reality. This is all very interesting, but it introduces "complications" in our article that sort of pull it in another direction compared to our other observations (above). It introduces a third arena (work) and the future tense - messing things up. So we decided to put the idea of students' use of social media for (future-related) networking purposes aside for now (e.g. not include it, or perhaps mention but not develop it in this article). This blog post is a way to document and archive this for-now-discarded idea - should we decide to pursue it in a follow-up study and a follow-up article.

The idea of networking is interesting though. Disregarding the future and the students' work/career concerns, what could networking mean today and in the students' present context? Networking in a study-related context could mean establishing contacts and gaining friends that could help you with this course, or who have useful information about other courses that could be of interest - or that you should stay away from. Networking could also be a way to find a study partner for the next course and the next term. Networking for private purposes could for example mean finding friends, establishing contacts with Swedish students (if you are from abroad), or just getting information about an upcoming party or something else happening next weekend in Stockholm. But that's not the kind of networking our students were talking about in the material we have collected.

The impetuous to write this blog post was to document an idea for future use. I have tried to make this blog post accessible also to people other than myself and the colleagues I work together with to write this article. I hope I have succeeded. I feel though that it is not so easy to balance different agendas and readers (myself/colleagues vs other readers) against each other and pull it off! The function of using this blog to document or safeguard a (temporarily discarded) specific idea for a future article is, I believe, a new first and yet another way to use an academic blog.

2 kommentarer:

  1. As I read your post, the concepts "hierarchies", "networks" and "tensions" caused me to remember a paper I read a long time ago on so called "intensional networks". They focus on "workers" rather than students, and the tension is between the ego-centric network and the hierarchical organisational chart, but maybe there is something to take away from this notion..?

    "We found that workers experience stresses such as remembering who is in the network, knowing what people in the network are currently doing and where they are located, making careful choices from among many media to communicate effectively with people, and being mindful to "keep in touch" with contacts who may prove useful in the near or distant future"


  2. Thanks for the suggestions/reference - looks great!

    I don't think the difference between workers and students needs to bet that great in this case (i.e. in our material). The students act as soon-to-be-workers. That is part of what makes their comments "messy" for our study - they don't answer the question "as students" but as "almost-workers" or "soon-to-be-workers".