Monday, July 15, 2013

What Social Media can do for Universities

The topic for the next ANU Collegiate Lunch in Canberra on 7 August 2013, is What can the 'social media' do for us?", with myself leading the discussion. The "us" in this case is academia. For those at university, the idea of virtual communities should not be a new one.

Academia is a Virtual Community

Academics have used publications, correspondence and meetings to keep in touch with remote colleagues. Use of the Internet and the web has made this scholarly communication easier. At the same time the cheaper and easier access to information has challenged the role of the university and of the academic.

In the past academics were rated on their ability to get information published, but now anyone can publish and read for almost free on-line. You don't have to visit a university to read a journal and don't have to have the institution behind you to have your work published.

Creating and maintaining virtual communities still required effort and also new skills. I am frequently asked how "young people", "students" and "early career academics" can be encouraged to take part in events. The concern is that these people are not coming to old fashioned lectures, seminars, symposium, meetings and conferences.

Flip the Symposium

My preferred solution to the problem of a lack of attendance is to "flip" the event. The term comes from the "flipped classroom", where students study the material on their own and then get together in a classroom for group activities. The idea is that group time is too valuable to be wasted on everyone just passively listening to one person talking.

Research shows that student learn much better when actively engaged in doing something. Presumably this also applies to academic discourse. Rather than just sitting in the conference listening, they can be doing something active.

A new mode for conferences is to provide the papers and presentations in advance. The face-to-face time of the conference (if there is one) can then be mostly devoted to discussion. An example of this is the "Global Conference on Research Integration and Implementation". This will be held at the ANU in Canberra, 8 to 11 September 2013, but posters for the event are already up on-line.

Even when there is a formal presentation, the audience can be discussing the topic on-line at the same time. Some of the "Bar Camp" style events I attend have a twitter hash tag for the conference and encourage delegates to use it during presentations. This can be confronting for the presenter, who may have a display of the stream of discussion appearing behind them, as they speak. But this does make for a more lively format.

Social Media is a Skill to be Learned

It need to be kept in mind that using social media requires some practice and considerable effort. It is a mistake to assume you can simply create a Twitter hash-tag and the job is done. Also the aim and measures of success need to be adjusted. Having an on-line discussion may attract people to a face-to-face event, but some will be happy with just the on-line component and not turn up.

The rapid pace of on-line discussion can be frightening for those used to the leisurely pace of paper correspondence and annual conferences. If you advise something is available on-line, you had better make sure it is, or there will be complaints. It is very easy to leave the discussion on a Friday afternoon and find on Monday morning that chaos has broken out over the weekend.

The use of social media is something that university students should learn, along with how to write a paper, as part of their basic degree education. Those intending to have a career in research, university teaching or industry will need to know how to collaborate and mentor on-line. For that I have proposed Incorporating Professional Skills in the ANU Master of Computing” and this could be extended to all ANU degree programs.

Current Use of Social Media at ANU

Keep in mind that using "social media" does not necessarily require the use of Twitter, Facebook, or some other commercial product. You might want to have your students in a "walled garden" where their information is confined to the institution or just the class.

ANU Alliance is a forum for ANU staff and students implemented using Sakai open source software. Also forums are provided in the Moodle Learning Management system for students to discuss course topics. For more general discussion Yammer is used by staff.

It can be difficult to convince academics that they need to learn how to communicate, so I have proposed we get them while they are young and teach professional on-line skills to postgraduate students.

Propose Crowd-Sourcing ANU Policy

Social media can be used to help run a university, as well as in teaching. Universities have a tradition of consulting their staff, students and the community on what they do and how they do it. However, as universities get larger this consultation becomes more difficult. The ANU Vice Chancellor, Professor Ian Young, is reported to have recently said:
"The University has hundreds of policies, and to create a formal consultation process in the development of such policies would be a huge administrative overhead that would slow down the process and add significant cost." From: ANU revises investment policy, Matthew Raggatt, Canberra Times, 18
However, I suggest the use of social media would allow staff, students and the community to be consulted with minimal administrative overhead, quickly and at low cost. In this way policy can be in part "crowd-sourced".

This is not to say that every decision will be put to a public vote, but as was done recently over budget cuts, the wider university community can be consulted. Rather than set up an ad-hoc process for each consultation, the ANU could implement a system for routine and ongoing consultation, via the Internet.

An example of where such consultation would be useful is the contentious issue of ANU's investment policy.The group Fossil Free ANU proposes a move away from investing in fossil fuel. However, more would be needed for a ethical investment policy and corporate social responsibility.

Pia Waugh at the Department of Finance initiated two short courses for public servants on "Online engagement". I talked at one of these and the same tools and techniques are applicable to universities.

ANU offers courses covering social media, including "Science Communication and the Web" (SCOM8012), "Online Research Methods" (DEMO8087) and "Environmental Policy and Communications" (EMDV8007).
Charles Sturt University (CSU) offer a course in "Social Networking for Information Professionals" (INF506), as part of their Master of Education in Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation (which I am considering enrolling in).

Recent Research on Social Media in Education

For some recent Australian research on social media for education, see:
  1.  McGuckin, T., & Sealey, R. (2013). Integrating Facebook into a University cohort to enhance student sense of belonging: a pilot program in Sport and Exercise Science.. Australian Educational Computing, 28(1). Retrieved from
  2. Stevens, T. (2013). Who you know and what you know: Student interaction in online discussions. Australian Educational Computing, 28(1). Retrieved from

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