David McGillivray

Professor, interested in events, culture, digital participation & sport.


Controlling content: Social Media, HE and the Regulatory Urge

It’s been a while…my self-imposed break from blogging about all things #highered, #socialmedia and #olympics has now come to an end and I have new content to share with you all today.The motivation for this post came from a blog post I read earlier today by Patrick Powers about Why Google+ will work for HE.  It got me thinking about some of the reactions I’ve received in my own institution as I eulogise about the possibilities for social media in transforming the way academics and academic institutions engage with their students and other stakeholders.  Patrick emphasises the potential of Google+ to provide the HE sector with a more effective means of interacting with students, whilst also protecting their privacy and the reputation of the institution.  With these points I agree. However, I’m a little less sure about how this will work in practice.  It is unhelpful to talk about the HE institution as a homogenous unit – instead, we need to consider that the interests of the corporate body, academic and support staff, students, alumni, industrial partners differ significantly. Scanning the HE environment as part of my interest in the use of social media in learning and teaching, I see a real disparity between the interests of marketing departments serving the needs of the ‘university as brand’ and the instincts of academic staff looking to explore the possible uses of social media in (and outside of) the classroom.  Patrick Power’s blog post tends to reduce the role of social media to unidirectional communication ‘messaging’ to what he calls ‘targeted audiences’.  His claims for the potential of Google+ are invested primarily with the language of commerce, overlooking the pedagogical possibilities that social media permits.  I experienced a similar discourse whilst chairing two sessions on social media for learning and teaching at my institution’s annual Learning & Teaching conference.  The predominant critical narrative was what i would term the regulatory urge, concerned with the development of responsible use guidelines covering social media in the university context.  The argument goes that use of these freely available spaces needs to be regulated, that students cannot be trusted to use them sensitively and that anarchy will prevail – leading to the inevitable reputational damage which does no-one any good.  If I were working in a corporate marketing role and had spent considerable time and financial resources to build a credible brand then I would probably agree with this regulatory urge and seek to control the messages coming out from the institution in a systematic way.  I also agree that it is necessary for institutions to develop some guidance for the responsible use of Twitter, Facebook, Google+, but this should be the outcome of an educational process (for staff, students, support departments, senior managers) so that social media is demystified and the resulting guidelines are co-created rather than being imposed.  

This process of dymystification was started at the aforementioned Learning and Teaching conference where 6 presenters focused on the innovative use of social media to enhance the student experience, secure greater engagement, facilitate greater connectivity, produce an enriched information resource (for staff and students), create more personalised forms of learning and teaching (e.g. Zite for Ipad), foster networked learning and place students as producers (as opposed to just consumers) of their own learning.  There was broad agreement that we need to start with pedagogical principles and then select the most apposite tools, ensure ‘support’ is provided and then empower students to run with it.  WIth over 25 people attending each social media session, it is clear that there is interest in exploring the possibilities brought about by new ways of thinking about learning and the freely available tools to turn this into action.  Of course, there are also legitimate areas of concern, including lack of knowledge and time (perceived) to effectively exploit social media in a L&T environment, definitional difficulties and ethical isses, the blurring of public/private lives and worries about the managing multiple forms of communication.  These are legitimate worries which can(and should) be addressed in a wider debate about pedagogy and practice, rather than being used as a rationale to support the regulatory urge.  If anything social media is about sociality, conversations, collaborations, connections and immediacy.  The HE sector needs to be careful not to fall prey to a moral panic over the dangers of social media, but instead embrace the possibilities and take a mature and measured approach to the integration of these tools and techniques to enhance learning (rather than just communication) experiences.


David McGillivray • July 21, 2011

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