2011 – Year of the ‘Social’ (Strategy)
I thought I’d sign off 2011 with a short post reviewing the way that I have been immersed in the debates and discussions about the ‘social’ over the last year since making the move to the University of the West of Scotland. The last 12 months represents by far the most ‘social’ experience I’ve encountered in Higher Education, largely because of a culture that was already in existence at UWS and specifically in the School of Creative and Cultural Industries. In using the term social I’m referring to an environment that encourages conversation (online and off), creative thinking, collaborative working and sharing. The other key feature of the social ‘turn’ that I’ve experienced is that it’s strategic rather than ad hoc and by chance. To deliver on a social strategy in HE it is imperative that the structures in place enable (and actively encourage) meaningful conversation to take place. These structures may be physical or virtual but they need to provide a framework within which individual staff members can enjoy a creative license whilst at the same time allowing the unit (whether department, research group, School, Faculty or University) to aggregate and amplify content for greater internal and external impact.
Taking inspiration from the integrated digital identities fostered by my colleagues Andy Miah, Jennifer Jones and Graham Jeffery, I have spent 2011 trying to develop a presence which allows me to communicate with others about ideas beyond the restricted space of academic journals, books and conferences. Utilising social tools and technologies, including blogs, Twitter, academia.edu and Google docs has revolutionalised the way I function as an academic – for the good. I still focus on publishing in ‘traditional’ academic outlets (the REF requires it!) but this is supplemented with much more frequent commentaries on social media channels and via this blog. As a result, my work has become more public facing, primarily due to the power of the social in the form of retweets, comments, recommendations and the like. Although a crude measure of impact, this blog alone has secured more views than I could ever have imagined receiving from other traditional academic practices. Of course, developing a social strategy in HE (whether at the individual or collective level) requires investment in time and a clear sense of purpose as to what you’re trying to achieve – but if done well, the rewards come in the form of greater interaction with academics and others from outside the sector and more meaningful conversations which can lead to a myriad of interesting new directions.
One new direction that grew out of my investment in the social was the Social Media in the South of Scotland project that Jennifer Jones and I have delivered within predominantly rural communities at the latter end of 2011. This project has been about making businesses understand that to be social can be a real strength in managing their activities, despite how counter-intuitive this feels. We created a sociable setting for our social media surgeries and provided 1-2-1 support around everything social media, working to personalise advice where possible.
The model has been tremendously successful and we’re now being asked to devise similar projects for a variety of business sectors. Here, the social in HE is less about individual academic connectedness and the production of greater impact on the basis of developing a clear communication strategy. Instead, this is a social strategy that connects the University with one of its main audiences and debunks the myths about the academic ivory towers. Perhaps even more importantly, the project aligns closely with the expertise of staff in the School of CCI and is, therefore, part of a wider vision to embed the social in every area of academic practice.
Naming 2011 as the Year of the Social also refers to the way that those involved in the delivery of learning, teaching and assessment have begun to embrace the possibilities of social media for students and staff alike. Having a learning and teaching role, I am now pursuing, with a community of interest developed predominantly through Twitter, a institutional-wide initiative which aims to utilise the resources of committed, interested and enthusiastic staff (rather than external providers) to embed social media surgeries into the University system. Rather than fearing the impact of social media in educational settings, I want to use proactive staff and students to integrate good practice by stealth, using core University spaces (e.g. libraries and cafes). Thinking strategically, this approach will allow the University to promote its new Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy through actions rather than just words. Two years ago, these debates would not have been possible because (the) social theory was poorly understood. My esteemed colleagues in CCI have demonstrated, through action, what is possible and it is now affecting change at the institutional level.
Sorry for being a little more lengthy than originally promised! As I look forward to 2012, it may be that we will be talking about the intensification of the social. If that’s the case, let’s participate in an informed debate on whichever channel or platform you prefer. Last week, I participated in a meeting with a company in Canada whilst sitting in my home and over the course of an hour I used skype, go to meeting, join.me, email and Twitter. The limits of geography are well and truly eroded but other impediments remain in place – especially the obstacle of attitude which limits what is possible in 2012 and beyond. I’ll be back in touch in 2012. Enjoy an extremely sociable festive period!