social media, teaching and research

Last week I gave a talk at the second annual conference on distance ed put on by the BU Faculty Advisory Board on, You Guessed It, Distance Education.

It was a great time! I was heartened to see so many people thinking so creatively about classroom technology. Distance ed may not equate to using technology (networked or not) in the classroom, but there’s a lot of crossover, so I was asked to reprise a talk I’d given few months ago through the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching.

I’ve taken recent thinking about slide presentations to heart, so looking at my slides wouldn’t yield anything particularly coherent: there’s little text on them. So I’ve inserted the slides here instead of putting them on SlideShare; click on a slide to see it full-size.  Alas, I haven’t figured out yet how to open the full-size images in the same page, with a gallery-like overlay (is there a WordPress plugin for this?), so—apologies—they’re set to open in a new window.

This gets long; here’s hoping the LiveJournal crosspost can deal with the more tag. If it can’t, sorry, LJLand—I don’t do this often…


A definition of social media is probably in order, and I like the one used by the European Commission in the EU Internet Handbook—social media are “tool[s] to communicate with specific target audiences.” Fair enough! But, the EC says, it’s more than that:

Social media cannot be treated as a traditional distribution channel. Social media are in their essence a two-way communication tool, and therefore you must know how to respond and what you want to do with the voiceback that is generated from users’ comments or reactions. Not following-up/responding to voiceback can have adverse and sometimes disasterous effects.

Thinking of education as a conversation, rather than a process of imparting knowledge from high atop a hill, this definition sounds about perfect.

But really, why use social media in teaching and research? Well, for me part of the answer is — because I am in the humanities, and that’s what humans are doing these days. Not only are educators increasingly converging on where their audiences and their colleagues are (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), but all the ways in which people interact with each other (and with new knowledge) using social media — are themselves part of what we study. The notion that somehow this is what people do in addition to, or in lieu of, their real lives doesn’t make any sense. It is real life. And although less than a quarter of the world’s population is online, we can’t pretend the internet isn’t there. Like with telephony, we are never going back, only forward.

Also, consider this about obscurity. I think it applies to academics, and to education—and this will later lead me to talk about the reputation economy within which we operate:


So, today I’ll focus on four categories of tools: blogs, microblogs (specifically Twitter), photo sharing sites (Flickr), and Google’s collaboration tools. These tools provide mostly for asynchronous communication: conversation doesn’t have to happen in real time. This seems to be a great advantage, simply because more people end up participating when it’s on their schedule.

So let’s move right on to…


Some people still think of them as journals, but they’re not so much journals as a publishing *and commenting* platform. Posts are normally chronologically arranged, with the most recent first. Different blog publishing platforms handle security differently, but most do allow you to only make posts available to certain people if you wish it. Blogs can have one or more authors. And, of course, most have syndication feeds, so I can “gather” the 55 blog sites I read regularly in one news reader, instead of having to visit the sites themselves.


How do people use blogs in classrooms? Educators post writing prompts. Students write week-in-review posts; respond to readings; post the results of fact-finding missions they’re assigned. Students might also critique a website, be it a news site, a political site or an artist’s gallery. They might critique each other’s writing. In other words, they practice public rhetoric and social annotation of resources.

Like all forms of social media, blogs can act as personal learning networks. Students find topics that interest them, and post questions, which their peers then answer in comments.

On the research side, peer review has been conducted in blog comments, too.  A good example of that is Planned Obsolescence, a book by Kathleen Fitzpatrick.  It’s published using the popular platform WordPress, with the CommentPress plugin installed.    CommentPress allows readers to comment on an entire page, or paragraph by paragraph.  Comments can also be threaded, and become conversations—here’s a good example of that.  (Take a look at the comments on paragraph 2.)

I have some other examples, particularly of classroom use, which I’ll be happy to share later with anyone interested. I will briefly mention Looking for Whitman, “A[n NEH-sponsored] multi-campus experiment in digital pedagogy,” not only because it’s a stellar example of the use of blogs for teaching, but also because it showcases the use of WordPress as something halfway to a content management system. So a blog doesn’t have to be just posts and comments: this one houses multiple self-contained projects, as well.


OK, so why not use blogs? Well, for one thing, they can be intimidating to some students, and to some instructors!

But also, because anyone with an internet connection can see most blogs, unless you password-protect yours, you have to be ready for unforeseen participation, including by people who are just looking to start an argument. (Although it’s worth noting that in order to participate in your discussion, someone has to first find the blog, and let’s face it, not many people will unless you advertise it. Plus, you can restrict commenting to registered users, close posts to new comments automatically after a certain period of time, and moderate comments. So there are tools for dealing with trolls, and more control than we often think of when we think of the wild wild internet.)


So that’s blogs. Moving on to microblogging, and its most famous instance: Twitter. A quick overview:

  • Anyone can get a free account and make posts.
  • Each post must be 140 or fewer characters in length.
  • You can follow people—or entities, like the Chronicle of Higher Ed, or the U.S. Supreme Court, or BU—whose tweets you’d like to read, and all of those tweets are aggregated on your Twitter home page.
  • There are certain community conventions: for example, an @ sign and a username signals to that user that you’re talking (publicly but) directly to them.


OK, so why use microblogging? For me, the initial use was for research, not pedagogy. A hash mark (#) with an agreed-upon abbreviation—called a hash tag—allows people to search for all posts associated with a particular topic.  Or a particular event! At this point I’ve virtually attended and contributed to three or four conferences to which I wasn’t able to travel. I’ve also tweeted conferences myself, giving others the opportunity to virtually attend.  Handy.

Another handy feature: you can have anyone’s posts sent to your phone via SMS. When the NEH Office of Digital Humanities posts something, I want to know right away, in case it’s time sensitive and about grants.

A youth pastor I spoke with likes the stronger sense of community that arises from using Twitter. The 140 character limit encourages concise and effective writing. One educator said, “Twitter offers a medium that helps those who hesitate and lose the opportunity to provide input during a classroom session.” So students can use Twitter to float ideas, post links to relevant materials, raising new topics if they’re reluctant to do so in class.

Note that scholars who have left studentship are also using Twitter to float ideas, post links to interesting new materials, ask questions of their colleagues. I got pointers to some valuable information from my Twitter followers even as I was preparing this presentation.

Here’s an example of someone using Twitter in teaching. Twitter content is more informative and less analytical than blog content, but some rudimentary analysis does go on — a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, or a short note explaining who in particular might benefit from a linked resource. This can translate into rich and concise information sharing. Of course, it can also degenerate into meaningless quips. David Silver, who teaches digital media courses at the University of San Francisco, draws students’ attention to the informative potential of Twitter by distinguishing between thin tweets (which provide a single layer of information: “Just read an interesting study on library funding”) and thick tweets (two or more layers, “XYZ study on library funding says libraries need more money, here’s a link“).


There are, of course, reasons to not use microblogging in academic settings. Students who don’t participate might end up invisible to their professors. There’s concern that students attending multiple courses that require the use of Twitter will be overwhelmed by the relentless stream of tweets they have to follow and process. There’s concern that, like so many social media sites, Twitter will be short-lived (although so far that doesn’t seem likely). Some people are wary of microblogging replacing face-to-face conversations in the classroom, and of the distraction of Twitter during classtime. Finally, like any networked technology, Twitter is only handy when the participant has a reliable network connection. What about students on field placements in rural settings?

Other concerns seem to be in the process of being addressed by the fact that Twitter recently gifted all its contents to the Library of Congress. These concerns revolve around the search feature, which only goes so far back, and the fact that tweets “expire,” so teaching past conversations suffers. We have yet to see exactly how the Library of Congress will choose to make tweets available, but the possibilities for data mining are pretty exciting.


And speaking of the Library of Congress, it’s been making great use of the photo sharing site Flickr. For those of you who haven’t played with it, here’s a quick overview:

  • Accounts are free, unless you want to display more than 200 of your photos at any one time, in which case they’re about $25 a year.
  • Users can post photos and short videos using any number of venues, including the website itself, standalone desktop applications, and smartphone applications.
  • Uploads can have prose descriptions and tags associated with them, and parts of images can have notes attached.
  • It’s possible to automatically cross-post uploads to a blog.
  • People can tag their own creations as well as others’.
  • Photos and videos can be organized into sets and collections.
  • And there are groups whose members post on particular themes—everything from cats to artistic nudes to New York history—to volcanoes and the UK General Election.
  • Finally, Flickr provides for easy copyright declaration: users can post all-rights-reserved, or attach Creative Commons licenses to their work.


OK, so repeating the pattern: what does a photo sharing site offer to us pedagogically? Well, there’s often something to be said for inviting students to express themselves in a medium they don’t typically associate with classes, or with scholarship. Among the better-known photo sharing sites, Flickr is a particularly good venue because of the huge user buy-in, and also because its versatile interface can also be used to teach Web 2.0 concepts: social tagging, critique, conversation that takes place in and through comments, social annotation.

I’d like to show you just a few examples of how academics use Flickr.

Distance education course participants might introduce themselves with Flickr: post photos of themselves and their surroundings, comment on each other’s posts, build community.

This website is also a great library. Thanks to Flickr’s integration with Creative Commons, it allows you not only to attach licenses to photos, but also to search for photos that you can use, say, in a slide presentation. Mine is far from a stellar example, but an important point is: Flickr has revolutionized the slide presentation, taking the focus off of bullet points and encouraging folks to synthesize their thoughts in imagery. Both students and seasoned scholars have already benefited from this, and conference presentations are less likely to lose their audiences’ attention now than they were ten years ago.


Everything has its down side. You do need special equipment to use Flickr, though these days not much: many of us have cameras in our phones, and those are more than adequate to convey an idea. And also, the visual is very different from the verbal, as a mode of interacting with the world. This can be a great thing, but like everything else, may or may not be appropriate for a particular course.


There are so many social media tools I haven’t mentioned. Virtual worlds, voice over IP telephony, wikis, social bookmarking sites, the list just goes on. And it can seem intimidating, no?

But it is our world.

And our academic world operates in a reputation economy. Or, that’s our hope, right? Eric Raymond, a programmer of open source software who also studies open-source communities, has said that by putting arguments on the network and making them available for hyperlinking, searching and discussion, people “homestead the noosphere.” Raymond’s homesteading paradigm comes from John Locke’s theory of property: if a piece of land is not claimed, you claim it by working the land, investing of yourself in it.

The hacker community Raymond describes is characterized by two main aspects: pragmatism and gift culture. This does not mean that there is no ownership: “[t]he owner of a software project is the person who has the exclusive right, recognized by the community at large, to distribute modified versions.” There are also rewards, the main among them being reputation, which in turn leads to a meritocracy. But the key is making your creations, the fruits of your knowledge, widely available. This is what social media let us do, and let us teach students how to do. This will serve them well in any job that involves making new things, knowledge among them.

Kevin Roberts, who made a ten-minute video called Teaching in the 21st Century, writes: “Teachers are no longer the main source of knowledge. We are the filter. Sure,” he says, “they can use Google. But has anyone shown them how to validate, synthesize, leverage, and communicate information?  How to collaborate and problem solve with information?” Yes, we can do all that without using social media. But that’s a lot like dancing about architecture. The internet’s status as the container of human knowledge will only increase and solidify; we have the means and the opportunity to filter, discuss, analyze and add to this body of knowledge directly, in the midst of it.

And it’s more than just an opportunity; at this point, it’s an obligation if we’re to understand our students. Roberts asks, “how would you answer questions like, what is the most efficient tool for this project?, or what are the newest ideas and innovations I need to keep up with?” Now, “How would your students answer these questions? Have you asked them?” Without knowing their frame of reference—both in theory and in practice—it’s hard to teach them effectively. The understanding most BU students have of even such basic scholarly concepts as authorship, the editing process and reflection is radically different from the understanding that a person who doesn’t use social media would have. Roberts says, “we need to rethink the tools we use and the types of problems we ask students to solve.”

One of the people who have best used social media tools in a university setting is Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist at Kansas State. Let me just show you a short segment of a video he and his students made, titled “A vision of students today.” [I only showed the part between 1:01 and 2:15, but the whole 4m44s video is worth watching.]

This video showcases collaborative use of Google Docs, the last tool I promised to tell you about. And it also makes an elegant case for educators making an effort to connect with students using their tools, their language, their mindset. All kinds of knowledge work are being done using social media, so that’s—partly—where we need to be.

Thank you.

2 Responses to “social media, teaching and research”

  1. Andromeda Says:

    So yeah, that slide thing! I’m pretty averse to putting a lot of text on my slides and I always conceptualize them in the context of what I’m going to be saying; they’re not readily separable. What this means, as you note, is they wouldn’t make any sense uploaded to Slideshare. But I’d like to have a Slideshare presence. So I’ve been wondering about presentation vs. preservation versions of slides, how to do that logistically, how to do that honestly, etc. You know if there’s any best practices in this area?

  2. vika Says:

    You could post the slides, and add a link to a blog post to them, or make a video of you reading your presentation [in voice-over] and showing the slides. Slideshare is great.