postheadericon Social media and higher education: A few scattered points

I joined MySpace in 2005 when I moved to New Orleans as a means to stay in touch with close friends I’d left scattered around the country. A friend pointed it out a few months prior to the move, said it was a better, faster, easier way to stay connected in real time to friends you may not speak to all that often via phone or mail. I resisted it until it became apparent he was right. I had that account for a few years, until it became clogged with ads and pages and pages of people trying to get me to listen to their shitty garage bands. I made the transition to Facebook, much like the rest of the world. And other than a seldom-accessed LinkedIn page, that’s where my social media stops. I do not have a Twitter account. I have never sent a “tweet.” I have never sent a snap, or whatever else the kids are using these days. That said …

My personal experience teaching a class where students have laptop or tablet access has been limited. The courses I teach do not require use of in-class technological devices, and I encourage students to leave them at home on lecture days. I learned that lesson a month or so into my first class-teaching attempt. Students had laptops out during class, and I gave them the benefit of the doubt and assumed they were taking notes or looking up information relevant to the topic I was discussing. Nope. Checking Facebook or Twitter, surfing entertainment websites, messaging their friends – basically everything BUT taking notes or paying attention in class.

A study by Michigan State researchers DeAndrea, Ellison, LaRose, Steinfield, and Fiore, published as Serious social media: On the use of social media for improving students’ adjustment to college, the authors argue social media, in a collegiate context, can help tremendously in helping students adjust to life on campus and feeling like they are not alone, feeling like they have a support group full of others in similar situations and assisted by a laundry list of trained faculty and staff whose priorities is helping them adjust and ultimately succeed during their time away at college. Their results indicate student-centered social media sites designed to enhance student perceptions of social support increased students’ perceptions of that support. Essentially, social media has the power to help students feel included, involved, supported, in a collegiate environment, which is a positive and beneficial use for it.

Conversely to my own experience with students and in-class social media use, where social media in the classroom is seen as nothing more than an addictive, high-profile electronic distraction for everyone in the room including myself (I have difficulty focusing on my lecture/materials when students’ attentions are focused on their machines instead of the lecture or classwork, all I can think about is whether or not it is appropriate in that situation to call them out and make them put their electronic devices away), researchers Wodzicki, Schwammlein, and Moskaliuk, published a study in 2012 in the journal The Internet and Higher Education, Vol 15 issue 1, entitled “Actually, I wanted to learn”: Study-related knowledge exchange on social networking sites, arguing social media have the potential for students to connect formally and informally, find like-minded people and exchange knowledge and information for educational purposes, but don’t really use said media for that purpose. They looked at StudiVZ, what they call the “German equivalent of Facebook,” and found around a fifth of study participants, mostly freshmen looking to orient or connect themselves with other students in similar academic situations or classes. They argue that although results show students use social networks primarily for social interaction, they do imply “communication about social issues on social networking sites goes hand in hand with study-related knowledge exchange.” I would argue, however, the massive amount of time spent socializing in some fashion dwarfs the time spent exchanging relevant course-related knowledge, and negates any benefit its utilization in its current form (here thinking in context of Facebook, Twitter and YikYak) , may potentially have as a classroom learning tool.

But then, that’s just me and my opinion based on my own observations, student interactions, and my own use of social media during lecture classes. I, at this time (for all you social scientists out there), have no empirical evidence to back up my opinion, so take it for what it is.

One last thing:

I’m sure you all (VT) are aware of the threatening message left by Virginia Tech senior Kiung Moon last week that resulted in campus and local police sending out a university-wide “heads-up” announcement. YikYak is, according to its developers, an anonymous way to send or leave geolocated messages that can be picked up by other users within a certain radius of the initiating message. Anonymity of such apps is a myth, first off, and police used digital location information to track the message’s origin. Blacksburg police chief Wilson told The Roanoke Times in an April 29 article that such threats and behaviors are taken seriously, and are “aggressively investigated.” Taken from the same article, “Yik Yak is an app that allows users to communicate anonymously with others in a 10-mile radius. Yik Yak representatives have said in the past that user information is disclosed if the a threat appears credible. Though users do not create accounts with personal information when utilizing the app, IP addresses, locations and information can be forwarded to authorities.” Students (and all users) need to realize nothing posted online is anonymous. Everything leaves a trail. Your SnapChat photo with that 10-second “message will be destroyed” tag line that you sent to your friend at 3 a.m. of your 19-year-old self doing a keg stand in your fraternity’s basement while wearing a day-glo green body stocking will not likely raise the hackles of local law enforcement, but three years from now when you graduate and try to land a job with a professional firm and that photo, benignly stored on some forgotten server until it is hacked and surfaces at the top of a Google search results page when that firm’s HR department does its due diligence before offering you a position, that “anonymous” photo may just come back and rabbit-punch your sense of social media security in the kidneys.

Essentially, anything that touts online anonymity is suspect. Especially social media. Students tend to send highly personal information and photos on faith that their messages will only ever be seen by the intended recipient, and that those messages will never, ever come back to haunt them. This is disastrously incorrect, as proved over and over again in the news. In the case of Moon, who stupidly posted such a threatening message for whatever reason, that lack of anonymity was useful to police. In the case of the bored student in the back of my classroom, face buried in the glow of his phone, posting negative messages about the class and lecture for anyone using YikYak to pick up and smirk at, while it is very unlikely campus and local police will use IP and GPS traces to locate him and point out the likely reason that student is not doing well in class is that he spends all his time in said class absentmindedly surfing through social media apps instead of paying attention.


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