Social media is our problem – and a great opportunity for teaching

If students prefer WhatsApp for discussions, and Twitter for notifications, why not use them? Bob O'Keefe on teaching where students are.

Imagine the following scenario. A young lecturer, in the midst of the pandemic, has to make their module for full-time under-graduates ready for virtual delivery.

They decide to use Google Docs for distributing materials, and a Gmail account for email specifically related to the module (although they know that no one under 30 reads emails anymore).

Lectures will be over Zoom. There is a WhatsApp group for the module, and students are also assigned to learning sets in WhatsApp.

A Twitter account is set up to use for reminders and alerts; an Instagram account for some small pieces of lecture material.

As part of the module assessment, students must prepare a video which they then have to upload to a YouTube channel.

A Facebook group is also set up – but the lecturer also knows that no one under 40 uses Facebook anymore.

This won’t do

This scenario drives higher-education CIO’s, IT directors and some vice chancellors into apoplexy.

We want to insist that the new normal for our students is predicated on collaboration software (normally MS Teams), a Virtual Learning Environment (e.g., Moodle) and associated integrated software such as Turnitin and various virtual libraries.

We want to avoid external provided consumer-focused platforms, especially social media.

The often quoted reason for this is security. There is a desire to ensure the security of university materials and teaching, such that both are not accessible by those who are not enrolled.

But frankly there are unlikely to be groups of hackers desperate to steal lectures notes on 19th century English history. And the transmission of what should be seen as copyrighted data (ranging from copies of journal articles through to power-point slides) or even secure data (account and password details) through human error can occur as much over university email systems as it could on WhatsApp.

Personal problems

Privacy is a more real concern. Lecturers who use a personal phone number for WhatsApp can expose themselves to unwanted attention, but buying a cheap phone for work only use can solve this.

Facebook and Twitter can be used to inadvertently expose personal details (who you follow, what you “like”, etc.) but again this can be overcome with multiple and sensibly established dedicated accounts.

The real reason for the apoplexy is a perceived lack of control. If we herd students onto, say, MS Teams, we know where they are and what they are doing. We can measure their engagement, and punish them should they not adhere to acceptable use or cyber-bullying policies.

We also want our students to use our facilities as that’s what they’re paying for – using WhatsApp and Zoom rather than MS Teams is seen as akin to having lectures in the village hall and leaving the expensive lecture theatre empty.

Herd immunity

Many of us have also assumed that if we herd students onto our systems, what they get up to on social media is not our problem. The last 12 months have taught us that this is a fallacy – students, SUs and the media hold us to account when our students slander, liable and bully each other online, irrespective of the platform. Some of us have learnt this the hard way.

What can we do about all this? First, we have to accept that social media and other widely available software can positively augment what we do. We should take advantage of that. There is no point in trying to set up discussions on Moodle that students don’t engage with, or send them emails they won’t read.

If students prefer WhatsApp for discussions, and Twitter for notifications, then use them. We should steer academic staff towards useful and acceptable deployment of a variety of tools, but away from tools that may be problematic for us or our students (TikTok springs to mind).

Second, students have to realise that how they behave on any system, irrespective of who owns it, must fit in with acceptable use policies. Every university needs a detailed “netiquette” policy, and probably also a way of allowing students and staff to report unacceptable behaviours.

But a blanket view that social media and similar is not our problem – and we will only use and worry about our provided systems – was outdated even before the pandemic.

10 responses to “Social media is our problem – and a great opportunity for teaching

  1. “Look we’ve paid for it so we have to use it” – argument against using better, free alternatives

  2. Oh dear…

    You propose equipping all teaching staff with new mobile devices. At their cost or the university’s? and all teaching support staff? facilitators etc? Presumably in your ‘anything goes’ model, you don’t mind what those devices are, so the university can’t support the academics with them, now can they help when they go missing (with student contact information on them)

    On the social media platforms, again the burden falls on the teaching staff to identify which ones students are using this semester, set up accounts, get familiar, translate (or transform) elements of learning and support to fit, again with no support from the university.

    On the student front they have to now find their way round another set of applications that they may, or may not, use, with terms and conditions that they may not agree with, but are now part of their educational requirement, again with no support from the University. And what if those students don’t want some 50+ academic (or other students) snooping around their social media or having their contact details, do they have to set up duplicate accounts, duplicate devices?

    Students aren’t just studying one course, so they may be required to sign up to multiple different social media companies depending on the choice of the academic as this isn’t an institutional choice.

    When the inevitable complaint comes about conduct, it is now part of our institutional teaching, for the subject access request will be interesting. I agree that can happen now, but not as an endorsed core part of provision.

    and on the logistics, does each academic need to enrol the students(?) or do they have to find everything themselves? Remembering again the lack of consistency and that there will be a new social media favourite next month!

    But more than all this, I don’t see any evidence that it would improve the student experience or help the learning process. Having reflective discussions and learning doesn’t often fit into the space of a tweet.

  3. Great article, thanks! I do agree that universities are overly restrictive in the way we approach digital technologies in general. VLEs in particular have often struck me as an oddity – all that time and money invested in trying to keep knowledge under lock and key, on an otherwise open internet!

    My own challenge has rather been about managing the variety of potential alternatives in a way that works for students and staff. I’ve asked my classes before if Twitter would be a useful platform (I use it a fair amount and could see it being far better than email/VLE posts), but rarely have more than half a class told me they use the platform (or would be willing to sign up). So there’s a risk of university staff becoming overwhelmed if we try to be on all platforms at once (and possibly switching between platforms for different cohorts who may have different preferences). A similar issue arises in relation to staff – not everyone is on social media, despite what social media might want you to think!

    These shouldn’t be intractable problems by any means – but, ironically, one solution would be for institutions to try and provide a consistent approach and platform, and then you run the risk of encountering Yammer…!

  4. This article would make more sense if it was written 5 years ago.

    GDPR and ‘the dark side’ of social media should not be taken lightly. Furthermore, ‘students’ are not an homogenous group using the same social media and this could create further problems as not everyone might be comfortable to share their opinions in open platforms, so your proposal creates more issues than it solves.

    1. Oddly enough, there was a backlash to this even earlier. Here’s what I talked about at ALTC, in 2014. http://followersoftheapocalyp.se/youll-never-hear-surf-music-again-altc-altc2014/

      Round about 2008 there was a concept current in educational technology development called the “personal learning environment” (PLE) – advocates made similar arguments to those made above. Indeed, I did advocate for this idea around that time myself. But it was wrong – early enthusiasts for social media radically understated the way social media could be used for hateful purposes, and the idea of separation between professional and personal “personas” still felt like it would hold.

  5. Given whatsapp does not enter into contractual arrangements with organisations in this sense – how would you add students without breaching GDPR?

    1. Yes, this. Students would have to add themselves via a link, which could easily fall into the wrong hands. And what if a student doesn’t want to share their personal phone number with all the other students on a module? There’s so much potential for harrassment.

  6. So a student is doing 120 credits made up of numerous modules sometimes across different bits of the uni, does it depend on the lecturer’s preferences, the student’s, the majority, the lecturer’s technical nouse……

  7. Writing such uncritical and unreflective nonsense is how one embarrasses themselves publicly. Vice Principal, LOL. Mr O’Keefe may want to read “The Twittering Machine” by Richard Seymour or even better – for the likes of him – watch the latest Netflix documentary on the asocial media and their ill effects.

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