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.
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.
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.