Social Media Narratives

social-media-marketingI had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion on the impact of social media in education at a recent Social Media Club – EDU event, along with Jon Becker and Lon Safko. The focus of the conversation was on how social media is generating fundamental shifts in teaching, learning and collaboration. It was a fun and interesting event to be a part of, and I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the event and share a few additional thoughts.

The Social Media Conversation – Who’s In?
The SMCEDU event was a unique opportunity to have both a business and educational perspective of social media offered up on the same plate, and it was fun to see how these mingled. One of the things that I found immediately interesting was the make-up of the audience…there were a few students and some faculty members, but the majority of folks in attendance were business professionals. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the broad interest in social media in the business sector. What I continue to find interesting are the ways folks in business and education speak with different levels of confidence and understanding about the role of social media in different contexts. It seems, at least from my take of the business perspective, that there is a greater sense of purpose driving the adoption of social media – namely to grow brands by connecting with and being responsive to customers. I think this kind of approach to social media works pretty well for businesses, but I’m not sure it transfers neatly to educational contexts. In conversations I’ve had with faculty members about social media, the suggestion that they are their own personal brand is a fairly foreign if not bizarre concept. Many are a bit skeptical (and rightly so) of the business metaphor that suggests students are customers, and that a primary role of education is to prepare students for the workforce. Clearly education also plays a fundamental role in helping people develop intellectual and ethical judgment, comprehend and negotiate relationships with the larger world, and prepare them for lives of civic responsibility and leadership. I’m not sure that these are always part of the workforce narrative about the need for certain kinds of skills and habit of mind. I think that when the driver for participating in the conversation about the role of social media in education emerges from a business narrative and marketing rationale, it makes it too easy for some educators to readily dismiss it and disengage. That is unfortunate, because the conversation about social media is too important to education – on a number of levels – to have it set up to be so easily disregarded. Introducing a healthy dose of critique of social media in general, and recognizing when one narrative is being privileged over another might better serve us all.

Trend v. Transformation
The idea that trends in social media change quickly is a huge understatement. The common refrain seems to be…how do you keep up? How do you stay current? What should you be paying attention to? What is most important? Again, from my perspective as an educator its not about trends…it is about a fundamental transformation in the ways we connect, exchange, collaborate, and learn. Fundamental change is afoot…that is the message – not trying to find the best way to drink from the fire hose. When the message is about emerging trends more significant questions and ideas get passed over. I find that many educators are still at the stage of making sense of how the affordances of new forms of digital media – access to information, networking, shared knowledge creation – are impacting what it means to teach and learn. There is little attention paid to the most recent social media trend. Again, perhaps this illustrates some differences in the narrative we offer about the importance and role of social media.

Impact on Teaching and Learning
One of the things that I have been hearing in conversation with colleagues interested in social media is that students are steeped in social networking practices from experiences on Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc., and that we can build on these experiences to support formal learning in courses that we teach. The idea seems to be that we can leverage experiences students are having in these spaces, and transfer them into web-based collaborative learning experiences on sites like Ning and Wetpaint. I’m not so sure. I think it is a worthy environment to experiment with and explore, but there is something very different about elective participation in web-based communities and required participation in a social network for a course. Plenty of questions emerge: Is required participation in a community, really a community? Can initial required participation in social media for learning lead to sustainable participation that is self-selected? What drives learners to elect to engage in social media to support their own non-formal learning? So I’m looking for good answers to these and other questions, and would look forward to hearing thoughts about whether these questions matter or if I’m missing the mark here.