On Thursday, February 4th, I attended the Social Media and the Modern Day Classroom session that’s part of Social Media Week Toronto. It was hosted here at York and most of the presenters were local faculty or staff.

It was a very interesting session in which all the speakers brought something different and valuable to the table.

Neel Joshi moderated and gave an overall shape to the session, asking provocative questions and mostly focusing on Twitter as a learning and community building tool. Laura D’amelio is the Manager of Print & E-Media Content here and she talked about how York is using it’s Twitter account to reach out to students and faculty. I also appreciated that she gave a nice shout-out to the work we at the York Libraries are doing in social media. Bryan Brock and Tyrone Edwards of 1LoveTO brought a social media marketing and brand development perspective.

York Computer Science & Engineering professor Andrew Eckford (Twitter) gave the most interesting and perhaps the most relevant to the actual title of the session. He posts about the session on his blog here.

In the presentation, Andrew basically outlined his attempts to integrate social media platforms into his courses: Facebook, blogs, Twitter, Youtube — he tried them all and is still innovating and trying new things. I find it interesting and enlightening that the platform he found the most useful for supplementing traditional lectures is blogging.

My idea was to replace the standard course website with a blog: the unchanging details of the course (schedule, location, etc.) could still be hosted in some static place, but the blog would communicate the day-to-day details of the course. My first attempt, still online, can be found here. It was an incredible success: the blog formed the core of a vibrant community, which allowed the students to communicate both with me and among themselves. One student was even inspired to start his own blog, transcribing my course notes after each lecture.

Which is really cool. I’d love to try doing a guest post in one of his more advanced courses and I’ll probably mention it next time I run into him in the halls (the CS building is right next door to the library). Of course, anytime you open things up in social media, it can get a little rough and tumble and it’s obvious that Andrew was willing and able to take the heat and make the most of the free-flowing blog environment, complete with the occasional negative or critical post. And he was very open about that — he welcomes it all and sees it as part of the process. [1]

Even more interesting are Andrew’s musings on the possibilities for social media to replace tradiditional classroom education:

It’s worth considering whether social media can replace the university classroom, and I’m going to cop out by answering “yes and no”. For one thing, social media is unlikely to replace the small undergraduate class. To form a community based on social media, you need a critical mass highly committed “community builders”, who are willing to jump in and participate in whatever media is in use — be it a blog, facebook, or Twitter. In small classes, there simply aren’t enough people to form a critical mass, so anyone trying to participate is left to feel awkward. However, for larger classes, social media does indeed pose an alternative to the traditional classroom order. We have already noticed the trend towards distance learning, so students are already willing to miss out on the impersonal 200-student lecture, even without social media tools at their disposal. A well-thought-out social media strategy, coupled with a high-reputation distance-learning program, could indeed recreate much of the classroom experience, and pose a viable alternative (or threat?) to the traditional university experience. The comparison between traditional universities and traditional media is chillingly apt.

I think he might be on to something: the idea that the availability of open courseware learning objects online — syllabi, blogs, wikis, Twitter feeds, Facebook groups, video, PowerPoints, etc. — could be a completely disruptive force for higher education. As he says, the big undergrad survey course with hundreds of students seems particularly vulnerable, as do very practically oriented professional programs.

Of course, people attend brick and mortar universities for a lot of reasons and online is unlikely to replace all of those any time soon. But, it’s entirely possible that online educational opportunities will start to draw a critical mass of students away from traditional educational institutions starting very soon. In fact, it’s already starting but enrollments are strong enough to mask the issue so far. If it does start to happen, it will significantly weaken the things that traditional universities are good at: graduate education, research, network building. We live in interesting times.

Which brings me to Stop selling scarcity. What universties have “sold” their students in the past was a scarsity of expertise. You had to learn in the physical presense of experts.

In education, we’re fooling ourselves if we think that we can maintain our scarcity-based economy: only so many chairs to soak in the wisdom of that teacher. It’s a wildly inefficient system — especially in our industrial-age knowledge factories that try to turn out people who memorize the same answer instead of invent new ones.

Earlier, I’ve speculated about the idea of an educational ecosystem with star professors whose lectures are widely available (as is the case with MIT and Stanford) and who gain value (books, speaking gigs) through being broadly distributed. Then we have local tutors who give us the specialized instruction and consultation we need.

*snip*

If you’re not the star performer (or professor), if you’re the consultant (or tutor) who works much more locally, you do indeed have a scarcity: your own time. That scarcity works against you. So it’s in your interest to scale as best you can. That is why people like me blog. The more we share our ideas, the more attention we draw, the more business we can get, the more efficient we are.

*snip*

The real story in nonphysical goods is one of deflation. Value in once-scarce — well, once-controlled — commodities like news, information, and advertising decline as the internet explodes creation and competition. The internet also destroys the ability of many to control distribution and thus value. But at the same time, the internet drastically increases efficiency thanks to platforms and open distribution and the ability — no, the need — to specialize and collaborate.

In many ways, it’s a depressing and ugly vision of education — commodified, data mined, commercialized and marketed to the lowest common denominator, with not much room for free inquiry.

In other ways it’s incredibly liberating and democratizing, free and open to everyone with the best ideas winning. To be successful going forward, finding what the scarsity is in the educational landscape is the key, helping students learn what they need to know, in the diversity of ways that makes the most sense for each individual. Education is social and connected, not hierarchical. What scarsity do students have?

For libraries embedded within educational institutions, success revolves around finding the right scarsity and meeting those needs for students and faculty.

(More or less an excerpt from Chapter 1, to be continued.)

[1] Just because it’s funny, I’ll quote the negative comment that Andrew pointed out in the session: “goto hell proffessor bullshit.” Really, how seriously can you take a comment from a computer science student who can’t spell the word “professor.” And, even more damningly, uses the goto statement!

Comments

  1. Using social media in the classroom is another way of teaching folks with different learning styles. You can support different learning styles on a blog, by using audio and video and text. Also the act of interacting with a blog / Twitter / Facebook can itself encourage learning & interaction. It’s happened in the graduate school classes I’ve taught (using wikis to annotate reference sources — students experientially learn what’s good & not good about wikis).

    I haven’t tried this in my one-shot library instruction classes – they’re probably too small and too short-term to work. John, if you try it, I’d be curious to know what happens.

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