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Social Media in Higher Education

As part of the Pearls in Clouds project I conducted an extensive literature review and metanalysis regarding the state of web 2.0 tools, or rather, social media in Higher Education.

Key Questions

  • What is the evidence surrounding productive and creative use of social media and web 2.0 tools and OER in HE?
  • What are the barriers and enablers to the use of social media in HE?

The report was part of Higher Education Academy's Evidence Net Programme and can be accessed here. A public view of the process for collecting data and responses that directed the authoring of the Literature review: this can be accessed in Cloudworks

Key Messages

Despite the potential application of social media in an educational context, their use also raises some fundamental paradoxes (See Appendix 4 ‘Paradoxes created by the networked and digital’ for a more detailed discussion). Key surveys on the use of Web 2.0 within education in the UK, US, European Union and Australia give an indication of the level of uptake. Collectively they suggest that uptake is occurring, but that it is not yet extensive across all aspects of learning and teaching provision. There is a lack of understanding of the implications of adopting more open approaches and indeed negative attitudes and fear of openness. Identification and understanding of the barriers to broader uptake is essential so that strategies can be devised to overcome them. There are three core issues that illustrate the tensions between the potential advantages of web-enabled practices and the challenges of implementation:
a) developing teachers’ professional scholarship and practice;
b) building capacities for quality scholarship;
c) bridging disciplinary and digital divides.

Strategies to overcome these issues will need to include mechanisms for giving teachers time to experiment with new technologies and open educational practices, support and guidance to enable them to develop the new skills needed to embrace these practices and a shift in thinking towards more scholarly and reflective approaches to teaching.

Strategies for encouraging greater use of technologies and sharing of resources and good practice have ranged from simply making teaching resources available (such as Open Educational Resources) through to more specific case studies describing practice or community-based support mechanisms and networks. However the impact of such work so far is small, and these communities are not without design flaws or challenges. In addition, there are a number of related professional and discipline specific networks that have a role in promoting and supporting good teaching practices (and hence also socially situated and productive use of technologically mediated open learning practices).

Further strands and implications

I) The key theoretical and policy underpinnings for using Web 2.0 methods and tools in higher education. Technological innovation and participatory learning cultures can only be implemented effectively in higher education if they are supported by appropriate national policies. These need to ensure that institutional structures are in place to take advantage of these new technologies, but also link to a wider vision of innovation in academic and educational institutions.

II) Teachers and learners: teaching versus learning?
There is now a significant body of research on learner experiences and their use of technologies. What is evident is that learners and teachers are not homogeneous. In addition, there is a gap between the expectations/promise of the use of technologies and the actual experiences and uses. Digital and socio-demographic divides are still evident; within the student body, but also between tutors and learners. The expansive learning domain challenges traditional teaching practices; yet evidence also suggests that expert guidance is required and that a more explicit, learning design based approach, to the creation of courses is needed. This raises a set of fundamental questions. What are the implications of shifting from the notion of teacher as instructor to teacher as facilitator? What are the barriers for low levels of experimentation and creativity? What institutional infrastructures and support mechanisms will be required to shift to greater use of technology?

III) Skills, media and networked literacies: While academic tutors need to ensure technical proficiency, reflection on approaches to teaching and learning, e-pedagogy (learning with and/or through technology) is also paramount. Multi-located/fragmented content and the potential for multiple pathways through content have an impact on how educational interventions are designed. And although such multiplicity offers increased choice in an educational context, this also has the potential to lead to confusion. How familiar are learners and education practitioners with the tools of editing and blending digital material? What are the novel perceptions of creativity and originality? What is the scale of the responsibilities that the nuances of literacy brings to educators? Is there a representation of the wider literacies in institutions and in the projects they pursue?

IV) The need for a better connection between research, policy and practice. There is now a significant body of research exploring technologies and how they can be used to support all aspects of Higher Education practice – learning and teaching, research, and administration. E-science and e-social science research is giving fascinating insights into exploitation of large, distributed research datasets and more recently into the use of cloud computing. Openness is becoming a trend among some, both in terms of the production and sharing of educational materials, as well as making research publications (and even research data) freely available.

V) The challenges of trying to change embedded practice and culture.
Despite increasing evidence on the benefits of Web 2.0 in supporting constructivist and situative learning approaches, the challenge of translating this across the higher education sector remains. The reasons are complex and multifold: educational rules and restrictions in different countries, access, technical resources, ICT literacy, teaching capacity, and teaching cultures are widely cited. One key issue is concerned with cultural issues, teachers' belief systems and their day to day practice. Teacher practice is still predominately built around a notion of teacher as expert and student as recipient. Despite the shift in educational thinking towards more constructivist and situative learning approaches, behavourist and didactic discourses are still evident. Teachers draw on past experience rather than actual empirical evidence and research literature. Despite the benefits and need for more scholarly activities, there is little evidence that this actually occurs. Arguably there is a need to shift to more scholarly approaches if the potential of technologies is to be realised. The vision is one in which educators are co-innovators in understanding the key possibilities in the relationship between technology and pedagogy, leading towards a co-evolved professional knowledge base that stems from reflective practices that are mediated and shared; a practice that feeds into the development of curricular designs that can actualise educational visions.