Wednesday 30 November 2011

Social Media and the Future of Higher Education

Social media are not going to enhance higher education- they are going to completely transform the relationship between student and teacher and shift the balance of power in the education system.
Social media such as Facebook have already changed many of the aspects of how we relate to other people, who we can form relationships with and the types of things we share with them. Many businesses are now using social media to interact with their customers in different ways and use them as brand ambassadors or answer their concerns and complaints in a much more direct way. Entertainers and writers are also using social media to interact with their public in more direct ways. The other day I got a direct tweet from an author whose books I read in repsonse to a tweet I made about the work of another author. That type of interaction would have been highly unlikely a few years ago.
The education industry ought to be at the forefront of embracing new technologies. Sadly this has not been the case and I think the reason for this is fear about how transformative and disruptive the technology is. However, HE institutions will have to use social media or suffer serious consequnces.
To illustrate why I think this will happen I will give the example of downloads and the music industry. In 1994 I participate in an amazing concert in London by the artist Todd Rundren. The concert tied in to his No World Order album, an interactive piece of music released on a computer disc and an interactive cd which aloowed the listener to make their own remixes of the material and control the mood tempo etc of the music. For those of you are, like me, social work professionals this could be looked at as a form of personalisation- the listener being in control rather the artist. Rundgren figured that new technology would completely change the balance of power and control between the producer and consumer and that neither artist nor publisher would be able to control how people experienced or distributed music. Rather than fight this, he embraced its potential. The concert itself was completely interactive with members of the audience being allowed on stage to dance and play instruments. At one of the shows in America he apparently decided to leave the stage for a while and be partof the audience while audience members ran the show- playing his songs.A little later before the emergence of Napster, he tried to interest record companies in releasing legal downloads. They refused point blank stating that it would interfere with their CD sales. Now of course there are no CD sales and most of these record companies are in bankrupcy or liquidation.
A similar fate faces many HE institutions if they do not start modernising now.
Two forces are currently facing HE in the UK. One is the threat of competition from the private sector who are going to be able to offer degrees. The other is a fall off of student numbers because of the high tuition fees which will be charged as a result of these fees being moved from a loan/taxpayer split to being completely financed by loans to the student. Social media can either offer a vehicle for the first threat or a way for Universities to stave off the second threat if they embrace it.
Currently higher edication is one of the few industries which operate in much the same way as it did in ancient Greece. Certainly, new technologies such as Blackboard have been introduced. However, they are always considered to be in support of traditional forms of learning rather than a replacement for them. Furthermore, the quality of the technology used in education is inferior to that which people enjoy in other areas of their lives. I know of lecturers who have successfully carried out much more lively debates with their students on Twitter than they have managed to in the discussuion forums on Blackboard. People are used to frictionless connectivity and so an interface which requires people to navigate through about 6 pages before finding that nobody is online is not going to be very popular.
Social media have the opportunity to connect educators instantly with their students and also connect them and their students to a wider body of authors, educators, students in other institutions and (for social workcourses) the wider public and people who use social services. They also have the ability to connect HE instituions with all of their former allumni and other partners such as employers, providers of placements etc. If a tool like Facebook or Twitter was offered to HE institutions for the first time they would proabably be willing to pay a lot of money for it. And yet these tools are available now and are completely free. Why are they not being taken advantage of?
The issue for many educators is the lack of control which they will have in these debates and discussions or what ultimately is done with the content if it is available to outside parties. However all of these outside parties are stakeholders of education and they have a legitimate right to take part in debates about good poractice without their participation being stagemanaged and controlled. Students also have the right to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them through free interaction with others.
Certainly, there will be risks assocated with embracing new media. However, these risks are overwhelmingly trumped by the lost opportunities from not engaging with them.
For HE providers the greatest risk in the next 10 years will come from new private competitors. These competitors will not have the overheads which Universities currently have. They will be lean operations using high quality syndicated material delivered by podcasts and backed up with instant contact to tutors through mobiles and skype. Students will connect with and meet each other through social media. These institutions will focus their resources on aspects of the student experience which add value (flexibility, accessibility, interactivity) and ignore those aspects which are not perceived as adding value.
If you think this sounds far fetched then I suggest that you read the article 'Disrupting Higher Education' which appeared in Harvard Business Review July/August 2011 issue. It states: "State institutions are gradually being defunded by taxpayers. Liberal Arts Colleges are struggling for survival. Upstart for-profit colleges are, despite mis-steps on the rise." Essentially, the changes I am describing are already ocuring in the USA. Prestigious Ivy League Universities are able to retain their traditional approach but HE institutions which do not have their USPs are being overtaken by ditital-savvy alternatives. According to the article tuition fees are on a downward trajectory as these new hi- tech forms of education are much cheaper. I would suggest that the coalition Govt in the U.K. has deliberately transferred the burden of fees onto students so that they will drive prices down. This change is partnered with a liberalisation of who can actually provide HE. While fees remain high this will provide opportunities for private institutions to come in under existing market prices and still make profits.
Existing HE providers cannot afford to look on at social media and tut tut about loss of control,loss of privacy etc. Young people have already weighed up these issues and concluded that benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Consumers made a similar calculation in relation to music downloads and decided that they did not want their choice restricted, even though this often meant breaking the law before the advent of legal downloads.
It need not be a bad outcome, however, for our 'non-Ivy League' Universities. They do have real strengths in terms of their engagement with local communities and local industries, and in their reputation for social inclusion and expanding opportunities. However, they will need to build on these strengths by modernising how they do business, reducing costs, and embravcing technologoies which will enhance their students' experience of HE.
Social media will radically transform the relationship between lecturer and student. They will blur the boundary of where the classroom starts and finishes, who takes part in a student's educational experience and who holds the expertise and power. This is its stength and a challenge to engage with rather than something to fear.
I am very excited about this. I did, after all, go into education to help people to think for themselves and continue my own experience as a learner.
Every other aspect of our lives has changed radically as a result of technology-education just has some catching up to do-but the psychological changes and the change in power relationships will be more profound than the changes in technology.


  1. I embrace social networking sites but feel the shift in power you hope for between stidents and lecturers is not a reality.
    Lecturers will always hold the power, student/consumer power is a myth.
    The universities provide us with much needed references for employment and "rocking the boat" can be viewed as detrimental to this end.
    Student feedback is selectovely considered and although we are now the service users our participation is still very much in the lip service category.
    Other than that another interesting article.

  2. Good post which I think raises many different issues. I think the 'lack of control' is a massive key to the fear from organisations such as universities which are built on the fundamental dichotomy between the 'teacher' and the 'taught' - the 'expert' and the 'user' whereas social media seems to thrive on a much more democratic approach.
    For me, the benefits as a frontline practitioner are about opening up more extensive conversations with educational establishments - both lecturers and students - as too often we find some of the teaching out of sync with current practice.

    Maybe as consumers of university courses, students will come to demand more from their educational (and placement) experiences and universities (as well as individual tutors) will not be able to afford to be left behind.