Social media mores and cultures, and the role of higher education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 27 August 2009

Two “events” have crossed my radar in the last week that have made me think about educators’ responsibilities for enabling a good-enough socialisation of students as they enter higher education. This is critical given the importance of HE for developing independent, associational and deliberative decision-making and actions by students, and also given the proximity of the start-of-term.

1. @Aggerscricket vs Will Buckley

This summer’s coverage of The Ashes [bear with me – I’ll get to the point] saw a growth in the use of Twitter, either by punters tweeting using the #ashes hashtag or by following commentators like Jonathan Agnew [@Aggerscricket] or David Lloyd [@bumblecricket] or cricketers like Graeme Swann [@swannyg66]. This enabled cricket lovers to keep in-touch with both information, in terms of what was going on at each test match, and expert opinion, alongside framing communication around specific issues.

One outcome was an emerging conversation between songstress Lily Allen and Agnew that ended with a discussion on Test Match Special on Radio 4/5Live Sports Extra during lunch on the Saturday of the final, Oval Test match. At least it would have ended there, had Will Buckley not written a piece in The Observer that stated that Agnew’s relationship with Allen had appeared “pervy”. Agnew subsequently used Twitter to “out” Buckley and to get the apology he wanted, levered through the power of the crowd, which commented on Buckley’s piece [usefully using the fact that “Comment is Free” in The Guardian and The Observer] and used email to pressure The Observer Sports Editor. Agnew declared: “What an eye-opener this has been for all… to the power of new media. It is here and will change the way news is responded to, in particular. This showed what twitter can do.”

The message: firstly, don’t print spiteful things, think about whether what you have to say is kind, true and necessary; secondly, social media is a powerful tool for engaging users – why and how it is used is morphing, and this has implications for socialisation, deliberation and our cultures.

2. Inappropriate use of Facebook and Twitter

A *news* item came across my desk that focused my thinking about privacy issues in social media. It concerned a new sexual relationship between two *friends* on Facebook. Details ended up on each other’s Facebook walls, which was then screen-captured by a mutual *friend* and went viral via Twitter. One of the couple felt ashamed that these statements were public within a localised friendship group, let alone the mortification that would follow when it went worldwide. This person did not understand how the wall worked or how privacy settings in Facebook work.

The item arrived on my Twitter feed, with one of those who re-tweeted it stating to me that “I thought it was funny; and I saw that it had just gone up on Digg ”, the implication being that others were forwarding it anyway so he might as well do so. What a mean, thoughtless and salacious response this was. My discomfort in this approach was matched by a fellow Twitterer who noted “everyone else was doing it? Seriously? You think that’s an excuse? Cliff. Jump. Would. You?”

The message: firstly, do you really have to print or forward spiteful things? Think about whether what you have to say is kind, true and necessary; secondly, how individuals engage with rules and settings, and cultural norms within social media matter. Whether we like it or not some users need and deserve our help and common humanity.

These two issues have implications for our approach to socialisation in HE. New students, many of them unsure of their place in the world, are coming into a very different, independent-yet-networked learning space, from those which they are used to. Part of the role of HE should be to engage these users in a discussion around the ways in which social media can be used and about how they can ensure their own safety. In part, this connects into the broader debate about the death of the VLE and the rise of the PLE. My own take on this is that whilst a radical manifesto that supports personalisation is needed for developing pedagogies for HE that are fit-for-purpose, we need to help our learners make good-enough decisions about tools, rules, signal-processing and approaches. This may involve structuring and closing down some learning in contexts within which they can free-range, but it also involves negotiating with them shared rules of engagement.

Defined environments for learning, built around or including a VLE or PLE, are unique to each learner based on their learning aims. These environments are fused from personal associations that are both formal and informal, and that use social media to process rule-based signals into action. Illich rightly argued that education was owned by an individual when s/he became a self-aware actor, and he also argued that the questions individuals are empowered to ask coupled to the socio-technical tools available to them, supports her/his personal emancipation. Social media, in whatever form, afford tools for encouraging individuals to associate with each other in contexts that support doing, questioning and re-conceptualising. However, this is risky because we have to make decisions about how we and our data are used and represented on-line.

HE ought to be a space in which norms, rules and cultures can be discussed safely, in order that co-operation and emancipation are enabled. This is important because HE has a duty to help make the world a better place.

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