Saturday, March 23, 2019

Social media in education - it's complicated

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The use of commercial social media in education has brought many benefits and taken online collaboration to new levels. I cannot even imagine my work without access to these platforms and tools (including the Blogger platform this blog uses). The tools we use every day are overwhelmingly commercial and our data is being stored and even sold to third parties. However these platforms and tools are today so firmly embedded into all sectors of education and in most cases there are few credible alternatives. The commercial social media are slick, well-designed, user-friendly and in many cases integrate nicely with each other whilst the non-commercial alternatives tend to be more complicated to set up and a bit clunkier in design. We have many reasons to review our use of these platforms and tools but are they simply too addictive and attractive to consider giving up?

This dilemma is very well discussed in a new article by Terry Anderson (one of the people who first inspired me to get interested in social media about 15 years ago) in the latest issue of the Journal of Learning for Development, Challenges and Opportunities for use of Social Media in Higher Education. He lists the benefits of social media in education along with references to research in the field as well as all the reservations and misgivings that have emerged in recent years and states that "The biggest reason that persons stay active users of social media is not because they feel secure and comfortable but, rather, they appreciate the value or service that the media provides." The value and convenience still outweigh the privacy concerns and the question is whether we continue to tolerate this or look for alternative solutions.

We see that the large potential benefit to social media use is coupled with deep threats to our privacy and control over our own activity and thought. Obviously, using these commercial products, with their questionable ethical practices, are not the type of learning product or environment that public higher education institutions have traditionally used. Is the pedagogical and motivational value sufficient to allow institutions to hold their collective noses and use the product anyway?

At the same time, informal learning thrives on social media and offers us instant access to educational material. If you want to fix something then a quick search on YouTube will almost always provide you with a solution. Google's product range enables simple and effective collaboration and networking opportunities. There are countless Facebook groups offering a forum for discussion and advice on practically every topic under the sun. Similarly there are hashtags on Twitter providing professionals with a convenient space for dissemination and discussion. The crossover from informal to the formal education is unavoidable. However it is hard to do research on how social media are used in education since the data is strictly protected by the companies that offer the platforms.

If we should somehow wean ourselves off commercial social media in education couldn't we build our own alternatives that institutions can control? Anderson describes in the article how a social networking platform was developed at Athabasca University and but even if it offered a secure environment for discussion, sharing and creation it simply couldn't match the rapid development and attractiveness of the commercial players. It never managed to build the critical mass so essential for a social network.

Our system, like other social media, only becomes useful when it is used and is only used when it becomes useful.

The conclusion is that if we are going to continue to use social media in education, institutions need to become much more platform literate and be able to make informed choices about which tools to use and which to avoid. The GDPR legislation in Europe for example is an important step in the right direction of protecting personal data.

Education has unparalleled opportunity to monitor and improve its own practices. Teachers have new ways to connect with students and, as importantly, means to monitor and intervene in student learning so as to increase the efficacy of both teaching and learning. Students have new ways to find, retrieve and share their learning products and opportunities. However, the cost of these benefits currently is reduction in privacy and user control. Continuous monitoring, research and surveillance of the is of critical importance to the development of educational quality and opportunity.

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