Archive for January, 2013

TOWIED

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

“conversations of everyday life… with structure and purpose that are defined and controlled by the researcher.”

Steinar Kvale on qualitative research interviewing (1996)


“real people in modified situations, saying unscripted lines but in a structured way.”

Grace Dent on The Only Way Is Essex (2010)


Social Media Best Practices: Challenging Cultural Hegemony

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

As an educational researcher, I often find the notion of ‘best practices’ problematic. The effectiveness of any particular educational practice in one context may not necessarily apply to another.

When it comes to using social media in academic environments, we recognise that practices are emergent; subject to the relatively new and transient nature of the technology, and its tentative adoption by the academic community. As such, ‘good’ or ‘best’ practices tend to be instigated – formally and informally – by early adopters, and are therefore heavily influenced by the cultures of the academic disciplines and specialist fields in which they reside. This allows for biases, assumptions and prejudices – however unintentional – to factor, even to a point where best practice claims can become ritualised as forms of cultural hegemony. This risks marginalising those from less represented disciplines who tend to follow on later (typically under the influence and guidance of the early adopters themselves, who by this time have often ‘moved on’ to the latest technology or trend).

To an extent, this can be seen as a necessary process, particularly by the ed-tech community, who are actively engaged in adopting, promoting or integrating technologies and related practices into institutional platforms and pedagogies. It can be argued that, in contributing to best practices, early adopters are providing a service for other academics and researchers who are too preoccupied in their own work to do so themselves. Further, by drawing on their informed knowledge and expertise, they provide guidance that is both authoritative and trusted.

I’m particularly mindful of this as someone who – as an early career researcher loosely associated with the educational technology field – is active in advocating the use of social media through workshops and other activities, often to audiences from other disciplines. With this comes a responsibility to recognise the privileged position and perspective within one’s own social media practice, which are manifest in a number of ways:

  • Social media practices are culturally normalised within my field
  • I can draw on a critical mass of users within my online communities and networks
  • I have a professional interest, and am well–informed, in the latest advances in social media and related web technologies

A few points to note at this stage. Firstly, it is easy to homogenise the ed-tech ‘community.’ As Selwyn (2010) indicates, it often serves as a flag of convenience for a loose assortment of technologically minded educators, researchers and developers, with different and potentially conflicting roles, affiliations and policy agendas. Secondly, there are other academic disciplines and fields in which early adopters of social media predominate, such as Cultural and Media Studies and Journalism. Thirdly, influence is not exclusive to particular disciplines. For example, increasingly pervasive neoliberal models of networking, social capital and identity production are permeating research practices and academic training, often at the neglect of discourses on the participatory affordances of the social web, and the collaborative and egalitarian scholarly traditions it can potentially support.

These observations also raise fundamental questions over the nature of the relationship between technological developers and invested communities. Critical theorists such as Andrew Feenburg (2002) argue for more participatory and inclusive forms of technological design and development. As Friesen (2010) reminds us, social media represent an ecology of tools and platforms that are essentially founded on a ‘commercial imperative.’ Yet it has been suggested that the ‘perpetual beta’ of social media development – shaped by user trends rather than necessarily ‘hard-coded’ into original technological design – presents a more democratic process. Think of how the emergent practice of retweeting became formally integrated into the Twitter toolset. However, this only emphasises that it is often the early adopters who establish the most sustainable shifts in design change.

So whilst a professional elite of technologists and the ‘media savvy’ will invariably be the first academics to engage in new technologies, they should recognise the cultural baggage that comes with how they use them, and support opportunities for inclusivity, engagement and discussion in establishing best practice claims. In summary, I draw on my own research into how PhD students are using social media to offer a few suggestions relevant to the context of academic training:

Focus on ‘shared’ rather than ‘best’ practices

Adopt critical approaches to considering what constitutes best practices by incorporating multiple subjectivities and perspectives. Above all, support opportunities for sharing practices that may be comparative or conflicting, and include experiences of discontinuation or non-use of social media.

Promote inclusive and participatory approaches

Develop opportunities for cyclical, ongoing processes of shared practice that are participatory and culturally inclusive of different research cultures. Identify the cultural norms of social media practices in specific academic disciplines, whilst recognising the advantages of sharing practice in interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary environments. Engage sources of expertise such as learning technologists and educational researchers, whilst encouraging opportunities for participation from other disciplines. In particular, champion early adopters from under-represented disciplines.

Provide timely and sustainable support

Make opportunities for shared practices relevant as social media are adopted and used. The identification of key concerns, problems and potential solutions that characterise good (and just as importantly, bad) practices should emerge from experiencing the everyday use of social media in real case situations. Here, social media practices are authentic and essentially peripheral to ongoing academic activities, unlike many training scenarios where, as the focus of attention, they are abstract and prioritised tasks. Mentorship programmes can be particularly useful here.

Integrate training programmes

We should work to integrate (basic) social media practices into established training programmes. How often, for example, is the use of social media considered in graduate training sessions around conferences? Such a joined-up approach to training can be effective in normalising social media practices, contributing to their wider adoption and integration, as well as potentially enriching professional development in specific academic activities.

References

Feenberg, A. (2002). Transforming technology: A critical theory revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friesen, N. (2010). Education and the social web: Connective learning and the commercial imperative. First Monday, 15(12).

Selwyn, N. (2010). Looking beyond learning: Notes towards the critical study of educational technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, 65-73.