Archive for June, 2013

Social media training: developing ecological perspectives

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Academics who actively engage in social media often get asked how they manage to find the time. I hear this quite a lot in my workshops. Such concerns are understandable, yet are often raised under a misconception that participating in these activities necessarily constitutes additional workload. I tend to argue that over time some of the academic practices you can develop through using social media can replace, supplement or enhance existing tasks. But how do we go about developing concrete examples, and what’s the best way of communicating them?

In a recent workshop, I explained how participating in academic-oriented networks (such as through Twitter or Facebook) and following multiple blogs (most efficiently aggregated through an RSS reader) can significantly contribute to resourcing new publications in one’s research field. Examples such as these relate emergent social media practice to existing problems that academics encounter in their everyday work, in context with the methods they may already employ to resolve them (in this case, using established database search and alert systems).

Generally, academics will only consider integrating social media in these types of activities if they are seen to be either a) adding more value or quality (however these are perceived), or b) providing more efficient (i.e. time-saving) methods. In reality, such transition is rarely straightforward, and its effectiveness may not be immediately realised. It may be partial i.e. new activities may augment rather than replace existing methods. (In the example above, it may be necessary – and indeed well-advised – to continue using database systems, albeit at a reduced level.) Further, social media are multipurpose, in quite complex and ambiguous ways. The initial motivation for adopting specific platforms may constitute one of many potential benefits and risks. Therefore, any shifts towards social media-facilitated activities will tend to be multiple and interrelated, within various loosely-connected timeframes.

This highlights the limitations of instrumental perspectives inherent in learning and adopting new technologies, and the problems associated with attributing affordances to social media. This is often accentuated in training environments, which tend to be incentivised towards rather abstract and non-contextualised learning outcomes. Therefore, we might need to emphasise a more ecological perspective, which positions the role of social media within the emergent socio-cultural shifts taking place in academic practice. Thinking about the example above, increased engagement with social media represents a shift from purposeful to speculative or opportunistic ways of sourcing knowledge, which are reliant on (and only realised through) developing online networks and communities, which invariably involves a period of maturation.

With this in mind, training programmes can incorporate more inclusive forms of shared practice and opportunities for ongoing mentorship and peer support (some of which might be appropriated through social media themselves). I explored these ideas further here (towards the end). Crucially, in relation to communicating how activities might be facilitated by social media, we should not necessarily focus on convenient ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparisons, but acknowledge and incorporate the messy (and sometimes unsuccessful) periods of transition, recognising also that these are multiple, interrelated and ongoing as new social media and related practices are considered.