News of the Harrisburg University’s campus blackout of social media has sparked debate this week. According to Mashable and NPR, students will have no access to Twitter, Facebook or other social networks during the week-long ban. The university will ask students to reflect on their experience in writing at the end of the week.
Inspired by the provost’s observations of his teenage daughter using her iPhone, the Harrisburg blackout smacks of the oft-repeated view that social media is a time-waster made up of trivial, multi-tasked conversations that distract young people from “real life” (or class).
But if Harrisburg U is expecting students to walk away from their disconnected week with a new appreciation for so-called “real” conversations and quiet study time, then they are in for a surprise.
Social media represents a shift in the way many users (especially young people) approach information. If these tools began as a way for friends to socialize, they’ve quickly evolved into complex information streams that deliver relevant and actionable content. They’ve become important sources of both personal and professional information.
Last semester, the iSchool hosted Social Media Futures to consider the value of social media in business and beyond. One eye-opening aspect of the event was in observing students from different backgrounds, majors and interests working together to construct their presentations while using information pulled from social media.
Twitter rolled across a projection screen all weekend long as students from different teams engaged in backchannel discussions. Industry leaders chimed in as their work was mentioned, providing instant feedback and sparking discussion. Examples were pulled from YouTube and social bookmarking sites where students had gathered resources. Designers from far away places spoke directly with the teams via Skype.
These students, connected to multiple social media channels and leveraging real-time information, are not distracted young people lacking social skills. They are future leaders demonstrating information skills.
It’s hard to understand how any university could consider banning social media without realizing these technologies actually fuel learning. If the intention is to demonstrate a dependence on technology, then why are Harrisburg students still allowed to access other internet sites and email? Assuming the motivation is not purely about publicity (and that’s a big assumption), then the reason must be a failure to understand the true nature of social media and user-generated content.
danah boyd (@zephoria), a preeminent information researcher studying social media, points out the disconnect between reality and the expectations that exist in learning environments. boyd writes that because many continue to emphasize “push” or “broadcast” methods of information sharing, “we are failing to teach our youth how to evaluate, interpret, and assess the information that they pull or that which falls out of the sky.”
“While they are exploring an information culture where information is constantly linked and networked, they are being told that the ‘valuable’ information comes in unsearchable, unnetworked paper formats only. Nowhere along the line are they supported in their creativity or educated about how to think critically about the information that they encounter,” boyd said.
Instead of disconnecting social media, universities should be embracing these technologies on campus. Students understand the power and potential of social media. It doesn’t make sense to treat these tools like time-wasters just because we haven’t learned to fully utilize them ourselves (or because we don’t want to).
When the Harrisburg social media blackout is over, I hope students take the opportunity to tweet at the school to insist that social media be explored on their campus.
Of course, that’s assuming the school is listening to its Twitter account.
The complete danah boyd piece mentioned in this post: