Social Media and the Harrisburg Experiment

Last week the social media networks and the printed press, too, were buzzing with news that Harrisburg University of Science and Technology was blocking access to all social media sites for the week. There were predictable reactions from all sides. But ultimately interesting questions could be asked and there is probably something worth studying about learning behaviour among the many different groups of people who participate in higher education these days.

For me, I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t bring their laptop to class and use it for note-taking. I have been doing this for more than 10 years. Over the time I have used a range of tools for this purpose. (Currently my favourite is Xmind for mindmapping.) Since the Internet has become widely available through services like Brookes wireless (eduroam) I might indulge in a little fact checking if the lecturer refers to something interesting that I want to pursue. Yes, sometimes I might use Twitter to make a back-channel comments. And, frankly, if the session has lost my attention, I might as well make other notes off the topic.

Demanding attendance and attention as virtues in their own right can only go so far. But, in the classroom such demands can be appropriate at times. If it is an intended outcome that learners learn to pay attention for a stretch of time beyond the usual (contemporary) bite-sized time-slice, then make that explicit, and assess it, and maybe even show that such attention is valued with a (small) mark premium (or penalty). Rhona Sharpe speaks about this in her lecture on lecturing. It is easy enough to do by signalling the intention and designing a quick post-session recall exercise. This was the subject of a PCTHE participant’s sustained inquiry two years ago.

Many teachers assume that if learners have their laptops (or smart phones) open that they are necessarily not paying attention. But, people have doodled for a long time on paper while tuned out of the lecture. That said, there is a lot that students and teachers have to learn. Passing notes in the back of the class is rude, whatever medium the notes may be in. There are genuine questions about attention spans and new bricolic epistemologies. There is a question about Facebook “addiction”.

So, class time is class time. We all have some responsibilities to it. Taking away the internet during a lecture, for me, would impoverish the learning experience. Asking me to close my laptop and “pay attention” would be like telling me, 25 years ago not to take notes in class. But at the same time, it would be rude of me to be somewhere else altogether, and laugh out loud at a private joke just when the lecturer was making a salient point.

So, I guess the question, for me, is how do you build teaching sessions that take account of the increasing social media use by learners in the classroom? And, how do you include everyone, laptop users and non-users alike?

Related to this are questions about what student class-room social media practice really is. Do we know? Or, do we just assume? We should not assume that just because a student has their laptop open that they are not engaged with the topic.

Harrisburg’s Social-ucation site

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