Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Can Students Benefit from Online Engagement Via Social Media?

Can Students Benefit from Online Engagement Via Social Media?

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

Steve Radick posted this on Twitter today:

Instead of writing a 50 page thesis that no one reads, what if students were able to create/maintain blog on a topic instead?

I don’t agree with the idea. As a frequent blogger and as someone who has given some thought to the role of social media in scholarly communication (see Scholarly Communications and the Social Media Genie), I do think it’s worth debating.

First, here’s why I don’t agree with the idea if taken too literally:

  • I don’t have a problem with “… that no one reads.” In many courses, as long as your professor reads it, that should be enough.
  • Don’t assume that posting something online in public will guarantee useful and meaningful comments. There’s a lot of stuff posted online that never gets discussed or commented on. You can’t assume that such “neglect” is automatically a bad thing.
  • There’s a lot to be said for the value of learning how to accurately express your own thoughts in writing before opening up those thoughts to public comment, especially if you have the time and attention of a good professor or teacher who is willing and able to work with you one on one.

There is value to incorporating interactive engagement into some aspects of the learning process. That’s especially true when part of what you are learning is connected with research, creativity, communication, or critical thinking. The value of serious dialog should not be underestimated. Good teachers have understood this ever since the time of Socrates.

One question is whether today’s educational “establishment” knows and understands how best to incorporate interactivity and engagement into the learning process using tools such as social media and blogging.

I’m referring to using the web for more than delivering lectures, static files, and tests. For example, I’m currently consulting with the National Academy of Engineering on a National Science Foundation funded project that addresses changing the public’s perception of the engineering profession as a career. Based on my initial research  into the tools and techniques available for engaging with different population groups about engineering and science as careers, it seems to me that using interactive media and social networking tools — such as blogs — to address career goals, role modelling, and employment expectations has massive potential. The question is whether the needed tools currently exist to support this. Also, do people in positions of authority and responsibility know how to use those tools?

Part of the problem we have in figuring out educational uses of social media is that social media tools impact both the communication and the relationship aspects of education. Boundaries between school and home and school and friends become blurred. 

Issues of authority and control are also redefined. Maintaining a traditional “me teacher you student” relationship and the assumed authority that goes with that, in the face of increasingly mobile web access and fractionated attention spans, are significant challenges.

There are situations where I’d still prefer students to focus on composing and hand-writing well organized and thought-through essays in old fashioned paper composition books. That may sound weird at a time when textbooks are becoming electronic and I’m looking forward to buying an iPad, but it’s true.

There will always be value to the focusing of the attention and thought that sometimes get lost in an always-on and always-connected culture.

Copyright 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald. The views presented here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Engineering or the National Science Foundation.

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