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Martin Hall, Vice Chancellor of the University of Salford

Social media and new ways of learning

Much less than a lifetime ago, education was the gateway to rare and scarce information. Now, we are swamped by digital data, says Martin Hall

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | December 01, 2014 | Higher education

China’s 1500-year-old Shaolin Temple has been advertising for a social media director. Deep in the mountains of China’s Henan province, Abbot Shi Yongxin wants an executive who can promote Buddhist asceticism away from fast-paced urban life (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/05/buddhist-temple-shaolin-china-seeks-brand-builders-kung-fu). But if social media are engulfing even these outposts, what hope is there for ensuring quality and substance in reflection and learning, the essence of education?

Much less than a lifetime ago, education was the gateway to rare and scarce information. Now, we are swamped by digital data: perhaps valuable, often misleading, frequently irrelevant. But there are new and emerging possibilities in the combination of trusted, open access content and the dynamism and flexibility of social media. Together, these can enable virtual classrooms that change the ways in which we learn and think. 

The foundations have been in place for a while; Wordpress, Google, Facebook, Twitter. But it’s not about the particular app or the specific platform. What's new – the tipping point – is the convergence of ubiquitous wi-fi, cheap and massive data storage and affordable, location-intelligent mobile devices. As well as large-scale on-line courses – MOOCs – this convergence is enabling much more interactive ways of bringing people together anywhere, at the same time.

Needs are also changing. As we plug into these zetabytes of new information – wherever we happen to be and for almost anything we are doing – we need new, high-level skills: the abilities to discern relevance and reliability, to assemble and aggregate digital content, and to do new kinds of things. We are intolerant of any delay in accessing what we need.

Because there is ever-increasing digital information circulating in the Internet we need dynamic and trustworthy intermediaries that do the job that the traditional library or bookshop used to do. This is where digital, open access content comes in. Digital resources can be on-line university platforms (almost every university in Britain now has one), specialised repositories, or national institutions such as the British Library. Their purpose is to stand between the virtual classroom and the wilds of the virtual world, where scientific treatises, pornography, digital data sets and innumerable bad photographs circulate promiscuously. Their currency is their selectivity. We can be reasonably certain that the resources to which they provide access are authentic and have value for their field of information or knowledge. 

In themselves, though, online repositories are not enough; they need to be integrated with social media. Effective on-line education needs the equivalent of the argumentative seminar, with talk, interruptions, gestures and dispute. Learners need to go away and build up chains of understanding by moving from source to source, interpreting, synthesizing and assessing new knowledge, talking to each other and coming back next week with an improved point of view.

The genius in social media is in enabling quick, non-hierarchical peer-to-peer networks that can assemble words, images and links around key concepts (tags). New combinations of open access content, micro-blogs and social media networks are beginning to show how the virtual classrooms of the future can be assembled. Academia.edu, with 12.5m subscribers, offers a repository of academic papers coupled with analytics and the ability to follow others and post comments. It’s a small stretch from here to a fully-fledged social media capability that allows Academia to be bolted onto a virtual classroom. 

TheConversation.com, founded in Australia and now launched in Britain and the United States, provides current and reliable content and the ability to follow selected topics. The Conversation is also growing rapidly and can provide a virtual classroom with a rich, by-the-minute resource for the frontiers of new knowledge. 

What to watch, as these new approaches develop, is how freedom from the limitations of time and space enables new ways of learning and understanding. Connecting people separated by continents and time zones is a key innovation for education practice. A course on climate change, for example, that connected learners’ living knowledge of the Amazon, or Greenland or the Sahel will be a new way of creating knowledge about a key issue. Conflict zones provide limit cases that help think through these possibilities: online learners in Gaza and Israel together in a virtual classroom working from a common set of digital resources and using social media for free-ranging, peer-to-peer interactions; Tamil and Sinhalese students in Sri Lanka and South India critically re-examining cultural identities in the aftermath of civil war; Catholic and Protestant students in Belfast looking critically at the sectarianism that still makes coming together in the material world difficult and dangerous. 

Will we find it difficult to embrace these new forms of learning? There is abundant digital creativity in education today, and innumerable experiments with on-line content and social media. The difficulty is rather in organizational structure; in the ways in which subject fields are organized and assembled in curricula; in conventional forms of assessment and validation. Until we look at these deeper, structural issues we will find it difficult to respond to the demands of digitally-savvy learners of today and tomorrow, or to make use of the wealth of innovation and opportunity that is already with us. But then again, if social media can bring a millennia of wisdom from Shaolin Temple to the world, what limits to the possible can there be?

Martin Hall is currently Vice Chancellor of the University of Salford in Manchester and chair of the board of Jisc, the United Kingdom’s information technology service for higher and further education (www.jisc.ac.uk). 

Before joining Salford in 2009, Martin was Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town (from 2002-2008) and the inaugural Dean of Higher Education Development at UCT (from 1999-2002). He is Emeritus Professor and Life Fellow at the University of Cape Town, a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts.

Read another post from Martin here. 

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