This morning Andrew Maynard (also known as 2020science) pinged a few of us with some questions that are basically about using social media in higher education. I wrote a long reply, and then thought, since it is not unusual for similar questions to come up in conversation, research, and a variety of other spaces in which I work, it might be helpful for me to have this in an easily accessible public space. Andrew said OK to share his questions and a bit of the back story, and there we are!
* Is there really a need for effective collaborative platforms in academia?
* What’s out there, what is working, and what is not?
* Why is it so hard to get people engaged with these platforms, and are there solutions to this?
Actually, this is a longstanding problem. I don’t know if it is so much the platforms as the community & its culture. If the community feels a strong drive to work together on a problem, they can find a way around the foibles and failings of the technology or platform.
As part of an earlier project on the potential of social media for bench-to-bedside knowledge transfer I did a mini survey of the literature on barriers to adoption of social media by various professional communities, and found that the same barriers crop up in virtually all professional communities, from life science researchers and doctors and lawyers, to K-12 teachers and poets and historians. While the list of expressed concerns and barriers can be quite long, they tend to coalesce into roughly the same three categories.
1. I don’t perceive any value or utility for me or my work.
2. The cost to me in time, effort, resources, and learning new skills is is not justified.
3. The risk to me and my work in potential loss of reputation, control of my personal brand, control of my intellectual property / creative work and products / data / research content is prohibitive.
Address those concerns, and everything changes. However, those concerns really represent the culture of professional endeavor and reward these days. This culture is really the main point (I suspect) behind IBM’s push to recruit new people from the community of serious gamers, especially those with World of Warcraft experience. The WoW community evolved a model of teamwork focused on collaboration and rotating leadership positions. Completely non-hierarchical. The idea is that the team has goals, and needs a mix of skills to reach those goals. The tasks along the way require leadership from the individuals with the best match of skills for the task, and when that task is successfully completed, the task leader steps down and the leader for the next task steps up, to keep things moving forward. A very different culture.
I don’t know if there is enough data to support this idea, but I am hypothesizing that professionals who take to social media are those who are more interested in sharing and collaboration than in control. I can rattle off several examples of social media projects with purpose that have succeeded in dramatic ways, while at the same time there are thousands that fail. The main distinctions of those that succeed seem to be:
– purpose (a committed or driven community already gathered around this purpose, and a good story to wrap around it);
– passion (a small group of people with the passion, time and resources (and talent?) to step into organizing roles);
Resources are helpful, but not always necessary, and certainly not as critical as the other four above.
Regarding the last question, on collaboration platforms in academia, it doesn’t matter whether academia thinks they are needed or not. The world thinks they are, and the whole social learning movement is in serious direct competition to higher education. I was just talking with John King about that last week. We, as academics and educational enterprises, either position ourselves in those more flexible learning spaces, or we, as professionals and institutions, fail and fade away. That’s the point of the whole discussion about the higher education bubble.
My two cents.