Social media calls for change

Tarmo Toikkanen
Researcher at the Learning Environments research group, at the Department of Media/Media Lab of the Aalto university School of Art and Design

Social media is creating a cultural change which is much more than just a change in the use of web services. Public conversations, sharing, and knowledge building between people enabled by network technologies – also known as social media – brings challenges everywhere and especially within universities. As a researcher on collaborative learning at the Media Lab of Aalto University I’ve studied social media, as it impacts learning environments not only in terms of technology, but also in terms of culture and pedagogy.

Social media has already changed society. Consumers are no longer alone, but can share their experiences about a product or service to the entire world. The relationship between company and consumer is taking the form of public dialogue. Marketing, sales, brand management, strategy, internal and external communications, product development, HR, CRM, and pretty much everything is changing because of this. Those university courses that touch on these topics need to renew themselves rapidly.

Learning has already changed and keeps changing. Instead of using the handouts of their own lecturers, students can learn with the best educational resources in the world, eg. via the OCW consortium. As high quality lectures are published on YouTube and other video sharing sites, students need more than a passable oration to physically come to a lecture. Even group work, discussions, and peer learning can happen online, so there is sometimes little reason to use the resources of one’s own university except to pass exams. Wikiversity and Wikibooks are examples of fully open learning opportunities.

The remaining strengths the universities hold are their capability to grant degrees and their capacities for study guidance and motivation – as well as the student union activities and their social opportunities. But these turn universities into study guidance centers. If something more is desired, then universities need to compete on the global education market with other forms of education. Free (gratis) education used to be a strong ace in Finland, but independent online studying costs nothing.

Engaging collaborative learning methods are rarely used in university settings, but they should be leveraged if students are to be offered added value that they cannot get from the web. Peer learning, PBL, progressive inquiry, cross-curricular themes, and authentic and personalized learning are some of the related keywords. Universities need to realize that they are merely one of the contexts where students learn, and form meaningful links to those other contexts that benefit the student.

Social media brings new ways of communication and interaction to everyone, both students and teachers. Some teachers are trail blazers, but these new ways of teaching and collaboration will not become mainstream until they are embraced at the organizational level.

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