How Students, Professors, and Colleges Are, and Should Be, Using Social Media

S. Craig Watkins

The Chronicle spoke with S. Craig Watkins, an associate professor of radio, TV, and film at the University of Texas at Austin, about the new age of social networking and media, and what it means for the classroom of the future. His soon-to-be-published book, The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future, touches on those ideas.

Q. How has technology made today’s students different from students a decade ago?
A. They’re really the first generation of teenagers who grew up with the household computer and the Internet as a kind of everyday experience and everyday technology in the household. So they’re used to a much more active way of engaging their environment, a much more active way of gauging the information landscape. Have they developed a set of skills? Have they developed habits that are simply out of step with those more traditional ways of conducting or modeling a classroom? I think they have.

Q. How has this changed student behavior in the classroom?
The students are walking in armed with this technology, from their mobile phones to laptops. Most college classrooms are now wired, so students can access all of their applications, all of their social networks while sitting in a classroom. It’s a very different technological environment, but it’s also a different social and cultural environment, too. Students are coming in with the expectation to have this technology, and they’re determined in some ways to use it while they’re in class.

Q. How has today’s student changed how professors prepare their classes?
It’s really forcing university professors to think about their teaching style and the pedagogical techniques that they use in the classroom. In other words, I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with simply delivering a traditional lecture in the classroom. I’m beginning to debate whether or not it’s effective, whether or not it works, whether or not it’s a useful tool or a useful way to engage and create a kind of learning space or a learning environment. They’re active learners, as opposed to passive learners. That one-way flow of content — I don’t know how effective that is anymore.

Q. Should college admissions officers be looking through student’s profiles when considering their application?
I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. The problem becomes if they start fishing for unflattering or potentially damaging kind of content — pictures or wall posts — sort of deliberately using it to hunt for that kind of content, as opposed to simply trying to make maybe a better informed, insightful admission decision about a student. It is an opportunity to learn about people’s interest, the kinds of things they are engaged in, in terms of community-related issues and social issues. In that sense, it does provide a window into a person’s life, and into a person’s interests that can be a value to an admissions committee.

Q. In your book, you write about the role colleges now have in policing material on social networking sites. Is it a college administrator’s responsibility to be checking up on students using those sites?
Should universities be scouring social-media networks as a way to police their dorms? I would encourage universities not to use technologies in that way — as a surveillance mechanism or tool. There is this concern about privacy, about the blurring of the line between the private self and the public self. I would be reluctant to agree with or believe that’s an appropriate use of the tool.

Q. What about when students leave college? Should their prospective employers be searching through their online profiles?
That’s becoming more and more of a common practice. Graduating students, one of the things that they indicated is that when they went out for interviews for jobs, one of the first thing they were asked is, “Are you on MySpace?” or, “Are you on Facebook?” Their potential employers wanted to get access to their profiles. That caused a certain kind of panic among students. Students began to clean out their profiles, or just delete them altogether for fear that they would cause a problem when trying to go out and secure employment. That’s more and more common.

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