Universities need to learn from Facebook and Twitter

The Internet is constantly becoming more advanced, but is taken for granted as a passive tool for gathering information and being entertained.

Social networking, one of the more actively engaging tools in use online today, is only a relatively recent development. It didn’t exist in the recent past, although it could have; its creation was not something that cost millions of dollars and took teams of experts — it was just a matter of somebody actually having the idea to put it together. It will only take a good idea for a similarly revolutionary tool to be developed.

As online media continues to mature, new ideas will inevitably change the way we think of the Internet. New web technologies will boost sales for giant conglomerate corporations and small businesses, musicians will hungrily discover new ways to disseminate their work across the globe and students will continue to find new ways to distract themselves from their educations.

But, rather than sit around while social networks and other online media continue tilting more and more towards entertainment, university staff and researchers should focus to create more opportunities that make use of the technology for the betterment of education. It is becoming increasingly important for universities and other educational institutions to adapt to the Internet so that it can develop in more productive and “intelligent” directions.

Social networking is the hottest thing online right now. According to the Nielsen Company, in August 2009, social networking accounted for 17 per cent of all time spent online. That means one in every six minutes in the U.S. was spent on sites like Facebook.com. The fastest growing demographic of Facebook users is woman over 55 and the largest group of Twitter users is men between 25-54 years old — these sites are not just “for the kids;” they are part of an online routine for youth and adults alike.

But what are all these people using these social networking sites for? Social media has always been useful for making pointless updates about your weekend that nobody really cares about, but it has also become more and more common in business and marketing, community groups and even student groups here at U of M.

Facebook provides a tool for businesses to freely advertise and connect with clients. It provides community and campus groups with tools to organize events and build awareness. It is extremely useful for any groups willing to put the time into figuring out how to make it work for them.

Yet, at the same time, university-age students, who use social media far more than any other age group, seem still to suffer at the hands of social media. In a new study at Ohio State University, it was demonstrated that students who used Facebook studied one to five hours per week and had grade-point averages of 3.0 to 3.5, while students who did not use Facebook studied 11 hours or more per week and had grade-point averages between 3.5 and 4.0. These are statistics that will not improve unless a serious effort is made to integrate new media technologies, like social networks, with academia.

Social media is only going to become more highly integrated with the rest of the web as time passes. Now that search engines have started to index social networking pages, personal profiles, advertiser pages and event listings, these pages will start to show up more and more when people perform simple Google searches.

Outside of social networks, web developers envision a day when, by using special data formats called “microformats,” things like events, product reviews and business cards will be shared organically between sites that the information is relevant to. The web is set to become one giant social network that publishes and spreads content as it becomes available.

In short, social media is determining what the future of the web will look like and the less that educators can learn to take part productively in these new, ultra-convenient technologies, the more they will slant towards a culture of zombie-like consumption of entertainment.

So, while businesses and web marketers are currently running wild, experimenting with the various ways they can use social media to their greatest advantages, and web developers continue to advance the tools of social media entertainment and other web media that captivates its users, campuses are sitting back on their laurels. While it’s probably not necessary to put an iPod in every elementary school classroom so that kids can learn math while being slightly entertained (because it’s “something that is more newer than paper,” according to Minnesota fourth-grader Gabe Rivera), it is definitely important that universities take notice of these new technologies as they become available.

In the U.S., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently held a contest wherein 10 weather balloons were spread around the country. Four thousand teams raced to locate all of the balloons using only social networks. According to the Washington Post, the winners, from MIT, “set up an elaborate information-gathering pyramid” and found all 10 balloons in less than nine hours. This ambitious contest is an example of some of the educational opportunities that social media can provide.

Online social network and web technology is continuing to mature, and could realistically be used today to benefit university educations, rather than harm them, as studies seem to indicate is the trend. The major challenges will be to find ways, like DARPA was able to, to integrate their functionality into the classroom. It will become increasingly important in the coming years for campuses to employ specialists who can focus research on how this relevant technology can be used for the betterment of education. Otherwise it will continue to be nothing more than a distraction in the classroom.