Why should academics engage with social media?

By Posted in - Education Content on October 7th, 2015 0 Comments

We’ve talked in the past about how you can experiment with social media and bring your activity together to find out what works for you and your audience. In this Pickle Jar Communications blog, we’re looking at why academics should be encouraged to use social media, and the benefits for them, their students and their institutions.

Earlier this week, Jisc, the charity championing digital technology in education and research, named its top 50 UK higher education social media influencers. The list spans those using social media in varying and innovative ways. There are those such as Lee Dunn and the Glasgow University Student Teacher Network, using social media to develop teaching and learning networks, to others conducting whole modules, research and assessment through social media itself, such as Lisa Harris’ module at the University of Southampton, Living and Working on the Web.

What makes the academics in Jisc’s list stand out is the way they use social media to engage with their audiences. They are doing this in a variety of ways, from providing resources for students to assist their learning, encouraging learners to ask questions through social media, or developing networks for students, staff and practitioners to share best practice and debate practical issues. What they all have in common is that they are proactive and passionate, acting as evangelists to get others online and joining in the conversation.

Letting them loose on the world

Academics are a university’s strongest asset. Their research and expertise draws in students, attracts donors, engages alumni and enhances the reputation of your university. By using their authoritative voices online, using platforms and content creatively, they can effectively engage students, staff and practitioners.

Academics such as Dr Meg-John Barker at the Open University act as social media curators, sharing information, videos and presentations through Twitter, Prezi and their own professional blog to support learners both in their learning and from a pastoral perspective. Tony Coughlin, also of the Open University, has taken digital curation a step further, bringing together free e-learning resources for the children and young people’s sector on his blog and Facebook page.

Others, such as Luke Burns at the University of Leeds, use tools like Poll Everywhere to get students to send in their answers to questions in lectures through Twitter or SMS, with those answers appearing on the presentation screen. This not only engages students in an instant and creative way, but also encourages active learning for those who may otherwise lack the confidence to put their hand up in a classroom.

These examples show the value to students of having social media savvy academics; by providing new, accessible and fun ways to engage online, they are getting more out of their learning.

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What’s in it for them?

But what’s the benefit to academics themselves? Deborah Lupton, Centenary Research Professor at the University of Canberra, has looked at this, surveying over 700 academics from across the world for her June 2014 paper, ‘Feeling Better Connected.’ The benefits academics described as a result of using social media professionally included:

  • Connecting and establishing networks, including with other academics and those outside their institutions or research areas;
  • Promoting openness and sharing information;
  • Publicising and developing their research;
  • Giving and receiving support.

Twitter was singled out as especially useful for connecting with audiences including other academics, current and prospective students (postgraduate students in particular, who may use the platform to ask more detailed questions) and university staff, thanks to its fast, responsive and reactive format.

Jessie Daniels, Professor at the City University of New York, also echoes this, detailing her social media user journey in a recent blog for the London School of Economics. She gives the example of how an idea at a conference, tweeted out, evolved into a series of blog posts, and eventually a peer-reviewed article.

This suggests that social media can be effective not only in reaching out to students and other academics, but in actually conducting academic work itself. With new learning and practitioner networks forming across social media, we can expect to see more ideas seeded online turning into peer-reviewed work.

Dismantling the ivory towers

Social media can work for academics because it helps them to join in the conversation. Whether that’s with other academics, students, or even journalists and policymakers, by being active on social media, academics can interact with those they may otherwise struggle to find the time, platform and language to connect with.

At it’s simplest, it’s about conversations.  As Jisc’s top 50 influencers demonstrate, sharing expertise, taking part in debates, curating content they find interesting from elsewhere and offering extra learning resources works in engaging audiences.

Showcasing their personality, knowledge and insight online allows academics to connect to their audience on a deeper level. It’s time to move away from the outdated image of the hoary old academic holed up in their ivory tower, towards a more realistic, modern view of the engaged, impassioned expert looking to share their knowledge and connect with others.

Got a question about using social media? Want to find out about how to train academics and get buy-in for your communications strategy? Get in touch with us to discuss your challenges and see if we can help you.

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