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What is the role of social media in academia?

22 March 2013

Peter Phillips reports on the 'Social media for academic purposes' workshop, discussing the ways in which the presenters use Twitter and blogging to complement their research, teaching and learning.

Man using iPad. Image by C Regina.

Image by Claudia Regina

Last week’s Summits and Horizons session was on social media, and blogging in particular, so it’s interesting for me to be writing a blog on blogging, after which people might blog about this blog and so on.

The first speaker was Nick Dawe from UCL Communications. Nick’s main point was that staff should think strategically about using social media and question whether they are doing it for the sake of it and what value they are going to garner from its use. Nick listed a few important things to think about, such as the audience, platforms being used, reach, and engagement (numbers aren’t everything).

This idea of engagement came up repeatedly because, as Nick said, social media is supposed to be social. When UCL launched its blog page, information was simply fed from UCL News directly onto the blog. The content sometimes erred on the dry side and as a result there wasn’t much engagement, so the team made a conscious decision to start running articles that people would be more likely to want to share, and their hits have gone up as a result. Another great example is the UCL Museum and Collections blog, which offers a wealth of interesting, engaging content.

Professor Anthony Finklestein from Computer Science (@profserious; talked from the academic’s perspective about what it’s like to have a social media presence. His blog – seriousengineering, on which he generally publishes one 700-1,000-word piece per week – discusses developments in the engineering profession and computer science, and with over 70,000 hits a month, it’s very successful. Anthony clearly enjoys using various forms of social media including Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter and the blog. I imagine that this has a lot to do with the freer form allowed by social media compared with the often strict nature of academic output.

Anthony is very keen to engage the readers of his blog, many of whom are students (although he doesn’t reply to comments as he’s keen to give others a say) and so tries to write titles which catch the eye, sometimes even mentioning computer science and ninjas in the same breath, which must be a rare occurrence.

Anthony, I think, doesn’t want to be tied down to the purely professional in his blog. Certain areas that people want to read about (student tips being a big one) aren’t always what he wants to write about; he feels he should write about issues more wide-ranging, and indeed personal, as the blog is a reflection of him as a person, which is also echoed through his style of his writing.  

Professor John Butterworth, Head of Physics and Astronomy, was up next, explaining how he fell into the world of Twitter because of his work on CERN and the controversy of the Twitter debates which were raging about it. Prior to that, he didn’t know what Twitter was but he felt it was important to learn and get involved. He quickly gathered 200-300 followers, mainly science journalists and science fans, and from there it seems he was hooked.

John has found Twitter great for getting and giving information quickly and has used it to correct a piece on the BBC website about research he’d done (his tweet resulted in the article being taken down just 30 minutes later).

With all social media, the possibilities for use vary enormously and tone and content can range from the formal to the highly informal, and I think it is its ability to merge the two that makes it so attractive. It’s a great leveller and makes people feel they are able to interact with institutions as grand as the BBC or UCL and offer their opinions on them as well as individuals, including UCL professors.

Both John and Anthony use social media for fun and professional purposes, a combination which John himself acknowledges means one has to be careful, as the lines between the two can become blurred: social media should be used responsibly as academic’s reputations could easily be harmed by just one tweet.

Potential pitfalls aside, though, it looks as though the future of teaching and learning lies in more informal learning experiences, so it’s great to hear about two leading UCL academics imparting their knowledge and passion to the world through means that circumvent the classroom. I hope more UCL Academics follow their lead.

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Page last modified on 22 mar 13 12:11

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