Simon Lancaster, University of East Anglia, explores the power of social media to share practice.
This article was originally published in Forum 37: 8-9.
Look hard enough and you can find examples of innovative and engaging practice in every department, faculty, student support agency and institution. Sometimes the endeavours of our colleagues will be recognised by their peers or students and occasionally even rewarded.
However, too often innovators feel isolated and lack a means to share and refine their approach. Forum exists to provide a platform to share these practices throughout the institution. Writing for Forum prompts us to reflect and to seek evidence but it also opens our studies to constructive comment and potential collaborations. Despite these advantages, writing for an audience like Forum can often feel like preaching to the converted. Are we confined to a relatively small bubble of like-minded people? The larger the pool of practitioners with whom we consult, the greater the likelihood of encountering something relevant to our field, and the more opportunities we will have for exchanging initiatives and subjecting them to constructive scrutiny. How then do we reach out beyond the enthusiasts in our own institution? Traditionally conferences have provided the stages on which we might disseminate our ideas and seek inspiration from others. However, conferences are costly consumers of our precious resources and, while cosy, can often prove equally parochial bubbles.
Imagine you’re the editor of Forum: you have an imminent copy deadline and you want to look outside your institution for contributions to an edition on dissemination. Where would you look? Professional journalists often turn to Twitter. At its best, Twitter is a 365 days a year 24 hours a day low-carbon conference on everything, at which countless experts and myriads of the merely opinionated give freely of their wisdom and experience.
Some academics will roll their eyes at this point. “I joined Twitter years ago and I don’t know what all the fuss is about.” is a familiar refrain. The key to success in Twitter is your network, the people you choose to follow. Unless you follow someone, your timeline will be empty and your membership pointless. We recommend you follow @RuthMewis. But don’t stop there. Look who she follows. Do you know them? Follow them too! Who do  they follow? Has Ruth tweeted something interesting? Retweet it! And therein lies the power of Twitter, the ability, through the retweet button, to amplify an idea and to spread it quickly around the globe. The other, often cited, criticism of Twitter is that it is impossible to keep up with all those tweets. Absolutely, it is futile to try and that is absolutely fine. The author follows over 3000 Twitter accounts and reads a fraction of a percentage of the tweets that pass across his timeline. But never forget the power of the retweet. If it is important enough it will repeatedly appear and you will notice it or someone responding to it. And if it is meant specifically for you, then your username will have been included. 1
Twitter is revolutionising academic practice. It is now possible to know about every opportunity, every pedagogical innovation and every event as soon as the internet does. Famously the news of an earthquake on Twitter travels faster than the shockwave. But it is better than that. By contributing to the discussion you can refine an argument, build a network and a reputation in a fraction of the time it would have taken otherwise. Take for example, the invitation presented by @Professor_Dave to deliver a seminar to the Chemistry department on October 17th 2012. The associated @Storify account illustrates that social media exchanges need not be ephemeral. 2 Indeed when Twitter is used at a conference, it becomes a powerful tool to crowd source a record of both the content and the ensuing discussion. 3
A topical discussion of the value of Twitter in an organ like Forum would not be complete without mention of the programme of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Twitter chats (#LTHEchat). 4 These hour-long facilitated discussions cover topics such as ‘lecture flipping’ and ‘co-creation’ and provide an intense but inspirational professional development opportunity and a readymade network.
Twitter is a microblogging site, messages are restricted to 140 characters. While that can be a blessing in promoting concision, it is not always going to suffice. Instead Twitter tends to serve as the nexus, where links to content on other social media sites containing richer content can be posted. A comprehensive account of all the means by which learning and teaching is disseminated has not been presented because it would inevitably read like a list. 5
YouTube is not easily overlooked and yet it is rarely the respondent’s first choice when asked for an example of a social media site. This searchable archive, with hundreds of millions of users, is the perfect platform on which to disseminate a message in video form. There are instructional films on YouTube and Vimeo on every educational topic. At York, Prof. David Smith has demonstrated the power of YouTube for outreach to huge audiences, for example using Breaking Bad as the backdrop to discuss organic chemistry. 6 Increasingly the trend is to engage students in the (co-) creation of academic content and here again academics at York have shown the way. 7
When considering the interface between social media and academia, we need to broach the thorny issue of copyright. By default all content on the internet is copyright protected, all rights reserved. Clearly that is not conducive to sharing learning and teaching materials. The solution is to source and to publish work with a creative commons license. 8 There are two very good reasons why you should give away the rights to your work: because (1) in a reciprocal sense you will then have a clear conscience when benefiting from resources prepared by others; (2) anything that facilitates the diverse application of your ideas and materials increases their (and your) potential impact.
Arguably the best example of a socially mediated academic resource is the Slideshare site. 9 Here, complete presentation slide sets are shared. This can mean anything from a lecture on a specific academic topic or a discussion of pedagogical innovation to “Using Social Media Strategically for Learning and Teaching”, 10 which would seem to bring us full circle.
How can we possibly monitor all of these disparate social media channels? There lies the beauty of Twitter. As content is added to sites such as Slideshare and YouTube, it will be reported on Twitter and not just once but repeatedly, essentially in proportion to its impact.
It would be wrong not to concede that social media, even Twitter, is another bubble. However, it’s an awfully big bubble and encompasses a significant proportion of the global figures who are predisposed towards sharing good practice in learning and teaching. Can you afford the time to engage with social media? Can you afford not to?
- For an introduction to Twitter for academics see http://www.slideshare.net/suebeckingham/getting-started-ontwitter-35704954
- And there is a web category dedicated to lists too, the listicle: http://thelisticles.net/
- (a) iTube, YouTube, WeTube: Social Media Videos in Chemistry Education and Outreach, J. Chem. Ed., 2014, 91, 1594–1599. (b) https://www.youtube.com/user/ProfessorDaveatYork
Simon Lancaster is Professor of Chemical Education at the University of East Anglia. Simon is a dedicated and innovative teacher and has been rewarded by UEA’s Sir Geoffrey and Lady Allen teaching excellence award. His application of technology to support student engagement has been supported by Teaching Fellowships and funding from both the Higher Education Academy and the University Annual Fund. He is the recipient of the 2013 Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Higher Education Award and in 2013 was recognised by the Higher Education Academy as a National Teaching Fellow. Simon is one of the RSC 175 Faces of Chemistry which profiles scientists who represent diversity in its broadest sense.