Blog Post

Should Schools Teach Social Media? Response to NYT


Here's the bottomline:  You do not understand social media by teaching business students how to Tweet.  Understanding the importance of social media today requires deep social rethinking and it also requires reimagining education for the digital age--its pedagogical and hierarchical methods, its emphasis on individual achievement, its grades and assessments, its divisions into disciplines, its binary of "research" versus "practical" knowledge, its tacit separation of "production" and "consumption," and the binary of deep thinking and practical doing.    Social media befuddle ALL of those divisions on which higher education rest.  It just isn't enough to "teach" social media.   You cannot teach Facebook or Twitter without understanding far deeper historical and social interactions reconfigured by the Internet and the World Wide Web that allow immediate many-to-many communication without an editor, publisher, or broadcaster mediating who sends and who receives. You cannot understand why hundreds of millions of people world wide crave and depend upon social media without revisiting deep issues ranging from the global human and labor diaspora, to ethnic division and exploitation, to cogitive issues like the brain science of attention.   Social media are key to social theory, political theory, and theories of historical change.   Does it matter if you know how to frame your "pitch" in 140 characters or less if you don't understand, in a deep way, the changes that are transforming how we learn, work, and live together?   I don't think so.  


What brings up these slightly exasperated thoughts is today's New York Times'  "Special Report: International Education:  Business Schools Respond to Demand for Use of Social Media" By FIONA MACKAY, with the content line:  "Courses study the power of such media -- and the hazards."  I'm encouraged that business schools are finally waking up, in 2011, and realizing they need to be "teaching social media" but, really, unless you rethinking business itself, you are not grasping the meaning of social media, you are grasping at trendy straws.   You can read the Times piece here and let me know what you think:   ttp://


Social media work for reasons that are anything but superficial.   Social media are effective because of who we are as social beings.   If you try to understand the media without understanding the messengers, you will sound like one of those foolish people who are convinced that their one bold tweet or YouTube video will "go viral."   I believe I've read the odds of that are slimmer than winning the state lottery. 


Here's the punchline:  you should never throw out the baby with the bathwater.   But if the baby is bathing in water that is suddenly turning lurid green or day-glo orange, maybe you better get her out of there until you have carefully investigated all the things that are changing the composition of the water she is bathing in.   Trying out the new water without testing and understanding it first is not the solution to anything.  Really.   Think about it.


The Special Report in the Times  details many programs in business schools that are just now deciding that maybe they should be teaching social media.  About time.  And, thankfully, a few of the people interviewed emphasize you cannot teach the "what" but have to actually have students engage with the media themselves.   Others, though, act as if these social media are happening somewhere else, as if they are remote and exotic practices of the Other that need to be studied from afar, as if they have not already altered every major industry imaginable, global relations, the organization of our largest corporations, the fate and design of whole industries (music, publishing, even accounting and software writing), as well as the future of just about any mom-and-pop store on Main Street (our town of Durham, for example, gives discounts to shopping locally rather than online:  tell any business owner "social media" hasn't changed the patterns of their daily business lives).


That business schools now, in 2011, are batting around the idea of maybe teaching a bit about using social media (and its "HAZARDS") is astonishing.  Then again, when I look at higher education in general, I am flabbergasted at how little change one sees to any of its fundamentals--how it accepts students, how it arrays their coursework into majors and minors, how the BA degree is separate from the BS degree, how research degrees are separated from professional degrees, how "deep thinking" is considered frivolous rather than the most important job training you can have in an era of constant change, or how even those departments that are all about, intrinsically, the kinds of communication changes (reading, writing, publishing, multimedia) that constitute the Information Age  [do you hear me, English Departments of America?] look as if the Internet was never invented.


One reason I'm particularly struck by the belatedness of this Special Report is that this week we go before our second official committee in the faculty approval process towards acceptance of our proposed Master's in Knowledge and Networks. Of course, I'm nervous because the MKN is the boldest and the most practical digital age program we know of (thanks to hundreds of comments and contributions from our visionary HASTAC network).   It is so far out ahead from the Special Report's rather simple assessment that we need to study social media that it makes me nervous.   It's great to be out ahead of the crowd . . . but not always the best way to earn crowd approval.


I hasten to add that I know we will receive some great feedback that will make this program even stronger.   There are so many people within the academy who are dying for change:  to wit, 5400 active HASTAC registrants, and, more astonishing, those 350,000 people who have tuned in to the visionary, interdisciplinary student-led HASTAC Scholars Forums. There is real interest and energy out there.


That said, we have held several public forums on the MKN and amid the brilliant suggestions and feedback, we also hear resistance from some colleagues.   The big one:  Who needs a program that  that begins with an intensive new media/technology workshop and assessment program, finding out all you know and putting that together into a portfolio of usable future skills and then developing an action plan for what you need to learn before you leave the program? ("Really?  Do business require information technologies and social networking skills and an adeptness with online skills?  I mean, I get by fine and I'm not on Facebook or Twitter.")   The Times Special Report will help with that one.   Great timing (and, I swear, I had nothing to do with it!)


Here's another question we are sometimes asked: "Isn't this Master's really a MA, an MS, a MFA, and a MBA?  Aren't you combining skills and areas that don't go together?"   Short answer:  YES!   Follow up question from the skeptical:  "Does it make sense to have theoretical and historical courses and a required course in new modes of assessment and data mining and analysis?"   Short answer:  Yes, again.  In the digital age, these things are not separate.  The "two cultures" was bankrupt for the twentieth century and it is close to stupid, to missing the boat, for the twenty first.  (If you have a five year old in your home or neighborhood, watch him play Pokemon on line and tell me there's a hard-and-fast distinction between art and science, design and code.)   Another question we have been asked:  Why do you want students to have real world experience?  Because, in a virtual age, the real world alignments are all changing and you have to actually do, in the most Dewesque fashion, to understand how those changes work in actual communities and organizations.   There's no handbook.  The change is everywhere--and everywhere different.   


Besides, town/gown is another twentieth-century distinction that has to go.   For this Master's (you can read about it here: ) each student studies theory and history and develops technology skills, spends a year in a management course that is partly peer-led and partly expert-driven (with experts from new-style organizations that have already changed from MBA-style business management to new forms of challenge-oriented and project-oriented in-time management).   Students then take all that with them, working in a peer group, into an extended and extensive collaborative internship in a business or nonprofit or community organization where they not only learn how those function but help that organization to address an information crisis?   Really, this MA "SWAT" team will actually go into an organization, spend a few weeks seeing and particiapting in the culture and understanding the need, and then will do an assessment plan and actually build a new interactive database, organize a social networking campaign, find better ways of collaborating with international partners, transforming their internal or external communication sytem.  And they will be involving existing staff at the organization, supplying them with a cost-benefit analysis and a sustainability plan so it can continue and be interwoven into the CULTURE of the organization?   


More questions:  What in the world would culture and context have to do with "social media" and "social networking"?  (Answer:  everything.)   What in the world does the practical, every day changing world of work have to do with the history of social change and its relationship to the history of changing modes of reading, writing, communicating?  Answer:  everything--plus, understanding change historically is the best possible tool for putting your own situation in perspective, for making it a problem to be solved not a crisis that is overwhelming you.     Deep learning is crucial job preparation in an era of turmoil, where things that seemed "natural" or "human" or "eternal" are turning out, over and over, to be historically- and culturally-determined. 

If I sound frustrated, it is because I do not understand why higher education is not leading us in the Information Age. Leadership, of course, means changing all the rules and rebuilding our majors and minors, our divisions and our disciplines, to a new set of practices, concepts, relationships, and requirements.   Rebuilding is hard, but institutions do it all the time.  In fact, the institution of higher education we have now, in 2011, looks very little like the one of say, 1875.  Even higher education in 1911, after an era of extensive and explosive change, was only beginning to take shape as the modern research university and the other systems surrounding it.   Just as Taylorism had an enormous impact on business (not just the assembly line but the vertical organization of the corporation too), so too did it have a profound impact on education, including higher education.   Professional schools, business schools, certification, multiple choice testing, all forms of quantitative assessment, grades and grading, placement, ranking, statistical measures, bell curves, and on and on are all institutionalized responses to the call to educate for the new industrialized, global, expanding world of the twentieth century.


You don't understand social media just by studying the media.  You understand social media by grasping the underlying principles of a massive realignment of how we learn, work, and live as a result of the new technologies sweeping over every aspect of our life.   That requires more than teaching business students how to Tweet.  It requires reimagining education for the digital age, rethinking our most basic institutions of education to prepare students not for the twentieth-century's Taylorist assembly line but for the twenty-first century's interconnected, iterative, process-oriented, collaborative, and open World Wide Web. 


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