The couches of strangers, and three perspectives on the relationship between social media and scholarship
The thought of spending a night on a stranger’s couch many elicit apprehension and concern. The thought of spending time online may elicit many trepidation for scholars. Scholars are worried about the time commitment of such activities when universities may not value them. Scholars may also be concerned about personal-professional boundaries. Both couchsurfing and networked scholarship offer opportunities for growth as well: couchsurfing may allow people from different cultures to get to know one another; networked scholarship might allow scholars from disparate disciplines to meet and collaborate. Alternatively, both activities may have relatively mundane outcomes: sleeping on a stranger’s couch does not necessarily mean that one will have a life-changing experience, in the same way that going online does not mean that one will find a welcoming and supportive scholarly community. And engagement with couchsurfing or networked scholarship may require certain literacies for successful participation.
The practice of networked scholarship isn’t without perils. While advocacy for open, social, and digital scholarship features prominently in the literature (Kimmons, 2014), the reality on the ground is that scholars’ activities on social media are both exceptional and mundane, and their experiences are inspiring and harrowing – but above all, such experiences are neither universal nor pre-determined.
Siemens and Matheos (201X) argued that educational institutions reflect the societies which house them: as societies change, so do their educational institutions and the scholarly practices that they support and encourage. As social media and openness become increasingly popular, sharing economies gain hold, and online networks permeate every aspect of life, the scholarly enterprise and the work that educators and researchers do is experiencing social, cultural, and technological tensions to change. However, we should be careful in our attribution of causality. Academics may have always wanted to share more freely, connect in better ways, and social media simply supported that desire.
At the same time, we should be weary of the perspective that technologies are neutral tools that merely respond to the needs of users. Technologies have assumptions and worldviews embedded in their design that shape the experiences and behaviours of their users. The algorithms used by Facebook to deliver tailored timelines and the recommender systems used by Amazon are representative examples of the ways that technologies are influenced by their developers worldviews.
Thus, the relationship between academic practices and technologies is negotiated and complex. It can be seen via three perspectives.
The first perspective suggests that social media (and their design and affordances) shape scholarship and participation. This is the technological deterministic perspective that is often revealed in narratives pertaining to social media having an impact on scholarship. Institutional encouragement to use social media to increase scholarly reach and citations falls under this perspective.
The second suggests that teaching and scholarship (and the structures, rewards, practices of academia) shape how social media are used. This perspective reflects a social shaping of technology approach. This perspective recognizes that networked scholarly practices are shaped by social, cultural, economic, and political factors, rejecting the notion that technologies (and practices) are deterministic.
The third perspective is an extension of the second and anticipate that academics adapt and appropriate social media to fulfill personal and professional desires and values. This perspective holds that, with adequate information and evidence, learners, instructors, and researchers have the agency to accept or reject any particular technology or to find alternative uses for it that will better serve their needs. Such agency is recognized in scholars’ strategic uses of technology in scholarship broadly, and in teaching and research in particular.
These three perspectives are often unstated, but permeate the literature and conversation pertaining to social media use in education and scholarship.
I am editing, revising, and re-writing various parts of my book, Networked Scholars. The current draft of the introduction is as follows:
Introduction: What does couchsurfing have to do with networked scholarship?
It’s 2005. I’m a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Though I don’t always enjoy driving, I am particularly fond of road trips and the opportunities they provide for learning about the world. That summer, my girlfriend and I decided to take a road trip from Minnesota to Tennessee following the roads that run parallel to the Mississippi River.
A few months prior to this trip I discovered Couchsurfing.com and this site provided one of my early experiences with modern social media
“Couchsurfing” refers to spending a night or two on the couch of a stranger. The website facilitated interactions between individuals who were interested in hosting others and individuals who were interested in spending nights on someone else’s couch.
Given my mild disdain of driving long distances, we divided our trip in such a way so as to limit daily driving to 4 to 6 hours. We arranged for accommodations driving South toward Tennessee because we wanted to follow the Great River Road, but we decided to return back to Minneapolis via a different route so as to visit more states.
Using couchsurfing.com, we found two individuals who were willing to host us on their couch. One in Diamond City, Arkansas and one in Kansas City, Kansas.
An elderly couple was willing to let us sleep on their couch in Diamond City, Arkansas. We knew nothing about Diamond City, but once we arrived we learned that Diamond City is a small retirement town, seemingly a destination only for those visiting their parents who retire there.
We arrived in Diamond City around 5pm. We stopped at one of the two local diners prior to joining our hosts so as to have an early dinner and pre-empt being a burden to our hosts. Our hosts were welcoming and friendly, and we spend the next few hours in their living room getting to know each other.
In getting to know each other, we learned that our hosts were as unsure as we were of this arrangement. We were the first people who reached out to them for hosting, and, while they were apprehensive at first, they decided to host us, as we seemed to be “just a couple of kids from the Midwest.”
Eventually we made our way to the porch. We continued our conversation, enjoying a beautiful August night, when out of nowhere, 10 or so people joined us there. They brought their chairs and musical instruments. We quickly learned that these were our hosts friends who were preparing a “hootenanny” for us. A hootenanny – an informal gathering involving folk music and dancing- was as foreign to me as I was to them. The spent many hours at the hootenanny. We danced, we learned about life in retirement towns, and discussed the demise of small-town America.
Our hosts generosity and hospitality stayed with me. These individuals were not only willing to make themselves vulnerable and share their house with us for the night, but they also went out of their way to organize a hootenanny and share this aspect of their life with us. The next morning, a group of our hosts’ friends prepared breakfast, and we left for our next couchsurfing destination: Kansas City, Kansas.
Dave, our gracious Kansas City host, invited his friends to have dinner and drinks with us, gave us a tour of Kansas City, and offered us his bed instead of the couch: He had painted his living room the night before and the smell of paint was still lingering. “Guests don’t need to be exposed to toxic fumes” he argued.
When I share these two stories with others, I often face puzzling looks and questions regarding my sanity. “What if your host was an axe murderer?” someone asked me once. “And you really don’t know these people?” is another question I am asked often. While the idea of sleeping at a stranger’s couch may not be appealing to everyone, and may sound a bit too trusting, all my limbs are still intact.
But more importantly, these stories demonstrate the power and potential of networks and openness. Supported by the Web as a social platform that allows individuals to consume, produce, remix, and contribute content without the need for specialized technical know-how, networks and openness question scholars’ foundational activities and assumption. This is one of the main ideas underpinning this book.
Social media have become part of the fabric of contemporary societies and our educational systems. Worldwide experiences with social media suggest that these technologies are actively transforming various aspects of common culture in both intentional and unexpected ways. For instance, as news agencies adopt social media to engage audiences and increase revenues, they are simultaneously reporting on instances where the use of social networking sites has led to harm. Social media have also penetrated the higher education sector, and have influenced not only the ways students connect with each other, but also the ways scholarship is organized, delivered, enacted, and experienced (Weller, 2011). Recent reports note that YouTube and Facebook are popular sites for academics with “over 90% of [2,000 faculty surveyed were] using social media in courses they’re teaching or for their professional careers outside of the classroom” (Moran, Seaman, Tinti-Kane, 2011). Open practices in a variety of educational and scholarly settings have also gained wide interest and attention in recent years (Wiley, 2006; Wiley & Hilton, 2009). Proponents of openness claim that open practices may “broaden access to education and knowledge, reduce costs, enhance the impact and reach of scholarship and education, and foster the development of more equitable, effective, efficient, and transparent scholarly and educational processes” (Veletsianos & Kimmons, 2012).
This book differs from other books focusing on social media in education and digital scholarship in a number of significant ways.
First, this is not a how-to book. You will find no advice in this book about how to use social media to share your research, engage students, or increase your citations.
Second, this book does not advocate for networked scholarship. My goal is to understand and problematize the concept of networked scholarship and its implications.
This book focuses upon scholars’ experiences and activities online because the ways that social media are used and experienced by academics are not well understood and the evidence describing the experiences of scholars engaged in scholarly practices online is both limited and fragmented.
A number of high-profile news items illustrate the tensions and diverse opinions that exist around this topic, as well as the strong emotions attached to professors’ online participation:
- “If you’re a professor in Kansas, better stay off the Internet,” proclaims the byline on a December 2013 magazine article, following the Kansas Board of Regents decision to adopt guidelines regarding “improper use of social media” that followed a professor’s Twitter update.
- Elsevier is cracking down on professors who share their research online in violation of the copyright agreements that they signed, and professors are striking back, promoting boycotts of Elsevier’s academic journals.
- While some university administrators, like the President of the University of British Columbia might “despise” social media and consider Twitter to be “one of the worst things” created in his lifetime, some academics have found community and solidarity in social media spaces.
Although the statistics regarding scholar participation on social media are worthwhile to examine, the stories behind the statistics are much more interesting and meaningful. Even in the cases where news articles present stories regarding academics’ social media participation, these fall short of the intricate tensions that arise in networked practice. For example, in addition to promoting boycotts of Elsevier numerous academics are refusing to review for publishers who do not provide open access to their work, and, more interestingly, are using networked technologies to share copyrighted materials with each other. And even though social networking sites are disparaged by some, academics have used these places to develop legitimate online learning communities, launch research projects, and share intimate details of their lives (e.g., their struggles with debilitating diseases) – converting places like Twitter into networks of care and bonding. Alternatively, even though social media allow widespread access, issues like power and influence may mediate participation, calling into doubt the democratizing potential of these technologies.
I used Couchsurfing.com once more when I was living in the UK in 2009. I was going to spend a few days in Faro, Portugal and had sent the following note to my potential host:
I am writing in the hopes that you will be interested in hosting me on your couch for 2 nights. I can see from your profile that it’s your birthday on May 2nd, and I would completely understand if you have something else planned.
A little bit about me: I live in the UK and moved here to teach at the University of Manchester. I lived in the United States (Minneapolis) for 8 years, but I am originally from Cyprus. I speak Greek and English and love to explore and travel, learn about different cultures, photography, music, beer, and good company. I am very friendly and considerate and am looking forward to visiting Portugal for the first time!
Please look at my profile and if there’s anything that you would like to know, please feel free to ask!
Within a few hours, Eric responded and noted that he had birthday plans and I should join. Specifically, he and his friends were having a party on an island off the coast of Faro and I should join them. The party was starting on the 1st and ending on the 3rd and long as I didn’t mind “sleeping on the floor or even on the beach” Eric was happy to host me.
Next… tying it all together.
The note below comes from Dr. Ross Perkins and was posted on the IT Forum listserv – Great work Ross!
As some who’ve been on this listserv for a while are aware, I developed and have been maintaining a spreadsheet that lists multiple dozens of educational/instructional technology journals and publications of related fields. This was first done through a simple Google Spreadsheet published to the web, starting seven years ago or so. The interface is now (hopefully) more user-friendly. Among its features: the site is ‘mobile responsive,’ the list can be sorted in a variety of ways, can be searched, and it contains columns the user can toggle on/off. The list now contains 265 titles.
The purpose of the site is to inform people in the field of educational/instructional technology about which outlets they might use (the list contains both subscription or open journals) to either read or publish scholarship (learn more at “About this Site“)
A huge thanks goes to Mr. Tony Hetrick, a doctoral student and grad assistant in the Boise State University Ed Tech EdD program. Tony is the brains behind the ‘mobile responsive’ interface, and he also developed code for WordPress that connects the site’s MySQL db to a GoogleSheet. Thanks goes to my BSU colleague, Dr. Patrick Lowenthal for his advice about the site and contents, and especially for his vital collaboration on open access journal research (our article is in review). And thanks also goes to Dr. George Veletsianos for leading the development of a parallel spreadsheet of open access journals a few years ago; the OAJs on that list are now integrated into the database.
The site is ever evolving; we would love to get your formative feedback.
Feel free to cross-post on other lists, social media, etc.
Ross A. Perkins, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Educational Technology
MS/EdD Program Coordinator
Boise State University
Boise, Idaho, USA
My amazing colleagues Amy Collier and Jen Ross have been blogging about the chapter they wrote for the second edition of my Emerging Technologies in Distanced Education book, and have thus encouraged me to blog about it
First, the good news: Athabasca University Press will be publishing Online Learning: Emerging Technologies and Emerging Practices in an open access format.
One of the interesting aspects of editing a book is interacting with chapter authors (15 in this case) and helping to create a coherent narrative. In this case, we were starting with the first edition of the book as a foundation, but more importantly, we were building on the first chapter of the first book in which I defined “emerging technologies.” I’ve clarified in the second book that this collection focuses as much on the emerging practices of online learning/participation (e.g., networked scholarship, open education, learning analytics) as much as it focuses on the technologies that underpin them. Hence the new title.
In the first edition of the book, I argued that emerging technologies are “not yet fully researched” and “not yet fully understood.” Thus, you can quickly begin to see that emerging technologies and emerging practices are intertwined, as, open scholarship for example, or learners’ experiences with automated assessment, are not yet fully research and not yet fully understood.
In the second edition of the book, I revisit this work, and argue that what makes technologies and practices emerging are not specific technologies or practices, but the environments in which a particular technology or practice operate. This definition recognizes that learning, teaching, and scholarship are sociocultural phenomena situated in specific contexts and influenced by the cultures in which they take place. Emerging technologies and practices appear to share four characteristics:
- Emerging Technologies and Emerging Practices are Not Defined by Newness
- Emerging Technologies and Emerging Practices Are Evolving Organisms that Exist in a State of “Coming into Being”
- Emerging Technologies and Emerging Practices Are Not Yet Fully Understood or Researched (what Amy and Jen branded as not-yetness)
- Emerging Technologies and Emerging Practices Have Promising But as Yet Unfulfilled Potential
There’s 8 more great chapters in the book, and I’m looking forward to sending them off to the publisher. More in the coming months!