No Groundswell in Higher Ed?

I am about one-third the way through Charlene Li‘s and Josh Bernoff‘s 2008 book, Groundswell.  The groundswell that these two analysts from Forrester Research discuss is the impact of social media on businesses. Striking a similar theme to that espoused by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody and David Weinberger in Everything is Miscellaneous, Groundswell looks at what happens when ordinary individuals link up and get what they need from other individuals without relying on traditional institutions like corporations.

From their perspective, many businesses see the fact that people are discussing their products and services on Facebook, Twitter, and in blogs as a threat – out of the control of their PR and marketing departments.  Yet, as some businesses have learned, it is also an opportunity.

The focus in this book is not on the technologies of social media, but rather on how these technologies create new opportunities to build relationships.  In looking at numerous technologies, they ask specific questions:

  • Does it enable people to connect with each other in new ways?
  • Is it effortless to sign up for?
  • Does it shift power away from institutions to people?
  • Does the resulting community generate enough content to sustain itself?
  • Is it an open platform that invites partnerships?

When they work with a company exploring social media, they do not focus on the media first.  They ask about the company’s customer demographics, their objectives, and their strategy.  Only when that is laid out do they then look for good social media tools to fit their customers, their objectives, and their strategy.

They suggest that social media can be used five ways.  First, it can be used to listen to customers – a continuous stream of monitoring rather than snapshot surveys.  Second, it can be used for two-way conversation with customers.  Third, it can be used to energize enthusiastic customers to market for you.  Fourth, it can be used to build embedded self-directed support for the use of your product or service.  Finally, it can be used to systematically improve your product or service by empowering customers to help generate improvements.

This book was written two years ago and only surfaced on my radar recently.  If anything, social media has become even more of a force in business since 2008.  When I recently mentioned a problem with my home internet on Twitter, Comcast tweeted me back within ten minutes and gave me the tip I needed to correct the problem (which was not Comcast at all but my home wireless router).  I was not even asking for help and I got it – this is the new world of business social media.

So where is the groundswell in higher ed?

Granted, many universities (mine included) have begun to use Facebook and Twitter to connect with students.  Yet the “average” class is still an isolate lecture-dominated space.

Derek Bruff alluded to this in an interesting 5-minute Jing presentation a few days ago called “Revolution or Evolution? Changing Instructional Practices in the Academy”:

Derek suggested that mainstream faculty were not ready to leap to embedded use of social media as part of their instructional process without taking small steps first – gradually evolving.

Yet I wonder if we in academia will have the luxury of slowly evolving?  Rob Tucker in a post in O’Reilly Radar called “Disintermediation: The disruption to come for Education 2.0“, notes that when “we talk about Education 2.0, though, we are prone to think that we can design it – that we can consciously and deliberately lay the groundwork for its effective implementation. Our deliberation, though, may be less powerful than the larger forces driving its rapid evolution. One such force will certainly be disintermediation.”

He compares what is happening now in education to what happened to the travel industry.  Computers and the internet initially made travel agents more productive and were embraced by the industry.  But then average individuals gained the ability through sites like Expedia and Travelocity to cut out the travel industry and make travel arrangements themselves.  As a result, the number of travel agents fell by 45%.

Rob asks if the same thing is now occurring in education?

Good question.  Anya Kamenetz in DIY U seems to advocate against traditional (and costly) institutions of higher education in a world where open educational content is freely available (or that is my impression – it is the next book on my summer reading list).  As Derek notes, whether we use social media in classes or not, our students are already connecting to a larger and informed world than what is inside the four wall of our traditional classrooms.

So I return to Groundswell and suggest that it provides a strategy for examining social media as an enhancement for learning.  Rather than willy-nilly jumping on Twitter or Facebook or a Ning, these researchers suggest that we first examine our students and where they lie on their Social Technographic Ladder:

Social Technographic Ladder
Social Technographic Ladder


As many have noted, there is no such thing as a digital native or digital immigrant.  So age has little to do with where our students are on this ladder.  One of my heroes from the world of work, Tom Peters, blogged recently about how he had fallen in love with social media – blogging and Twitter in particular.  Tom is even older than I am!  So individuals across the age spectrum are now using social media.  Our students are quite diverse, and understanding their use of social media will help faculty members customize the learning process to fit their use.

Second, we need to look at our learning objectives for our course/lesson and ask how social connections and networking might leverage the learning planned for our course.  I agree with Derek that this is untapped potential for our classes.

Only after we look at our student base and our learning objectives can we then look at the possible options in social media that could enhance the learning.

As Rob Tucker noted at the end of his post, this will be messy and trial and error will have to occur:

“What is certain is that disintermediation rarely has a delicate touch. It will change the way we teach and change the way we learn in the decade and decades ahead.”

It is not that the groundswell has not occurred in higher education, but that too many are ignoring its potential.   To ignore it any longer is to risk losing relevance in a world where networked learning is becoming the norm.

I would be interested in your thoughts.  Has the groundswell begun to move beyond simple recruitment and advising to actually impact teaching and learning at your institution?

{Graphics linked from the Groundswell website}

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