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YouTube used to be all about homespun karaoke covers and gurgling babies.  Now you can find lectures, tutorials, experiments and animations. The education sector is increasingly using social media like iTunes, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook to provide access to a broad range of research and teaching beyond institutional boundaries.

These ‘social’ tools have already revolutionised business practice; are they now doing the same for higher education? When you search on online bookstores for a book you are routinely pointed to other books searched for by people with the same interests as you – the emphasis has shifted from the product to the consumer. Can we similarly use technology to shift education from being content-centric to people-centric?

The last five years have seen the emergence of myriad ‘web 2.0’ applications; and there has been a big impact on how and where we access resources. The web has become an increasingly interactive platform with a plethora of social networking web sites and applications, where users can, for example, share bookmarks, add comments or tags to online objects such as photographs or blog posts, review and rate resources, or even collaborate to create new material. There are many specialist social media tools available, either by subject or by media type, for example images, videos, documents and audio.  

Increasingly, researchers are using the same web 2.0 tools that they rely on for their social life to make contacts in their scholarly work, find colleagues in the same field, collaborate, and share data and expertise. With the research environment in flux due to the economic climate and rapid digital developments, researchers are having to do more with less, and so it makes sense to use free tools to tap into the resources of what is effectively a global laboratory. Researchers are likely to discover a rich array of existing research and commentary produced by peers in their field, open for informal peer review and academic debate, that may be found across the internet.

Researchers are also joining communities facilitated in this social space, such as Nature Network. Engaging in the conversation can lead to new opportunities to collaborate. Social media is a powerful communication tool that can be used to engage with a specific or diverse audience. For example, by using social networks, the Persona project at Leeds Metropolitan University built a community of trust around the repository and encouraged researchers to deposit papers.

Social networking can not only allow researchers to place, share and assess content. It also encourages students to comment on the content of others, connect with each other and help them to feel more engaged in learning communities.  Freshers can get to know each other and their future better through specially built social networks, as the TAG project at the University of Central Lancashire has demonstrated.

With the emergence of online web tools, anyone connected to the internet has the ability to be both publisher and consumer of almost any type of media using a variety of devices. With everyone in the community able to engage in conversation around any published media, participation is key, hence the term ’social media’. Instead of simply consuming information, the audience can interact and respond to the author by commenting, editing, sharing or even publishing their own media response through the web.

Of course placing material in a public space has its risks. For each web 2.0 tool we use, we need to find out who retains ownership of the media and never rely solely on a single service to store vital media content. Many web 2.0 tools enable a high level of privacy, allowing you to nominate who can view, comment upon or edit the specific media document or file. Intellectual property, copyright and legal issues should be taken into consideration when using social media. Identities need to be protected even when staff and students are using a personal username and password to log onto social media site like Facebook. The reason is that through them they can access applications listing library books they have on loan, log on to Google docs stores of academic papers, or develop a twitter hashtag for course discussions (for more information and to download an identity tool kit go to www.jisc.ac.uk/news/stories/2010/03/identity.aspx).

It is, perhaps, too early to say whether social networking is a bold new paradigm or an era of social distraction for [staff and] students. It certainly takes advantage of something that has always been there, that most people like to be connected to others. In the past that may have been face to face and on the telephone, but it is now enabled in a greater variety of ways. However, these tools when used in education, can be a nexus between students’ social activity, formal learning, informal learning and peer group exchanges. With technology we can enhance a wide range of practices across teaching, research and administration, and it is underpinning almost every process in an institution; but the focus needs to be on solving problems and facilitating positive change rather than on finding uses for the latest tech to roll off the conveyor belt.

Lawrie Phipps is programme manager for Users and Innovation at JISC