When I think about the world we live in, I feel confounded by the ubiquity of the Internet in my life. I often think about what my world would be without it. When I think about my students and myself - both as a university teacher and doctoral student at the same time - I am overwhelmed by the floating boundaries of my professional sphere, myself as a doctoral student, and my personal space in my densely mediated world.
Where does my learning about the world I live in begin and where does it end? I gradually become more firmly convinced that I constantly learn significant things about the world not only when I read good old paper books for my thesis but I also learn a lot through my activities in social media when I communicate with people I am connected with: more often than not, what starts as an ordinary informal conversation gives me valuable insights about how we really live and learn.
I have been teaching English for Specific Purposes to students in several Bachelor study programmes (Social Work, Psychology, and Penitentiary Law) as well as translation and Modern English courses in Mykolas Romeris University, Lithuania for 15 years now. The specific subjects we cover in my courses and discussions with my students in particular have led me to my research into media literacy issues in higher education.
Interviews with people who are concerned about the changes technologies have brought to our lives have provided interesting insights about what it means to be literate in contemporary university.
Basically, there are two major issues that I see as stemming from these interviews: one thing is changing reading preferences and another thing is the paradoxes related to our use of social media: we assume no learning takes place there (but it always does) and there seems to be no authors anymore (although there are many).
This essay focuses on these two issues. To explain these points, I will provide some background information about key concepts: What are social media (SM)?
Then I will focus on peculiarities of learning processes occurring in SM with a particular highlight on our awareness of the quality of information that we encounter in the virtual world. In other words, what does it mean to be literate in contemporary deeply technologised society where SM are gaining more and more importance?
My view of what it means to be literate in the contemporary society and in higher education in particular stems from my discussions with students and e-learning practitioners of my university. Thus, I will illustrate my arguments with excerpts from our conversations.
Social media and social media literacy: definitions
There are many definitions of SM all of which share some basic aspects but also try to define the phenomenon from different angles depending on the context and purpose of discussion. My central assumption * is that with the new social technologies rooted in Web 2.0 (referring to the internet as we know it today, with user-generated content, social media and virtual communities) it is not just our operational abilities to use SM that matters. Rather it is our conscious awareness of the impact of technologies (on our thinking, behaviour, emotions, social relations, learning) and our critical approach to information that matters tremendously.
Therefore, in this context, I think the most appropriate definition of SM is the one provided by researchers Kaplan and Haenlein (2010) who see SM as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, which allows creation and exchange of user-generated content” and sub-divide SM into six categories: collaborative projects, blogs and microblogs, content communities, social networking sites, virtual game worlds and virtual communities.
Importantly, this definition not only points to the technological aspect of SM but also to the fact that technologies are not just lifeless neutral devices. Technologies also build on some invisible ideological assumptions that have important implications for an individual in a society that requires constant learning and re-learning, building, reconstructing and updating knowledge in a fluid rapidly-changing abyss of information.
The Internet and social technologies depict the world for us. The amounts of information that we are faced with daily are so huge that our ability to critically distinguish between valuable bits and useless masses of information has become an essential ability: without this ability we would get hopelessly lost in the endless chaotic universe of information.
Therefore, another important concept that I am drawing on in this essay is that of SM literacy. Basically, SM are information sources. SM always imply interaction and communication through technologies. And SM literacy is not about operational literacy (or ‘digital literacy’ in broader terms).
SM literacy, as Katlen Tillman (2010) puts it, is “having the proficiency to communicate appropriately, responsibly, and to evaluate conversations critically within the realm of socially-based technologies”. The key words here are “proficiency”, “communicate” and “evaluate”.
Speaking in ethical terms, SM literacy builds upon such values like responsibility, mindfulness, and sharing.
In the context of formal adult education - and higher education in particular – SM literacy has become vital. It is common to assume that young adults are “naturally” skilled in using technologies – they are innate to them, so to speak.
This is why I believe that it is not so much our operational abilities to use technologies but rather our SM literacy level (in the sense of the abilities to critically appraise the quality of our communication, interaction, content and the impact of SM on our thinking and world view) that have become critical in educational and learning contexts – formal, non-formal and informal.
Changing preferences: Are books dead?
I learn a lot from the content that my virtual communities spread online. Even when learning occurs in a traditional formal setting, my students prefer learning from the information that they encounter in SM to learning from formal complex information that is stored in academic databases. I have to encourage them to use institutional academic databases and even to demand this.
However, when I talk to my students about their information searching strategies and habits, they often stress that it is the Web (through Google search and Wikipedia basically) and SM (Twitter, Facebook) that they firstly choose for grappling around some issue to see what it is all about.
It is easy to understand this preference: though SM reality is a virtual reality, it is their real life where their multiple and diverse connections come up with lived experiences, hands-on knowledge, witnessed events and live illustrated impressions. Such is learning nowadays. Diane (all names of the interviewees changed) (19), a first-year student of linguistics, says:
"Just like most students, when I get an assignment, I firstly search for information in the internet. Why? Firstly because it is one of the fastest options which allows me to scan the available information; it takes considerably less time and it sorts [the information] according to my needs. […] Books are searched by students only when there is no information available online."
From linear to multimodal reading
The informational abundance, in its own turn, has resulted in changing reading modalities: when you have to read a lot of materials, you do not read everything in a linear mode – you skim large amounts of available multimodal texts. Multimodality means fragmentary bits that are accompanied by video, audio, and images that are gradually replacing traditional lengthy linear texts. These types may not even be purposefully meant for studies.
So, the learner constructs his/her knowledge from diverse bits of information, and summarises everything to make some logical sense out of it all. This is why Diane also says:
"It is no secret that modern people badly lack time. […]. I share [useful information] because I want to help my friends save their time and we perform a common task as a group."
Time really seems to be one of the defining criteria in our information searching strategies. A similar point is made by Maria (23), a translation student:
"What we write virtually online… I guess people want to do things somehow more quickly. You sit in front of your computer… and some machine-like mode turns on inside you and you want to write something quickly, maybe you do not think that much, you just think: it’ll be fine as it is."
When my students tell me such things, each time I think how important SM literacy is: do not just communicate any information, do not spontaneously share things that capture your attention on the spur of the moment. Our minds and our thinking are shaped by the continuous flows of information in SM. So think critically.
When I spoke to Diane about her information searching strategies, she also told me:
"When I prepare for a topic which is very abstract, such as environment or environment protection issues and the like, I often do not think authors are important because the topic is abstract, and there are endless facts online that do not require indication of authorship; so, most often, students present this kind of information as if it were written or created by them."
When I asked Maria about her way of coping with the informational abundance and diversity in SM, she stressed the importance of comparing several sources in defining how reliable a piece of information is:
"I think you have to read at least several sources and to compare things. I think there is no other way. If you really need that specific bit of information, if you want to get to the core of the matter, you have to read at least several sources and compare… and choose the things you like, the things you find useful, and so on – can’t think of any other way. You’ll have to read, and you’ll have to stop for a moment to think."
Thus, it seems that the abundance of information, accelerated pace of life, lack of time and collective authorship have radically changed the way we learn things nowadays.
All in all, then, how does one cope with all the information available in the virtual world?
Navigating a sea of information
Essentially, we are experiencing dissolving boundaries between learning occurring in formal educational settings and individual informal learning occurring through interactions in SM.
In SM we often do not think that in fact learning does take place. Information is fluid and changes rapidly: authorship may be impossible to determine because some information has undergone numerous editing attempts in SM. Under these circumstances it becomes vitally important to determine for oneself some guiding principles pertaining to information selection.
Mat (32), a university lecturer in technologies and enthusiast of modern technologies and SM, sets clearly defined requirements for his students as regards information selection for his courses:
"If a student chooses the easiest way and searches for information simply through search engines such as Google or other undefined sources and these are his only choices, I am very critical of such an approach in comparison to the student who firstly searches databases and scientific databases or official institutional sites that can provide the required information."
Mat, due to his professional background as a university teacher and researcher, is very cautious about information selection processes because he is well aware of how quality of information available in Web 2.0 can vary. But at the same time he is one of the biggest enthusiasts of contemporary technologies and the learning possibilities that they provide:
"All young students with particular interests in one or another sphere go to academia.edu. And also think about LinkedIn […] offering possibilities to join common-interest groups, exchange experience, and participate in projects. In that sense, physical space is nothing compared to SM. In all cases they [SM] accelerate movement forward. And, of course, they simplify the study process itself."
So, what is vital for a learner nowadays is being able to distinguish between different informational sources and their purposes.
In the world of informational abundance a learner has to sift through available information and choose several sources for critical appraisal and comparison. In my conversations with students, teachers and e-learning specialists, I often hear people referring to the feelings of frustration and loss when confronted with immeasurable amounts of information. No doubts, abundance of information is better than the lack of it; however, nowadays one thing is clear: it is vital to be able to appropriately assess your sources and to select the best ones among many available.
Bearing in mind the above mentioned things, the following guiding principles may help learners in information creation, selection and evaluation:
1. Assume responsibility for the quality of information that you yourself share through SM always remembering that it reaches many people who learn a lot spontaneously about the world in the SM that they daily use;
2. Think about what you read (your sources) and always compare several of them to critically appraise the information;
3. Note our changing reading preferences: in SM, we form our understanding on the basis of fragmentary, multimodal, multi-authored bits of information; and
4. Engaging with SM, always think critically and, most importantly, as a final step, remember to draw generalising unifying conclusions of your own.
My discussion with Ricky (35), an e-learning specialist, summarises all of the above points:
"Of course, it is firstly the role of the university teacher that is changing because of the adoption of technologies and SM in education and learning. Of course, the teacher is no longer the only source of knowledge in the networked space. In fact, the teacher is turning into somebody who curates or who guides learners towards correct information. […with multimodal learning]… a person learns from one place, clicks a hyperlink, jumps to another place, then another, yet another, and thus, sometimes, learns the things that his/her teacher did not expect. Learners steer their knowledge in a way that suits them best. In fact, what we face here is self-construction of one’s knowledge."
The important point that Ricky was making in this conversation is that adult learners learn things by doing other things that they commonly do in their daily life: they learn by engaging in other activities, when exposed to various multimodal texts. Furthermore, adult learners build on the experience and knowledge that they already possess.
Another important aspect that arose during this conversation was that of the quality of information that is communicated. If our interactions in SM and the things we share in SM really change our perception of the world, our social relations and our views, then shouldn’t we be concerned about the quality of the communicated information that affects our understanding of the world?
Subjective interpretation of the outside reality means that individuals view the reality differently: what might hold true for me does not necessarily hold true for you. So, this is the kind of truth that can be referred to as truth potentially (but not necessarily) confounded with error. What if I learn from erroneous information? This is why operational abilities to use SM simply functionally are not sufficient: what we need is the ability to critically appraise the quality of information transmitted through our interactions in SM communities. Therefore, it seems logical that Ricky also touched upon the issue of responsibility:
"Social networks… well, I think it is also important to stress one thing: responsibility is often pushed aside in distance communication in social networks and SM, especially if you can hide behind the anonymous mask. This is why it is often necessary to make up one’s mind - both in learning and probably life in general - about what is the right thing to do: to remain responsible or to free whatever is lurking inside of you. […] If a person who provides information is guided by responsibility, then everything is fine; if not, then, we will surely have more and more incorrect content."
What is important in this quotation is that we - as content creators and sharers – have to be thoughtful about the information that we communicate to the wide and in many cases global audiences of SM. Our learning is a continuous process: each time somebody’s thoughts and information are shared through SM, they shape someone’s understanding of the world.
The essential thing, then, is not the operational skills (just being able to use SM) but rather SM literacy. And, last but not least, though I am building my assumptions on my conversations with students and e-learning professionals in formal educational settings, I believe they hold true for broader contexts of adult education and learning: formal, non-formal and informal.
*The position that I am trying to maintain in this essay stems from deeply insightful ideas of such authors like S. Vaidhyanathan, E. Pariser, N. Carr and many others who have maintained a balanced and critical approach to analyzing the impact of technologies after the almost unrestrained excitement over them has steadied a little. In the References section I provide some key titles that can be extremely useful for further reading.
Essay - in depth, in context.
Carr, N. 2010. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York London: N. W. W. Norton & Company.
Kaplan, A. M., Haenlein, M. 2010. Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of SM. Business Horizons, Vol. 53, Issue 1. p. 67.
Pariser, E. 2011. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: the Penguin Press.
Tillman, K. 2010. Do Media Literacy, Digital Literacy, and SM Literacy Intersect? <http://www.edelmandigital.com/2010/04/01/do-media-literacy-digital-literacy-and-social-media-literacy-intersect/> Accessed 10 August 2015.
Vaidhyanathan, S. 2011. The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). Berkeley Los Angeles: University of California Press.