Will digital technology doom higher education or save it?

I’m an enthusiast about social media for academics. But for all the examples I see around me of social media enriching and enhancing scholarly practice, it’s hard not to be concerned by the broader context within which this is taking place. These problems are hugely worrying in their own right: the casualization of academic labour, the ceaseless ratcheting up of the expectations placed upon academics and the replacement of professional self-regulation by hierarchical audit all contribute to an environment I’ve talked about elsewhere, with my collaborator Filip Vostal, as the ‘accelerated academy’. But what I’m increasingly preoccupied by is how social media for academics doesn’t just take place within this context but rather influence how academics, individually and collectively, shape this context through resisting or reinforcing these pernicious tendencies.

It’s easy to see how social media for academics might fit into the ‘gig economy’ which we’re seeking to explore through this panel. It’s straight forward to imagine how rootless and nomadic academics would make themselves available through their online presence and mobile technology. What was once loftily conceived of as a vocation, though in reality more often simply a career, instead finds itself reduced to an endless iteration of ‘gigs’. In a way, the only thing I find implausible about this Doonesbury cartoon is the lack of digital technology in the world of employment it represents:

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Digital technology further fragmenting the academic workforce, scattering overly earnest scholars who seek only to teach and research across the international system, measuring and scrutinising their activity as they are ranked hierarchically to determine who gets first access to gigs that are ever shrinking in number as MOOCs replace the bulk of university teaching. Is this the future we face?

There’s something dystopically intoxicating about this narrative. In fact that’s what makes me suspicious of it. The polarisation of the academic labour market was not something caused by digital technology and there’s no reason to assume it will be intensified by it. In fact, if we look at how doctoral students and early career researchers are using social media, we can see lots of examples of social media being used to enhance the autonomy of younger academics: raising their visibility, helping them create networks and sustain a sense of professional identity when their working lives are split across many institutions.

My point is not to counterpoise a ‘good news story’ to a ‘bad news story’. For what it’s worth, I do think the picture is pretty bleak. But if we reduce the uptake of social media by academics to an extension of managerial power then we’ll struggle to understand exactly what influence it is having. If we impute too much to the technology then we fail to do justice to the social processes through which any technological influence is necessarily mediated.

Much depends on how social media is taken up by academics. The potential outgrowths of it are diverse: everything from what I’ve elsewhere described as ‘networked solidarity’ (including, though not limited to, satire) to displays of academic incivility which can only fairly be described as ‘trolling’. The key question for me concerns which of these uses become more likely under present circumstances and how these influence might, in turn, feed back into changing that context or reinforcing its existing characteristics.

I wonder if the key issue might simply be why people are turning to social media. My fear is that we are seeing a growing sense in which people feel they have to use social media. There are many potential reasons why this perception might be becoming widespread:

– how central social media is becoming to debates about impact and public engagement
– the growing frequency with which training is offered in universities
– the message this implies about the desirability of engagement
– people seeking contributions for things like collective blogs
– universities, departments and research centres seeking contributions for such projects obviously has an additional dimension to it
– stories about career success founded on an online presence: a sense that this stuff is crucial for career opportunities, without anyone being able to specify quite why this is the case, perhaps propped up by a few mythical cases
– the anxiety about not missing out on opportunities which inevitably abounds within an unhealthy job market.

My fear is that if ‘social media is the new black’, something which everyone is expected to do, instrumental concerns will come to squeeze out the more nebulous joys and satisfactions which can be found at present.

Social media for academics might provide a framework within which the ‘Uberisation of Higher Education’ becomes entrenched. But it might also provide a bulwark against it, facilitating solidarity and collective action between those who are nonetheless dispersed across many workplaces. We simply don’t know yet. But that’s why we have to be careful about how we conceptualise these platforms, the tools they offer for academics and what it means for them to be taken up within a changing landscape of higher education.


Categories: Digital Sociology, Higher Education

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