Monday, February 18, 2013

In competiton with the pendulum

Dark Social On Friday, Martin Weller wrote about academics competing in the attention economy, something that has interested me for some time. We went on to have our usual knockabout exchange in the comments on Martin's post, and while I accept his main point as valid, thinking about this has left me reinforced in my belief that academia and social media are not entirely suited to each other, and there there could be a better way.

When competing for online attention, academia is doomed if it places itself in competition with entertainment. I know you don't want to hear that (my speaking diary for the next couple of months with half a dozen invitations to talk about social media in education conforms this), but that's the way it is. Sadly, this puts me out of sync with the current swing toward social education. Too far ahead of the bloody curve again :-(  What's the solution? Academic needs to place itself above entertainment in the attention economy, and in society in general. Until we pursue that goal, the long downward slide will continue.

What I really want to talk about is dark social, but that's not a message that people want to hear at present. This last six months has been a revelation to me, still leveraging the power of technology without forcing mock social interactions. I have developed a dark social approach to my teaching this year and the results have been better than I could have hoped. On my first year key skills module last year, for the first time ever (over 10 years), the pass rate was 100%. I'm certainly not claiming all the credit for that, we have a very strong first year cohort, but with n~300, that's pretty convincing evidence for the dark social approach to educational curation (or "teaching", if you will). And overall, once I'd got a decent email system sorted out (including tagging, folders, templates, lists, etc), it wasn't any more work for me than obsessively monitoring social media for student activity and support requests.

Based on my current teaching experience, next year I plan to roll out the dark social approach further. That means a lot of online content will disappear from the VLE and will be replaced with skeleton notes and high quality interaction face to face in lectures (I'm shifting the blend back to the classroom), and via one-to-one online channels such as email and facebook messages (which have taken off recently in a sub-cohort of students from whom this is their preferred channel). So in five years time when the MOOC hysteria has gone and all this is old hat again, remember who told you about dark social ;-)


  1. Interesting.... We should do a paper on this..... I like the idea of 'dark social' - I've been doing that for years! How do you handle the repetition of getting the same questions from different students each year (this is one the reasons I run a teaching blog for my students - I point them to last years answer!) P.S. Looking at Postbox.

    1. Dark social is quite a hard sell because it's not "new" or "sexy". As you say, it overlaps substantially with established practice, but I think there is a distinctively new element there in that awareness of the cohort effects of social networks change the way we go about things slightly.
      Evidence for the effectiveness of of social media is scant at best...

  2. As you know I was just asking questions and not necessarily arguing competing in the attention economy was a good thing. But even so, I don't think it's a case of competing with entertainment. If anything people become more specialised, more niche when they go online. They aren't thinking "shall I do a course in electronic circuitry or watch the latest Jim Carey movie?". They're looking for one or the other usually. So we're not competing against entertainment in that sense (education may be competing against entertainment more generally in terms of time, but that's always been the case as any OU student knows). They're competing against other MOOCs (or blog posts, or slidecasts, or whatever) for a specialised audience, and also appealing maybe to 'online habits'. As I said I'm not sure this is a good thing, but equally, maybe it is a good competition and forces us to be clearer, more engaging, etc (this is what Chris Anderson argues in this TED talk (
    But I agree in that education needs to be offering something distinct from entertainment (I would disagree that it needs to be 'above' society, surely it is part of?).

    1. Is that the voice of M. Weller crying in the wilderness which is the Blogger commenting system? I suspect it is :-)
      Clearly your reductio ad absurdum re Jim Carey is true, but it's not quite that simple. Entertainment competes with academia by demanding dumbed down content, and raising the expectation that academic endeavor is going to be easy and fun. That's not always the case - sometimes it's boring and difficult (not always, hopefully). This is a slippery slope. One solution to this problem (which may not be the only one) is to clearly differentiate ourselves from entertainment.