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To post or not to post? Challenging times for academics

11 Jul 2019 | Angela Lawrence Head of Department at Staffordshire Business School and Senior Fellow, Angela Lawrence, took part in the poster presentation at the Teaching and Learning Conference 2019. In this blog to accompany her poster she debates a challenging dilemma for academics in an era of digital student conversations.

Changing ways of working

For some academics the world wide web, email and social media have been an intrinsic part of their adult life, having been around since their school days. For others such as myself, a child of the swinging sixties, the growth of what I call digital conversations has meant a change in the way we both work and play. Choosing to own a home computer, to set up an email address or a website and to engage with social media have all been optional decisions throughout our adult lives. So, it is hardly surprising to find that some academics struggle to meet the expectations of students for digital conversations which academics such as Liz Bennett (2017) argue demand changes to pedagogic practice.

Let me first explain what I mean by digital conversations. For me, any conversation that could be had by direct word of mouth (face-to-face or over a telephone) but instead is communicated via email, text message, Skype, Microsoft Teams, or online via Facebook messenger, LinkedIn, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat or any other form of social media or chat function, is a digital conversation. When I completed my A-Levels and chose to study at university, I was restricted by only being able to communicate with friends and family by writing letters or phoning a land line. There was no such thing as a mobile phone. My assignments were hand written and submitted in hard copy and the only way to get to see your lecturer was to go to their office and book an appointment to meet with them face to face.

The modern academic

The academic of the 21st Century has seen many changes in consumer behaviour, arguably the most significant of which fall into three categories; students as consumers, students as degree owners and student demands for digital. This is part of the focus of my doctoral research. I’m about to begin my pilot study for my Doctor of Education at Staffordshire University and am interested to understand how these changing consumer behaviours impact academic identity.

Academic identity is described by Henkel (2005) in Sue Clegg’s BERA article Academic Identities Under Threat (2008), as 

“a function of community membership, that is grounded in interaction between the individual and two key communities; the discipline and higher education as an institution”.

So as academics (if indeed you relate to this title), we base our identity on the subject discipline that we study and teach, and the state of “being” in HE. Being in HE we are obviously in regular contact with students and those students wish to communicate with us on a regular basis. So, I ask this question: how do your students communicate with you? Do they come to your office door, knock and ask for an appointment? Do they phone you or email you? Do they contact you via other digital conversational methods, such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter, LinkedIn…?

Academics under pressure

Whilst you think about that I have another question for you: do you feel the pressure of students as consumers? We all know and feel the pressure of NSS scores, TEF ratings, university league tables, all of which incorporate a measure of student satisfaction. The phrase “The Student Voice” is very much part of our vocabulary and we feel beholden to the demands of our students in order to satisfy their needs for an education that they have paid dearly for. 

So as a customer of HE, it could be said that students can drive the demand for academics to communicate with them via digital conversations. This is where opinions appear to differ and where I believe there may be a fear of impact on academic identity. Barcan, (2014) refers to academic fears of fraudulence in her Times Higher Education feature "I shouldn't really be here". This fear is hypothetically exacerbated by changing student behaviour, where students can potentially be more digitally capable than academics. Certainly, for many of my fellow baby boomers this can be the case, but possibly not so much so for younger academics.

If we consider academic identity to be a specific social identity, as described by Van Winkel et al., (2018), consisting of Affect, Cognition (values, goals, beliefs), Abilities (knowledge & skills) and Stereotypic behaviour, this then further challenges academics in terms of the Authority element of their professional identity. It may be that as an academic we feel confident of our abilities in relation to knowledge and skills linked to our academic specialism, yet our ability in relation to digital conversations may be challenged within digital conversations if we choose not to engage with students online, for example, via social media channels. One of my favourite authors, Mark Carrigan specifically explores the impact of social media interactions on academic identity, suggesting that academics feel a loss of control within the social media environment. Within my own network I know a great many academics who feel extremely uncomfortable with the use of social media and would struggle to post anything that could in any way “expose them” to students.

Loss of control

So, it could be argued that in all aspects of our identity (thinking here specifically of our academic identity) we have some element of control over what information is visible to others, but this is retracted within the digital environment. This could lead to anxiety, a challenge to our authority and status as an academic, hence the dilemma “to post or not to post” arises. I must emphasise that this does not apply to me, I’m a prolific user of social media, but then I’m a marketer by discipline and I think this has something to do with it.

Nonetheless, I frequently debate the future of academia in my own head and question the status of an academic of the future. Digital conversations, online learning, VR classrooms and AI all appear as threats to the way in which we educate within HE today, and are probably just the very beginning. But surely, we are academics by right of our own knowledge journey are we not? Hang on, I’ll just post this on Twitter now and see what my network thinks…!

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