Two 2013 conferences on contemporary world and universities

2013 marked an interesting year: there were two conferences which dealt with the universities from novel and different perspectives. The first one had to do with Social Media: Implications for the University and the second focused on Global Trends in Media and Higher Education. Since it will take a while between the conference itself and the publication of the acts, here are some ideas about the most important and pressing issues that arise from the papers heard at the two conferences.

Social Media: Implications for the University, York University, May 3-5, 2013

Up to the time of the conference, very few publications appeared which deal with the interplay between platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. and the university’s mission to research, teach, and administer, making it a most welcome place to construct a solid base on which to think about these matters. No concurrent sessions were held, to the great delight of all the speakers and participants. The discussions after each presentation were lively and led to further thinking about the topic at hand. Most papers addressed the following four questions:

1. Can universities substantially change the manner in which they achieve their mission by using social media?
2. What are the opportunities, impacts, and challenges of social media on the workings of the university?
3. How innovative and effective is the use of social media for the purposes of research, teaching, and administration in a university setting?
4. Do social media have a critical function in the mobilization and dissemination of knowledge?
In general, the answers to these questions presented varied and balanced points of view. These spanned between two opposite poles: on the one hand, strong criticism appeared of those aspects of social interaction which are being dismantled by social media in the fabric of society, and therefore also in the fabric of the university. On the other pole, concrete and optimistic suggestions pointed to the use of social media for pedagogical effects aimed at within a particular course content but outside of the classroom physical space. Crowd-sourcing of administrative functions (such as recruitment) received positive support.
The critical aspects of social media use at the university level focused on the interactive problems with Web 2.0: if teaching/learning is a dialogical process, social media are not well-suited for such discourse interaction. Distractions, attention-span issues, linguistic shortcuts and fluidity were mentioned as the most pressing issues to be managed in courses where social media are used. The conclusions to which the papers of this conference pointed to a guarded optimism about the use of social media in teaching, open embrace of the use of social media for recruitment and other administrative functions of the university, and there were no definitive opinions as to the use of social media in research.


Worldviews conference: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education, Toronto, June 19-21, 2013

The fact that there were concurrent sessions did not permit me to attend all of them. This is one of the most frustrating experience for a conference attendee: that of having to choose between two or three interesting papers because they occur at the same time. Rather than describing each session I attended, here are some general points which relate to the conference organization as well as to the perspectives on universities.

Delivery of the papers: moderator-panel style

A conference is successful if the papers/presentations/panels address the main ideas/questions put forth in the description. Many of the sessions lacked this connection. In other words, I was expecting every panel to address connections/similarities/differences between journalism and higher education, but many panels did not deal with this main topic.
The conference was predicated on doing something different, not to have the usual 20 minute presentations followed by 10 minutes of discussion. In this way, it fell into the trap of contemporary “fluid” and fragmented flow of bits of information: the “informal conversational style” of the form ‘moderator-panelists’ often resulted in conversations taking a life of their own, without following the proposed theme. As a consequence, the audience did not come out with a firm grasp on that proposed theme. It was as if the educational professionals were afraid to do what they are accustomed to do: speak about their research in a coherent, cogent manner for more than 5 minutes. Granted, the informal conversation was sometimes choc-full of good ideas, but they were not fully developed and therefore incomplete, shapeless and easily forgotten.

Oft-repeated keywords/buzzwords

Each of the following keywords/buzzwords illustrates a central issue with the university’s mission and the expectations of society at large: unpaid internship, crowd- out/sourcing, crisis, authority, transparency, trust, inequality, blurring of meaning, innovation, creativity, democratization of resources, change, ranking, neo-liberal power, efficiency, speed, context, cop-out. There were no attempts to charge the university with the mission of not only critiquing the neo-liberal consumerist trends, but actually coming up with possible solutions. In this view, universities are on the receiving end of any new idea that comes from technologically-driven business-created products and by its lack of response the university is simply acquiescing to a leadership outside of the academia. In general, it was interesting to compare journalists’ and educators’ professional lives being transformed under the weight of technology and financial crisis. It is clear that what was missing was both a governmental position and a big business perspective. And, as much as the conference described itself to be “democratic”, there were very few students both in attendance and as speakers. The conference also stressed the importance of contextualizing.

Unanswered questions

Some unanswered/unanalyzed questions:
1. Is this era like others (repetition) or is it new (paradigm shift)?
2. Has higher education changed dramatically (so that it is not recognizable any longer) or is it static and weary of change?
3. Is there semantic leaching of crucial differences between instruction/education/learning and efficiency/speed/depth?
4. How relevant are the experiences, background, prior education, digital nativity of students?
5. Dilemmas:

professionals vs equality/democracy
decisions from above vs decisions made by “users”
technocracy no longer imposed but self-directed

The manner in which universities answer these questions will definitely shape the role and importance of higher education in the future, providing society will not keep relying on another nursery for new ideas, outside of the academia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s