Full title of symposium:
Cascading Change: The role of social software and social media in educational intervention and transformation

Time and place:
December 7., 2009 in Auckland, New Zealand

This event was part of the ASCILITE09 conference at the University of Auckland.

Our proposal Text:

In recent years social media and social software tools and practices have been applied in numerous implementation and pilot studies in higher education (for example Yew, Gibson, & Teasley, 2006; Rogers, Liddle, Chan, Doxey, & Isom, 2007; Sharma & Fiedler, 2007; Fitzgerald, Barass, Campbell, Hinton, Ryan, Whitelaw, et al., 2009; Fiedler, Kieslinger, Pata, & Ehms, 2009). Some of these studies have been driven by explicit educational goals (such as fostering community involvement in learning and teaching; peer learning; competence advancement in collaborating, social-networking, and self-directing; social and collaborative production, and so forth). On the other hand numerous implementations seem to have been mostly inspired by the attractive, technical flexibility of an emerging decentralized landscape of loosely-coupled, networked tools and services and its alleged potential for changing the dominant patterns of institutional provision of ICT in education. Some have noted that these implementations produce more questions than answers (Guess, 2007). It is becoming clear that greater depth of examination is required to clarify what type of educational change goals and what type of systemic interventions (Midgley, 2000; Hawe, Shiell & Riley, 2007) can actually be supported effectively by bringing social media practices into higher education.

Furthermore, exploration is needed of the tensions, barriers and unintended consequences that are likely to result from educational interventions that try to use such practices as a significant “leverage point for change” in higher education. However, as Postman (1992) has noted, the change promised by new technologies often represents a Faustian bargain.
Increased understanding of the unintended consequences of change is imperative if intervention focuses not only on first-order change by making mere “incremental improvements within existing modes of practice” (Foster-Fishman et al. 2007), but strives for second-order (or radical) change (Bereiter, 2002) involving a fundamental shift in how things are done within the targeted context. Change agents need to understand if and how a strategic change made in one part of the system influences (or fails to influence) other parts of the system. What actors are (or ought to be) included in an intervention is another important issue here. Foster-Fishman, Nowell, & Yang (2007) remind us that “… if the boundaries are drawn too wide, then the systems change effort can become cumbersome and unmanageable; if drawn too narrow then vital system pieces may be ignored” (p. 204). The way a system is bounded places limits on our understanding and our ability to leverage change (Midgley 2000). This is where many technology driven interventions in education seem to fail. While re-mediation efforts based on the introduction of new technological tools often trigger temporary changes in practice, “this emphasis on instrumental re-mediation often entailed a relative neglect of corresponding transformations in the division of labor, community and rules – that is, the social-organizational re-mediation of the activity system” (Engeström 2001, p. 91).

Since social media practices tend to fundamentally alter the traditional configurations of responsibility and control of instructional functions that characterize settings in formal higher education, these changes always effect other parts of the overall system such as norms (beliefs, values, attitudes, orientations), resources and regulations (policies, procedures, routines). A common example of these phenomena is the misfit of the production modes mediated by social software (co-production, multi-authorship, etc.) and their typical products (networked artefacts) with the assessment norms and procedures of the overall institutional system.

Our symposium brings together a diverse and international group of experienced researchers to explore the problems and limitations of using social media practices as a leverage point for second-order change in higher education. Furthermore, it intends to engage symposium contributors and audience in theoretical and empirical reflection on possible directions for further conceptual and methodological development in that area.