Social Media UnderFire: Questions of Cognition, Literacy, and Online Learning

Concurrent Session 9

Brief Abstract

There is a division of views about social media. Advocates see new opportunities for learning. But growing anxiety about the cognitive impact of social media, particularly on literacy, should make online faculty and IT professionals cautious about them and other features of technology.


Fifteen years of experience in teaching online courses in graduate programs, including an annual one on "Education in the Digital Age"
Dave Goodrich (@rangerdavie) likes to learn, design, and reflect.
Michael Lockett is a curriculum scholar with a background in literary studies and mathematics. He completed his PhD at Queen’s University. His Canadian Graduate Scholarship (SSHRC) funded dissertation, Education by Metaphor, explores analogical thought from the perspectives of curriculum theorizing and poetics. In addition to teaching undergraduate courses at Queen’s, Simon Fraser University, and the Royal University of Bhutan, Michael also developed and taught a literary arts program in a federal penitentiary.

Extended Abstract

What online course doesn’t favor critical thinking in student learning? But what do we do—as online faculty and IT professionals—to make it part of our work? In particular, how do we see skepticism about digital technologies—from Neil Postman’s popular books late in the last century (e.g., Technopoly:  The Surrender of Culture to Technology  [1992]) to recent work (e.g., Edward Tenner’s The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can’t Do [2018]). Neil Selwyn has called for more “negativity” in online education. “Unlike most other fields of academic study,” he says, “educational technology appears particularly resistant to viewpoints that contradict its core beliefs and values.” 

Within uneasiness about technology in many domains, this session invites consideration of social media, a subject of great current interest among communications scholars, psychologists, and others. They express anxiety about the impact of social media on students, particularly in its cognitive effects, including literacy.  Thus, to the degree that extensive use of social media can present an obstacle to online learning, what questions merit the attention of online faculty and course designers?       

A brief introduction for the conversation--reflected in the two topics that follow and represented in a single page handout--will identify critical perspectives on the impact of social media, and the conditions of work in course design and teaching.   

Topic One: Cognition: Some education scholars find social media to be fruitful resources for teaching and learning. Empirical accounts of social media applications in course design demonstrate what partisans describe as a turn away from transmission-based models of teaching to those that promote active learning, or “best practices” in online education (e.g., the standards specified in Quality Matters).   

Still, in the past year there has been increasing recognition of unwelcome effects of ubiquitous social media. The backdrop for anxiety are the figures reported in early 2018 by the Pew Research Center. Nearly 40% of 18-29 year olds say that they are “almost constantly” online and 88% of this group use social media, typically more than one of the most popular platforms.

Doubts about social media reflect allied observations about our dependence on smartphones. Thus, Nicholas Carr, well known for The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010), said late last year in “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds” (Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2017) that the devices have gained an “unprecedented hold on our attention and vast influence over our thinking and behavior.” As a source of constant distraction, including their role in social media, they “impede reasoning” and “weaken brainpower.” New empirical research on smartphones, and, again, our devotion to communicating via social media, shows that their mere presence—even when not being used—can represent a “brain drain,” or have ill effects on focus and performance (Duke, et al., “Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking,” Harvard Business Review [March, 2018]).   

And there are recent signs of technological apostasy (so to speak). Thus Nick Bilton, for many years a New York Times media reporter (and the author of a favorable book about Twitter), said, also in fall 2017, that despite some benefits social media “act like drugs” and “drive up anxiety.”  Most recently, the Times has reported on the second thoughts of former technology executives who know very well that social media are designed to be irresistible and (for many ) addictive. These efforts are now represented in the initiative for “Time Well Spent’ (on the Internet) and the new Center for Human Technology ( As Tristan Harris, formerly of Google, has put it: “There are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation we have.”    

Topic Two: Literacy:  Social psychologist Jean Twenge, relying on UCLA’s authoritative American Freshman Survey, reports that another sign of the impact of social media is the sharp decline in the past decade (since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007) in reading among young adults. In her 2017 book on the “iGen” she presents postsecondary students as willing to read solely for course-based assignments and then only impatiently. They reject spending free time reading and prefer social media which demands only the shortest of attention spans.    

Making a place for social media in the curriculum has meant opportunities for practices of “new media literacy” (or “digital literacy” or “21st century literacy”), these being part of the reform program for making “active learning” the cornerstone of postsecondary education. For many instructors and course designers who see online learning as a location for directing students  toward new media literacy—featuring participation, content creation, sharing, collaboration, and peer-to-peer learning—social media have a legitimate role in education. For others loyal to “old” or traditional literacy, or solitary close reading of articles and books, social media and what they  invite in online multitasking can be an impediment to learning.

Plainly, no course design or way of teaching is absolute in its choices. Relations between new and old literacies can be oversimplified when represented as a generational struggle, as in the now familiar binary designating “digital natives and digital immigrants.” What is at stake in accounts of social media and education is how we see the nature and uses of literacy, and manage relations of the old and the new.            

One way to respond to social media under fire is observable in Twenge’s instructional resignation—a surprise considering her disappointment in her smartphone obsessed research subjects.  She welcomes the trend toward shorter and more interactive textbooks but wants course design to go further, including more “conversational” textbook prose, presumably closer to the style of communications in social media. Since students are coming to college with much less experience reading “we have to meet them where they are, while still teaching them what they need to know. That might mean leaving behind some detail, but that’s better than students’ not cracking the book at all.”

A different position would reflect literary scholar and technology critic Mark Bauerlein’s invitation to faculty colleagues to act as “stewards of literacy.” In this role they would explain to students the value of traditional reading practices, and the attention and patience needed for learning in the digital age. We can be adaptable (as Twenge urges) and resist current trends (in the manner of Bauerlein). That will mean, for faculty and IT professionals, careful consideration of what any online course or program asks for in literacy and thus what they may seek (or not) in curricular applications of social media.   

A recent theoretical account of the role of social media in postsecondary education sees them as a bridge between formal and informal features of learning. It recognizes, in a Facebook-based curriculum project, that students can be guided toward deliberative or critical reading (in this case about the environment). Similarly, Twitter has been identified as a timely resource for revising our expectations of student writing.  Still, a report from the prestigious National Writing Project resists such a practice, demonstrating that innovations can also be obstacles to learning.  The introduction to the conversation will direct participants to other examples of skepticism about claims for the educational effectiveness of new media literacies.    

The Conversation: Postman himself urged efforts in “technology education,” not in the operational mode favored in educational technology programs but in the critical one that guides students toward evaluation of the gains and losses that come with innovation in hardware and software.  Accordingly, the introduction to the conversation will also identify the place of critical thinking in online course design and teaching. To the degree that technology is something we study in higher education, as well as an increasingly important part of how we teach, there is the opportunity to make technology itself a subject in any online or hybrid course or program. Adam Alter, author of the best seller Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked [2017] hopes for an “emergency brake,” or recognition of the costs of our technological dependencies. Of course, technology itself is not good or bad. It is how it is used that matters. The new reaction to social media is a sign of why it is necessary to be attentive to our tools and how they shape the ways we think and learn.   

After the introductory remarks participants in the conversation will be invited to address these questions: 

●  What role should critical views of technology play in the work of online faculty and IT professionals?

●  To what degree should course resources, assignments, and assessments reflect the attentional habits and styles of communications in social media?

●  What can we learn from criticism of social media about changes in cognition and literacy for online course design and teaching?  

●  Should questions of technology’s uses and impact be incorporated into online teaching and learning?