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May 10, 2010

Trading Textbooks for Twitter

These college students are supposed to use their phones in class!

"So (class), let's turn to Twitter."

Think of it as Twitter 101, a class in, of all things, social media. Not just tweeting, but Facebook, blogging, wikis and the like. Gerald Kane, assistant professor of information systems at the Carroll School of Management, created and teaches the course at Boston College.

"We focus on how some of these cutting-edge tools, like wikis, blogs and electronic social networks, really have the ability to change the way people interact and collaborate with one another," Kane says, "which has incredible impact on scientific progress, businesses, and society in general."

"I actually just started using Twitter for this class," says freshman Shannon Berube, a student in Kane's class. Matt Flynn, another student, says Twitter is new to him as well. "I actually didn't have a Twitter (account) until I enrolled in this class."

If you are a parent, this will come as no surprise--three quarters of teenagers who are online, are plugged into social networks. What about e-mail? Forget about it.

"It's definitely not a student-to-student thing," says Berube, suggesting that students no longer use e-mails to communicate with each other. Freshman Andrew Breger agrees. "I prefer Facebook. It's the best way to stay in touch with friends."

Hadley Riegel, another student in the class, explains that basically she only uses e-mail to communicate with her mother and, like Breger and the others, she uses Facebook to stay in touch with friends.

Kane considers these new tools of the trade. "Many professors are surprised when I tell them that most students report the only reason they still use e-mail is to communicate with professors," explains Kane. "They don't use e-mail to communicate with each other. Does this mean e-mail is going away as these kids get into the workplace? No. But, some of the reasons we've been using that all-purpose e-mail tool for, other tools might be better."

So, Kane helps students build their tool chest, teaching them such things as how wikis work and when it's better to tweet than to blog. One class assignment requires students to write tweets and another requires students to collaborate in groups using a wiki.

"What a wiki does is it lets you put a document in one place and then everybody can edit it at the same time. So rather than passing it around, here's a new tool that cuts through all of that," Kane explains to his students. "All of these projects are going to be a wiki page so whether you meet face to face is up to you."

Wait a minute--does this mean face to face is over? "No, it's not over," Kane says emphatically. "I think exactly the opposite. As you are seeing what people are posting on Twitter and following what's happening, Twitter gives you the opportunity to connect with someone, and when you do connect with them, it gives you something to talk about, and then you tend to start following them a little more closely on Twitter, which creates this virtuous cycle. So, I really think these social media tools, when used best, augment face-to-face relationships, not replace them."

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Kane is studying the impact and uses of social media in education and in the work place. It's a fast moving target. One of the companies he is focused on is Sermo, a social network for doctors.

"We're, in fact, the largest online physician community," says company CEO and founder Daniel Palestrant. "Every day tens of thousands of physicians log in and share information with one another."

Kane says social networks disrupt corporate hierarchies, giving employees and customers a virtual unfiltered megaphone to millions.

"So, you have employees able to organize internally, outside a managers' permission. Some of this is very innocuous, such as organizing the company softball team, but what happens when you start laying off employees and employees can easily talk about who's going and who's staying in ways that the company can't control?" asks Kane. "So, the nature of communication in, across and between organizations has really changed significantly. These things are happening whether the organizations and managers like it or not."

So, many companies have decided it's best to join them--otherwise, they are left out of the conversation--and Kane hopes to devise computer simulations to help organizations take better advantage of social networking applications.

"It's inevitable. I mean, it will happen," adds Palestrant. "It's up to the corporations and government agencies to decide if they want to be the leaders or the followers of it."

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Ann Kellan, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.