The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Professors embrace social media in class

3 min read

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It’s not every day that students are encouraged to use websites like Facebook and Twitter in class, but there’s a new department at UMW that’s trying to change that.

“Learning is a social endeavor,” said Andy Rush, new media specialist in UMW’s Department of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT).

This philosophy is one of the underlying principles of new media, a discipline that is storming the pillars of traditional lecture-listen-regurgitate methods that dominate pedagogy and forging new ones that place more emphasis on the communal aspects of education.

“Humans are, by their very nature, storytellers,” Rush said. “That’s how we communicated and how we taught people [before books].  With the new media age, we’ve been able to go back to the storytelling mode and been able to simulate the storytelling effect with new media.”

Now, however, the transference of information need not be only as fast as word-of-mouth. Instead, the distance can be cleared as quickly as a computer’s bandwidth capacity allows.

“New media” is an enigmatic term for a diverse field of study. Even experts in the field have had a difficult time defining it.

Dr. Zach Whalen, assistant professor of English, who specializes in new media, brands the term a “misnomer,” and prefers “emerging media” or “digital studies” instead.

“My research is not [often] about ‘new stuff,’” said Whalen.

In his opinion, the word “new” carries a great deal of baggage, when technology is advancing all the time.

According to Whalen, in the face of such constant change, what succeeds in holding the discipline together is its focus on computer technology and digital identity.

“Computers change the way we deal with each other […] They have the potential to restructure civilization.  That’s definitely something we should be paying attention to,” he said.

Martha Burtis, DTLT Special Projects Coordinator, echoed Whalen’s point. In the mid-90’s, Burtis worked at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library, where, at a time when many UMW students were still learning to read, Burtis was experiencing the early effects the Internet had on the way information was shared.

“Because of the web, [academics at Folger] were able to start sharing some of this intellectual output that had been behind a wall before that,” she said. “The web changed everything.”

The field of new media celebrates these changes.  Since its inception, the Internet has evolved “beyond a transactional affair into the social realm,” Burtis said.

Social media dominates the scene and proponents of the discipline have come to embrace outlets like Twitter and blogging.

In fact, Burtis and Whalen both recommend that students who take their courses create Twitter accounts to communicate outside of class.

Some new media classes, such as the computer science course “Digital Storytelling” taught by Burtis and Jim Groom, and Whalen’s English class “Writing Through Media,” even require students to create and maintain their own websites.

“It’s about getting students to explore their own spaces online,” said Burtis.

Whalen argued that most students keep blogs, Facebook accounts or Twitters anyway. Adding a scholarly dimension allows them to develop “informed, self-reflecting digital [identities].”

Several students who took new media courses continue to maintain their web presences even after the semester ended.

Since taking “World Building” with Whalen, junior Shannon Swanson has become a new media enthusiast.

“I want to be a teacher,” she said. “I think this kind of technology is going to be really important in schools […] I feel like it’s the future.”

Senior Jenn Ardnt blamed “the bava,” for her web enthusiasm, referring to Groom, who, in addition to teaching “Digital Storytelling,” is a DTLT Instructional Technology Specialist.

Groom played a major role in the creation of UMW Blogs, a free blogging platform for UMW students and faculty, and is currently working with the rest of DTLT to make new media an even stronger force at UMW.

Currently, there is a Technology Convergence Center in the university’s Master Plan.

According to Rush, the center is still in planning stages, but could house the Instructional Technology Department, the Help Desk and DTLT.
“We are currently a virtual space […] that will hopefully turn into a physical space,” Rush said.

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