Laura Cohen recently started a discussion about the place of academia in relation to online social spaces in a post entitled The Abdication of Community Spaces. In the post, Laura asks “Are any campuses hosting the kinds of spaces that can accommodate the immediacy of the need to create communities online?” She concludes that “institutions of higher education are abdicating their responsibility to host such communities.” Part of the inspiration for this post was the high number of communities that sprung up on Facebook after the April 16th shootings at Virginia Tech. One point that Laura makes is that by not hosting such communities itself, Virginia Tech has lost a vital piece of its social history in relation to the tragedy. Laura is also concerned that by abdicating their role in such spaces, academia will not be able to preserve important parts of its history. This is a great post with some excellent comments – all worth reading.
I commented a couple of times – pretty much agreeing that I think it is problematic that academia isn’t jumping into the social network arena and sharing my reasons why. I’m coming at this from the viewpoint of a student in a distance program who believes that one of the biggest problems with online education is the lack of engaging communities that foster both social and educational interactions. I and many of the students in my program that I have been in contact with over the past couple of months feel the lack of social space quite keenly. I have discussed my frustrations with this previously. These frustrations led me to try and create some type of social space for students in the MLS program – particularly distance students. The only sustainable options at this point are to use 3rd party products like Facebook, Google Groups or Yahoo Groups. Honestly, I’m not happy with these products. They haven’t really done what I thought they would – or what I thought we needed. Undoubtedly, Facebook is the best option and the best product to facilitate social interaction. However, there have been several problems (mostly with email addresses and the way I created the group) have made the Facebook group less than ideal.
I have come to the conclusion that academia needs to be participating in this arena in order to successfully fulfill the social component that is an important part of students’ educational experiences. Colleges and universities spend an inordinate amount of time and money to give students a sense of communities on their campuses. They really need to follow this through to the online arena – especially for distance students. As online education continues to flourish, I believe that it will be this type of attention to web-based communities that will attract students to one college over another. I know that if I were to even consider another online program, I would be much more vigilant about the services offered to distance students – something that I honestly never even thought to consider when choosing my MLS program.