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Building bridges between the online and offline worlds

31 May 2017 - 08:30

I’ll start over. If the landscape we find ourselves in seems unfamiliar, that’s because it is. The world has changed, and we had better catch up if we want the university to remain an institution for the ages.

In the beginning was Google

Consider for a moment that those knocking on the doors of higher learning today have always known the internet. In their beginning the word was Google. And Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat et al. Each a ‘killer app’ in more ways than one.

Especially to those of us who grew up before computers (BC), who can even recall a time before television (which was only introduced widely in South Africa in 1976).

Talk about a clash of civilisations! We live in different realities – an online one and a physical, or offline, one – where we speak different ‘languages’ (social conventions and codes). And it can be disorientating to navigate between the worlds.

In the offline realm, things can be controlled – well, some stuff, some of the time. That’s harder online – especially if social media is thrown into the mix. Much harder.

Actually, the ‘social’ is a bit of a misnomer if you compare it to the depth and breadth of human interaction in the offline world. There is none of the instantaneous feedback of a face-to-face conversation. The kind packed with all kinds of cues allowing participants to adapt their messages – even mid-sentence – as they deliver them.

The other thing often lacking in social media is context. It is the consumer of content who determines meaning in the main, not so much the intention of the speaker or the circumstances under which utterances are made.

And there is a degree of permanence in social media that is unparalleled in history. Every word you say, every tweet you make, the trolls will be watching you … ready to pounce.

There’s lots of that in social media. Ad hominem attacks. Angry condemnation. With scant regard for the facts. No willingness to hear the other side.

There’s very little open discussion in the Socratic sense of the word, an argument in which the participants search for answers together. That would be far too boring. And unsuccessful. Such an argument would reach an evolutionary dead end as a “thought germ”, as the educational YouTuber CGP Grey calls it. It would not go viral.

Hence the polarisation we see online. The herding of people into us-and-them camps. The echo chambers where existing opinions are merely reinforced. The mobilisation through vilification.

Bridging the divide

So, what do we do? How do we deal with the rapid transformation that university culture is undergoing? How do we bridge the divides, heal the rifts?

First, we acknowledge that there are different realities. That the new generation experiences the world in a fundamentally different way. That they have migrated a part of their very identity to the cloud.

That is a reality that needs to be validated as much as we need to reassert the validity of the best that higher education has to offer as an institution. As professors and administrators we need to engage with our students, build trust, cultivate the values that we cherish.

We need to lead by example. Stand up for our convictions yet remain open to persuasion. Hold others accountable, but also take responsibility for our own actions. Further human dignity through behaviour that is respectful – self-respect, respect for others and respect for the environment.

We need to be present, where students are in the offline reality; and engage with them in situations where meaningful discussion is possible. We need to demonstrate deep listening – including using social media to help us in doing this – in order to promote the listening culture that we would like to see. We need to build consensus around common values.

These are some of the insights of experienced staff members at my university working in student affairs and in corporate communication. That’s important – to approach social media in higher education in a professional way, to keep on learning as we go along.

We are in this together, students and staff, across the generations. Advancing social justice should be our joint concern. It is our job as educators to enable our students to become constructive agents of change, to gain useful knowledge and to use it for social transformation.

Behind the hashtag FeesMustFall is the important issue of making higher education more widely accessible, clearing financial obstacles out of the way. That’s a goal we can all agree on.

Similarly, the campaign around outsourcing shone a much needed spotlight on the importance of respecting the human dignity of all workers on our campuses, ensuring that everyone earns at least a living wage. And the mobilisation against rape culture highlighted ongoing problems with sexual assault and gender-based violence at our universities.

These are issues that deserve attention in any reality, whether online or offline.

Professor Wim de Villiers is rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, South Africa. This article is based on his input for a panel discussion on ‘Safe Spaces – University culture wars’ at the 2017 Going Global conference in London last week.