Universities’ value judgements about research are becoming ‘coupled’ to social media platforms as they compete for funding by demonstrating their influence beyond academia, an analysis suggests.
The study, by researchers at the University of Cambridge, focused on how universities use social media in ‘impact’ case studies, which are a requirement of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is a periodic assessment of university research, run by UK higher education funding bodies; the current review ends next year.
Researchers examined 1,675 submissions from the previous exercise in 2014. They found that universities consistently use platform metrics—such as follower numbers, likes and shares—to claim that their research is making an impression.
The authors describe this as a ‘naïve and problematic’ grasp of what both the data and ‘impact’ actually mean. But they suggest that in a competitive funding environment in which that meaning is in any case unclear, universities are reaching for social media metrics as easy-to-access measures of success that they hope might attract funding.
That process links the opaque, algorithm-driven value systems of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to universities ‘evaluative infrastructures’. The study adds that this is just one example of how digital platforms are changing higher education, often unnoticed—and with uncertain consequences.
The study was undertaken by Dr. Mark Carrigan and Dr. Katy Jordan, at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge; Dr. Carrigan has since become a lecturer at the Manchester Institute of Education.
“Social media platforms seem to be acquiring a role in how numbers manage higher education, as a sort of proxy for impact capacity,” Carrigan said. “We are starting to see academics seeking more followers and more shares not to support their research, but because it might be good for their careers.”
“Those metrics, however, result from social media companies manipulating content and user behaviour to maximise engagement with their platforms—a priority which then starts to become loosely coupled to universities’ own evaluative judgements about research.”
While the study in no way questions the importance of demonstrating impact as part of the REF assessment process, it does suggest that many universities have struggled since 2014 to understand the rather open-ended requirement. Impact is defined as: “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment, or quality of life, beyond academia.” This will be worth 25% of the score awarded submissions in REF 2021.
The researchers scanned 1,675 REF case studies from a public database for each of 42 terms relating to social media to identify patterns in the way social media was used. They also then analysed 100 randomly-selected case studies in closer detail.
Universities consistently mentioned social media in about 25% of their REF submissions. A handful of terms appeared far more than all the others: Google Scholar, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, “podcasts”, “blogs” and (as a general term) “social media”. They appeared most in case studies from the arts and humanities (46.3%) and least in the biological and medical sciences (13.1%).
Although some references were entirely valid, a surprisingly high number of case studies attempted to claim impact by simply recording statistical information from social platforms. These included citations and research rankings from sources such as Google Scholar, and more generally follower counts, comments, views, downloads, likes, mentions and shares.
The researchers describe the fact that so many universities took this flawed approach as a symptom of institutional isomorphism: a phenomenon in which organisations imitate each other when dealing with uncertain goals, creating a false notion of ‘best practice’.
“The statistical data only represents social media activity; at best it’s preliminary to claiming real impact,” Carrigan said. “At the same time, it’s becoming part of what universities nevertheless consider effective digital engagement, and potentially gets absorbed into the business case for what researchers are expected to do.”
Because successful engagement on social media corresponds not to the needs of people affected by the research itself, but the requirements of companies running the platforms, the authors suggest that this ‘loose coupling’ may lead to various problems if it goes unaddressed.
Researchers from less-popular disciplines, for example, may struggle to meet institutional demands to build a following for their work. Perhaps more worryingly, social media often reproduces and intensifies various inequalities. Other research has, for instance, found that white males are less likely to be harassed online than other demographic groups, and these academics may therefore find it easier to be rewarded for high levels of engagement than other colleagues.
The study notes that this is just one example of how higher education has embraced digital platforms ‘at a dizzying rate’ – without necessarily noting the implications. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has witnessed a rapid “online pivot” towards remote learning. Platforms such as Teams and Zoom are now widely used for lectures and seminars, while others support learning management (Moodle), student engagement (Eventus) and alumni engagement (Ellucian). So far their wider effects on the culture and priorities of universities seem to have been largely overlooked.
The researchers point out that social media itself can be used profitably in research—for example to build networks with ‘end users’ of research projects—but argue that this potential should be more systematically integrated into academics’ professional skills training.
“Higher education social media policies need to catch up with the fact that this is going on,” Jordan said. “At the moment, the main incentive academics are offered for using social media is amplification: the idea that your research might go viral. We should be moving towards an institutional culture that focuses more on how these platforms can facilitate real engagement with research.”
The study is published in Postdigital Science and Education.
Mark Carrigan et al, Platforms and Institutions in the Post-Pandemic University: a Case Study of Social Media and the Impact Agenda, Postdigital Science and Education (2021). DOI: 10.1007/s42438-021-00269-x
University of Cambridge
Social media is reshaping British universities’ value systems in a scramble for likes and shares (2021, November 4)
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Hashtag Trending Nov. 29 – Lush leaves social media; Apple warns prosecutor of iPhone hack; man receives 3D-printed eye – IT World Canada
Lush deletes all of its social media profiles, Apple warns a Polish prosecutor that her iPhone is under attack, and a British man receives the world’s first 3D-printed prosthetic eye.
That’s all the tech news that’s trending right now, welcome to Hashtag Trending! It’s Monday, November 29th, and I’m your host, Tom Li.
Cosmetic giant Lush went on a social media cleansing routine on Friday by closing its accounts on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, citing worries of the harms caused by social media. The announcement was made on the Black Friday weekend, one of the busiest shopping periods of the year. According to Lush CEO Mark Constantine, the company could lose 10 million euros by shutting down the accounts, but he’s happy to embrace the loss. This isn’t Lush’s first attempt to leave social media. In 2019, the company left Instagram and Facebook, but ultimately returned. The scale of its second departure seems to be much larger, and it looks more permanent than before.
Apple has alerted a Polish prosecutor that her iPhone has been compromised by the NSO spyware group. According to 9to5Mac, the NSO group was responsible for creating the Pegasus spyware, which has been used to spy on journalists and politicians. Apple is currently in the process of suing NSO for attacking iOS users and is monitoring signs of Pegasus-related attacks.
Finally, a British man became the first person to receive a 3D-printed eye. The prosthetic isn’t a functioning organ but was described to be highly realistic with a clearer definition and more depth to the pupil. Moreover, the procedure was less invasive; Whereas traditional eye prosthetics require a physical mould of the eye socket, the 3D printed one scans the socket digitally, bypassing an invasive step. Moreover, the 3D printed eye was matched against the patient’s other eye, which was also digitally scanned.
Now for something a bit different. The estate of JRR Tolkien, the creator of the Lord of the Rings series, has successfully blocked a crypto-currency called JRR Token. According to the lawyers representing the estate, the token’s name invoked copyright infringement laws. It’s clear that the coin’s creators were trying to capitalize on the success of the author’s name, but this is a common occurrence. In October, the creators of Squid, a coin based on the popular Korean TV show Squid Game, duped their investors out of more than $3 million.
That’s all the tech news that’s trending right now. Hashtag Trending is a part of the ITWC Podcast network. Add us to your Alexa Flash Briefing or your Google Home daily briefing. Make sure to sign up for our Daily IT Wire Newsletter to get all the news that matters directly in your inbox every day. If you have a suggestion or tip, please drop us a line in the comments or via email. Thanks for listening, I’m Tom Li.
Ethiopian gov’t forces in control of Chifra: State media – Aljazeera.com
Dead bodies seen ‘everywhere on the streets’ of town in Afar region as Al Jazeera gains exclusive access to front line of escalating conflict.
Ethiopia’s state-run broadcaster has said government forces were in control of the town of Chifra in Afar region, their first major seizure since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said earlier this week he would head to the front lines to lead federal troops against fighters from the northern Tigray region.
Tens of thousands of people have died and millions displaced since the war between Ethiopian federal and allied troops, and the Tigrayan forces, broke out in November 2020. The conflict has also caused a massive humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people facing famine.
The Tigrayan forces captured Chifra, on the border between the northern Afar and Amhara regions, after fighting intensified last month.
“Ethiopian Defense Forces and Afar Special Forces have controlled Chifra,” the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation said on its Twitter account on Sunday, without providing further details.
There was no immediate comment by the Tigrayan forces.
‘Dead bodies everywhere’
Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is heavily restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to corroborate. Al Jazeera, however, was able to gain exclusive access to Chifra, the first international news organisation to do so.
Reporting from “the heart” of the town, Al Jazeera Arabic’s correspondent Mohammed Taha Tewekel said the Tigrayan forces “were driven out of this strategic area” by pro-government militia from the Afar region, but also noted “gunfire could be heard from all directions” for hours.
“It [Chifra] has been the epicentre of military operations during the past 40 days,” Tewekel said during a live broadcast, with gunfire ringing in the background.
“The scenes we witnessed are very appalling. Dead bodies everywhere on the streets. It is living proof of the ferociousness of the fighting. There are clear signs of the lack of humanity in this conflict. The town’s commercial shops were totally destroyed, even the mosques were not spared. All the residents have fled for their lives and the town has turned into military barracks for the Afari fighters,” he added.
The Afari fighters “have seized the city” and are now advancing towards the towns of Bati and Kombolcha, the correspondent said.
Chifra is west of the town of Mille, which Tigrayan forces have been trying to capture for weeks, because it lies along the highway linking landlocked Ethiopia to Djibouti, the Horn of Africa’s main port.
State-affiliated Fana Broadcasting reported on Friday that Abiy was on the front line with the army fighting the Tigrayan forces in Afar.
“The morale of the army is very exciting,” he said in the remarks broadcast on Friday, promising to capture Chifra “today”.
After months of tension, Abiy in November 2020 sent troops to Tigray to remove the region’s governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in response to what the government said was an attack on federal army camps. The TPLF, which dominated the federal government for nearly three decades until Abiy took office in 2018, said federal forces and its allies launched a “coordinated attack” against it.
The prime minister promised a swift victory and government forces seized Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, in late November. By June, however, the Tigrayan forces had retaken most of the region and pushed into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.
The Tigrayan forces recently reported major territorial gains, claiming this week to have seized a town just 220km (135 miles) from the capital, Addis Ababa.
International alarm about the escalating conflict has deepened, with several foreign countries urging their citizens to leave as mediation attempts by the United Nations and the United States have so far failed to yield any results.
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