Scholars in social media: an interview with George Veletsianos

Examining the impact of public scholarship and social media within academia

“Public scholarship re-envisions the roles and purposes of scholarship, and it is closely aligned to the ethos of the open movement wherein knowledge is not only shared broadly but is also co-constructed…”

social media in academiaGeorge Veletsianos is the author of the book Social Media in Academia: Networked Scholars, which examines the day-to-day realities of social media and online networks for scholarship and illuminates the opportunities, tensions, conflicts, and inequities that exist in these spaces.

In a recent article written in The Guardian Higher Education Network, an anonymous academic lamented the use of social media for scholarship and wondered whether academics “…happily broadcast[ing] their opinions and conversations to the entire online world…” has become an epidemic. While many respondents noted their disagreement with the feelings expressed in the article, highlighted in some cases in #seriousacademic, it’s worthwhile to note that Dr. Veletsianos’s book synthesizes and analyzes how and why academics use (and don’t use) social media.

We interviewed him to find out more about his research, book, and what conclusions he has come to on the use of social media in academic life (including asking him to look to the future).

Can you give us an outline of your current research focus and describe ‘Social Media in Academia: Networked Scholars’ in your own words?
My research aims to understand the experiences and practices of learners and faculty members in digital learning environments. I am especially interested in the ways that technologies come to be used and experienced in teaching, learning, and research endeavors.

Social Media in Academia: Networked Scholars is an investigation of how scholars (academics and doctoral students) use, adopt, reject, experience, and think about social media and online networks. There are many “how to” books on the topic that urge faculty to use social media. I take a different perspective. I investigate how scholars are using social media on the ground, why they use them in the ways that they do, why they don’t use them in the ways that enthusiasts hope, and highlight both the potential value of social media for scholarly practice as well as the tensions that arise.

“…compels us to share our work broadly and rethink our work in ways that maximize its benefits…”

Can you explain public scholarship and what you see its impact being on today’s researcher?
Scholarship involves both teaching and research activities. Thus, to me, public scholarship is engaging with people, communities, and organizations outside of academia, and positioning the institution and the individual scholar in ways that can have greater impact on society. Public scholarship re-envisions the roles and purposes of scholarship, and it is closely aligned to the ethos of the open movement wherein knowledge is not only shared broadly but is also co-constructed.

Public scholarship involves co-operating with local and global communities, and compels us to share our work broadly and rethink our work in ways that maximize its benefits beyond the academy. Social media are often central in these endeavors, whether it’s through the writing of short pieces for sites like The Conversation and aeon, or through the sharing of resources via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, or through participation in specialist online communities.

“…the ways that social media are conceptualized and promoted are usually poor.”

What inspired you to write this book and why do you think it is important to critically examine social media in academia now?
I was motivated to write this book because of emerging forms of scholarship – the use of social media included – are gaining wide interest in academia, but the ways that social media are conceptualized and promoted are usually poor. For example, recent research found that institutions encourage academics to go online to share their research with journalists and peers, essentially to increase the likelihood that their research will be found and cited. This instrumentalist perspective is quite common in academia. Yet it does not necessarily reflect why scholars go online or what tensions they experience when they do.

I’m interested in what actually happens as opposed to the potential of what might happen when social media are used. I think this is important because by understanding how scholars actually use social media, we may be able to improve our teaching, research, scholarship, and ultimately our own institutions.

“…identify their goals for wanting to develop an online presence.”

What suggestions would you give early career researchers who want to develop an online presence?
Most academics, whether they recognize it or not, have an online presence, through their institution’s bio pages or course listings or through sites that list their information (e.g., professional journals, student rating sites, etc.). I think it’s important for early career researchers to identify their goals for wanting to develop an online presence. For example, some might decide that they want to expand their pedagogical toolkit, or that they want to find a supportive community to help them deal with the challenges of their current role. Others may want to promote their work. Different tools and different communities serve different purposes. Don’t just use Twitter because it’s popular. Twitter might have value, but if it doesn’t serve your needs, it won’t be of much help.

How do you see the use of social media in academia developing over the next few years?
I anticipate that we will see greater tensions in this area over the next few years. More universities will create and revise their policies pertaining to scholars’ social media use. Universities will also create policies that reflect scholars’ use of social media – for instance by recognizing the diversity of scholarship that happens on social media. This won’t happen across the board, though. These changes will impact some institutions more than others, and some institutions will embrace their scholars’ digital participation/activities more than others.

“…researchers should continue posing questions about big issues: scholarly identity, impact, influence…”

However, as nearly all technologies nowadays encompass social components, I also anticipate that our conversations will eventually cease being “about social media.” As networked scholarship evolves, we will focus on particular issues pertaining to the topic – not on the technology. Rather than thinking about the tools or posing questions about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on, researchers should continue posing questions about big issues: scholarly identity, impact, influence, relationships, challenges, successes, and tensions. Technologies change rapidly, and any research or practice focusing on the particulars of the technology will quickly become obsolete.


veletsianos_george_bio_photoGeorge Veletsianos is Canada Research Chair of Innovative Learning and Technology and Associate Professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He has been developing and researching digital learning environments since 2004. Find out more about Social Media in Academia: Networked Scholars, or take a look at his website.

Interested in developing your own social media profile? Learn more about tweeting your research and how to make blogging work for you.