Turning Students Onto 2.0

The idea behind my PhD thesis, Internet Art History 2.0, was to show how the internet changes our understanding of art. What I set out to do was begin to describe some of the internet-inspired ideas at work in art and art critical commentary today. Unsurprisingly, I spent a lot of time online analysing tools used by the arts community. That said, it always seemed obvious to me that the internet is as good a place to start as any when it comes to doing research – better even!

Although back in my undergraduate days I was reluctant to embrace this new world. In 1998, when my dissertation supervisor suggested I use a search engine to look for articles on the artist I was researching  – Jeff Koons – I told him I’d already looked and there weren’t any. Of course, a stealthy swivel of his chair and tap, tap, tap of the keyboard later I was proved wrong. It wasn’t a bitter pill to swallow though, given that not only had I had my basic leg-work time cut in half but I’d discovered an array of new resources.

Now, having literally devoted years of my life to researching this relationship between arts, research and the internet, I find myself wondering how much my work would have differed if, back then , I’d had access to the types of social media technology available today. Aside of emailing Koons, I might have had him as a friend on Facebook, tweeted to him and about him, or even interviewed him via Skype or broadcast a video of my interview on YouTube. The possibilities are endless…

I therefore couldn’t believe my eyes when a link I followed (from Twitter) led me to an article on Times Higher Education about research being conducted at the British Library on the lack of web 2.0-savvy PhDers. The article entitled ‘Next-gen PhDs fail to find Web 2.0’s ‘on-switch” notes:

A three-year study by the British Library, Researchers of Tomorrow, is tracking the research behaviour of doctoral students born between 1982 and 1994 – dubbed “Generation Y”.

And it goes on:

Interim results, released to Times Higher Education, show that only a small proportion of those surveyed are using technology such as virtual-research environments, social bookmarking, data and text mining, wikis, blogs and RSS-feed alerts in their work. This contrasts with the fact that many respondents professed to finding technological tools valuable.

I am currently leading a module at the Writtle School of Design on ‘Art and Design Culture’ and we are using Twitter to broadcast a range of relevant ideas to students. For example, after a recent session on Expressionism and van Gogh, I tweeted about the re-translation and publication of van Gogh’s letters, as well as forwarding content from a tweeter claiming to be van Gogh while tweeting excerpts from these letters. My students, however, are extremely reluctant to use Twitter.

Without sounding too ‘you don’t know how lucky you are, in my day…’ about it, I’m desperate to encourage them to get on board. I’ve explained that it will  save them time and they will find a plethora of new ways to research, but still there is resistance. I even tweeted them an article suggesting they might be too young for Twitter, trying to at least provoke a little curiosity in them, but still its tough turning them onto Twitter et al.

My only answer for this is that a lot of 2.0 developments don’t actually sound that interesting on paper – er, screen. The basic concept of Twitter – a way to tell people, very briefly, what you are up to – sounds like you’ll be endlessly bombarded by accounts of watching paint dry. Could anything be more dull? But when in use Twitter is, dare I say it, exciting?! Ok, maybe I’ve gone too far, these are only 140 character sentences – often sharing links – that pop up on my desk top, its hardly a balloon ride over the Serengeti! But not since RSS-feeds, no, scratch that, not since email, have I found so many ways to get right to the core of the thinking that really interests me.

All I can think is that students need to really be shown how 2.0 can enhance their living/learning experience, and as I type this, I’m tweeting Mashable’s Guide to Twitter to my students in the hope that at least one of them will look at it and maybe show a friend. Lesson time needs to be turned over to using and discussing these tools and it should be subject-focused. Its all well and good for librarians to pass on skills to students, but the very essence of 2.0 is its bespoke information and this is where subject leaders need to step up. Its as important as ever to provide decent study skills support but the content of those sessions seriously needs an upgrade. I would start by telling students that today, a twictionary is going to be as essential as a dictionary!

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