The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
The overall aim of this project was to investigate how STEM academics are currently using social media to engage with existing professional networks and extended communities, and to explore ways to support those who want to use these tools more effectively. The project explores the following:
The research was carried out in two phases. The first phase, a small scale exploratory study, used interviews and took a qualitative approach. This phase was used to identify key themes and to begin to identify the range of social media activities that STEM academics are already putting into practice. The second phase of the study explored these emerging themes and patterns with a more substantial sample set, and used an online survey to reach a wider audience.
The project identified different approaches to social media that STEM academics are adopting. This ranged from no or very little use of social media to it being integrated into all aspects of work routines. In some cases it was used it as a main communication medium rather than email. Examples were identified where social media was being used on a daily basis to find information, record thoughts and outputs, and strategically network. The majority of academics that took part in this research however, were using some form social media within their work practices but to a lesser extent than described above. Social media was not integrated into all daily routines and was not generally a primary channel of communication, more an additional one. In this way, using social media appeared to be an extra task. The use of social media was often more intense around certain events, e.g. at conferences or on completion of a research project.
The different motivations that STEM academics have, and the outcomes they are experiencing through using, social media also varied across the different types of social media investigated (Twitter, social networking sites and blogs). Motivations around self-development, maintaining networks and widening networks were identified and explored in detail. Social media user group profiles: Introvert users; Versatile users; and Expert communicators, that have been developed in other studies are extended in this research to include work-related activities and motivations.
The findings suggest that academics who engage more frequently, with a higher number of social media tools, also tend to have a wider range of motivations for using them, and experience a greater number of successful outcomes. Half of those surveyed, who had integrated social media activities into their daily work routines, felt that they had experienced some positive contribution to their career progression as a result. These users were driven mostly by motivations related to self-development and widening networks. They employed tools that facilitate and promote the sharing of content and felt that this was important to their academic role.
Barriers to participation were also identified. The biggest barriers to those currently not engaging with any great significance are negative perceptions of social media and lack of time, interest or skills. In conclusion, if the use of social media is to be encouraged in academia, practical training is needed, as are dialogues with institutional management to understand the potential benefits and career progression opportunities these activities bring.