Social media, Diversity, and Ideas for Experiential Education

July 7, 2016 at 10:57 AM

Social media, Diversity, and Ideas for Experiential Education


Akanksha Atrey UA ’16 (December) and Jim Stellar


After our first blog, AA’s summer research in computer science lead to yet another connection between us – a joint interest in diversity and the influence of social networks, more specifically online social networks. The purpose of our second blog is to begin to explore the parallels between such groups on social media and in-person group interactions.


Firstly, it is important to note that diversity has been beneficial for society. For example, in 1998, Quigley suggested a “role of diversity in enhancing economic efficiency” and in 1999 Feldman and Audretch concluded that “diversity is more conducive to innovation.” Apart from economical benefits, diversity is known for its expanding effect on social cohesion. Even in the education perspective, it has been shown that the more diverse the school, the less hate crimes are reported. Hence, diversity becomes a topic of extreme importance for the advantage of the society and also for recognizing the way groups interact in and out of college – something that is particularly important today.


So what do we mean by online social networks? A very recent study by Arnaboldi et al. used Twitter data from the city of Milan, Italy, and recognized the multicultural diversity of its neighborhoods through language detection software. Based on multilingual analysis, Arnaboldi et al. were able to categorize different neighborhoods into three groups (Italian predominance, English predominance and Other Language predominance) and compared the results favorably with existing census data. Another study by Hochman and Manovich, used Instagram, a popular photo sharing social network, to identify the social, cultural and political insights of people’s activities. By collecting 2 million photos from 13 different cities worldwide, they “analyzed at multiple spatial and temporal scales” and presented the “analysis of social and cultural dynamics in specific places and times.” Hence, it can be concluded that social media serves as a medium for understanding diverse populations.


Social media can also be a forum of social action as shown by many events. Consider briefly one that did not happen on a college campus, but in a secondary school – the Bring Back Our Girls petition created in the aftermath of kidnapping more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls. One reason for the petition’s fast success was that when people signed the petition, they had the opportunity to tweet about it directly from the e-petition website. As more and more people saw such tweets in their twitter feed, they were eager to help, including well-known celebrities, politicians and activists. Another research project that AA is working on is looking into this diffusion. It is remarkable that the petition was for Nigerian schoolgirls, produced by a German, signed by the whole world with majority of the signatures being from North America and Europe. Unfortunately, more than 2 years later, the girls have not been returned.


How does the use of social media and this example of the petition relate to university campuses and the question of diversity? What it does is show how powerful a force social media can be, but we would like to argue that it follows the same rules as social interaction in the real world and that experiential educational opportunities can operate constructively in both worlds. To start we recommend one of two books both published in 2013: either Moral Tribes, by Joshua Greene or The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. In both books much credence is given to a kind of subliminal mental processing. In this blog, we tend to refer to it as unconscious decision-making, and attribute the processing to the mammalian brain that is inaccessible to but powerfully affects conscious decision-making. As the two books point out, such mental processes can easily divide us into in-groups (ours) and out-groups (others) often without us knowing. These are old ideas, but what gives them lift today is the brain-scanning technology of the fMRI machine and the rise of appreciation for the influence we have on each other, especially subliminally.


Here is where we think experiential education in a college or university curriculum can come into play. We should have discussions in classrooms about the current literature on diversity, and many universities have something like that built into their general education or other requirements. But we need to go farther and have students directly experience what to them may be out-groups through special experiential programs ranging from study abroad to service-learning and public engagement, accompanied by reflective exercises on those experiences to connect back to academic learning. Working together in project-based learning with a diverse group of students can teach by example how to work in diverse teams as is often required in jobs after graduation. There are plenty of opportunities for interpersonal interactions on a campus with a diverse student population, but it is never more powerful than when it is made a part of these kinds of activities that we have long argued interact strongly with unconscious decision-making processes of the brain.


To return to social media, we observe that while it offers wide access and high speed of interaction, it lacks the face-to-face presence of the kinds of experiential education activities just mentioned. While it might be important to track development of issues associated with diversity on campus and useful in recruiting students to participate, it is the direct social activities themselves, such as study abroad or be of service, that allow the strong personal experience of doing the activity lead to a more teach-by-example impact that can take a student out of their comfort zone, into what they may have thought was an out-group, and establish the experience of working together.


We are both users of social media and enjoy the connectivity. We see the power in big data analytics of social media trends and one of us is researching it this summer as part of her major. But here we wind up in an interesting position in this blog of relying on the real-world, face-to-face, project-based, team-building activities of experiential education projects to most effectively break down expected in/out group dynamics and build greater natural understanding so that our students can appreciate and leverage the diversity of our planet.


Footnote: We do appreciate the irony of a senior administrator and an undergraduate co-authoring a blog on diversity, as we should be out-groups to each other. But maybe that it grew out of our previous blog on a parallel experience we had some four decades apart.




Seeking experiential education in undergraduate research after transferring to a new university

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