By Sara Bernard
Last week, Eric Darr launched a temporary ban on social media sites at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (this included Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and AOL Messenger). It wasn’t punitive at all, he says. Rather, it was a way to get students, faculty, and staff to reflect on their habits and behaviors toward social media. And while many students did not actually comply with the ban — they still had access via wireless devices and off-campus networks — the experiment was, according to Darr, a resounding success.
Q: What was your original vision for this temporary social media ban on campus?
A: The original observation was that the set of technology we call “social media” has a big impact on the way students, faculty, and staff here at the university live their lives and do their work. It’s not just a peripheral time-waster. But posing this to students in an academic setting didn’t seem to quite get to it; habits are very hard to talk about and articulate because we’re not aware that we’re doing them. Imagine a world without social media! So, we thought, let’s take it away. How long should we take it away for? Just for a day, or a whole semester? We decided on a week. We picked the particular sites that we were going to ban based on the ones most prevalent in use. Without spending a whole bunch of money and effort to block wireless signals, the ban was just enacted over the university network, knowing full well that people can access these things in other ways, via Smart Phones and so on.
Q: Do you think the week was a success?
A: Yes, a job well done. It worked! Students became aware of being stressed out about checking their status continually. They weren’t even aware that they were stressed. They had been losing sleep over feeling the need to stay connected, thinking, “I’m a college student; that’s what we’re supposed to do.” Turns out, it wasn’t the schoolwork [causing the stress], it was the addiction to staying connected. Many students said they were better able to concentrate on getting their work done and that they could sit around the university and not feel overwhelmed.
If I had asked our students, faculty, and staff before all of this if they thought social media was a huge part of their lives and work, the answer would have been no. But now, many are seeing that it is a really big part of how we behave and what we do.
Q: What kind of results are you seeing?
A: We’re doing surveys, leading focus groups, and asking the students to write reflective essays about this, so next week, we’ll see what the more quantitative aspects say. We’ll be asking groups of students to comment on their experiences and really focus on lessons learned. Are they going to rethink how they use Facebook? I’ve heard some students say, “I’m going to use it less.” That was never the intent. The hypothesis [to this week’s ban] wasn’t that social media is good or bad. It could be be both. It just depends on how it’s used.
Several of our students talked about using these applications for school and business purposes, for instance. They also use them for their social aspects. What they realized was that in the flurry of all the things that flow through Facebook in a day, they were losing focus and missing messages related to school or business-oriented things. They probably needed to restructure the way they used Facebook. Beyond turning it on or off, how do you best structure it for what you want to do with it?
Anecdotally, I know several students here spend 21 hours a day actively using Facebook. They literally have to put up a message that says, “Now I’m going to sleep.” That’s pretty phenomenal.
Q: Would you recommend a temporary ban like this to other universities or K-12 schools?
A: Yes, I really would recommend it. Social media adds a tremendous amount of value to the university and to the students; suggesting a permanent ban was not at all what I intended. But do I think that a temporary ban of one or more of these sites in a planned way is a good experiment for people to learn from? Yes, I do. Don’t implement a ban for a ban’s sake, but if you intend to focus on something or to learn something, then it’s a great way to do it.
Q: Would you do a similar experiment again at Harrisburg University?
Absolutely. Whether it will become a university tradition, I don’t know. But we’re already planning something either for the spring or next fall or both. Part of the activities last week included a social media summit, with twenty experts from the mid-Atlantic region, and 200 others from government, marketing agencies, and businesses. We talked about a certain set of topics: social media and business innovation, social media for political change, social media in higher education. We’d probably cover a different set of topics in the future based on what we learned from this set of experiences. But we’ll see. We could use the same set of questions [in future surveys], like, “Here’s the way people thought about social media in 2010.” And then we could explore how things have changed and progressed, or regressed, as the case may be.