Whether you spend hours updating your status and writing on others’ walls or roll your eyes at the thought of Facebook, there’s no arguing that the social medium has made a cultural impact. But can it also be a learning tool?
Carmen Stavrositu, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, has the same question. As a member of the President’s Teaching and Learning Collaborative, her research on emerging technologies includes trying to determine whether social media such as Facebook, Twitter and blogging can be used to create learning communities that resemble traditional classrooms.
Stavrositu joined the UCCS Communication Department in 2007. She earned a bachelor’s degree in foreign languages and literatures from the University of Bucharest, Romania, then came to the United States and attended graduate school at Penn State, where she received a master’s in media studies and a doctorate in mass communication.
Along with her current research, she has collaborated with colleagues Jugal Kalita and Lisa Hines for a project titled “Acquiring Infrastructure for Artificial Intelligence, Natural Language Processing and Information Retrieval,” which resulted in a National Science Foundation grant that helped establish an undergraduate research lab. This year, she became research chair for the Communication Technology division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
When she’s not “office-bound” by work, Stavrositu spends time outdoors. She’s an avid runner and hiker, and a “novice, but adventurous” skier. And she has become a passionate gardener. “I had my first community gardening experience at Penn State seven years ago,” she says. “Even before I moved to Colorado, I started doing Internet research about the community gardens available in the area, and joined one of them soon after my arrival here. While I have been a fairly ‘orthodox’ gardener for most of this time, I have some big plans to experiment with heirloom varieties of my favorite vegetables this summer.”
1. How did you choose a career path? Did a person or event play a role in your choice?
Growing up in Romania, I was faced with making a career choice in the late 1990s when the country was undergoing profound economic and political transformations. I was particularly struck by the impact of these changes on the country’s media: their ownership structures and how these changes were affecting Romanian culture more broadly. I decided to pursue graduate work in communication, which wasn’t offered in Romania at the time. At Penn State, I was fortunate to work closely with some brilliant and inspiring mentors, and it was only while I was there that I considered for the first time becoming a college professor.
2. Some of your research focuses on whether social media can be an effective learning tool. What intrigued you about this topic and how might this work?
A major focus of my research centers on the uses and effects of social and participatory media, and their potential for user empowerment. For example, in some of this research, I examined blogging and its potential for psychologically empowering members of marginalized groups. My results showed that the act of blogging does tend to be an empowering experience for such individuals, specifically by enhancing a sense of agency and community. Blogs, of course, are an outlet for self-expression and for connecting with similar others at the same time, and my research has found that the technological affordances that make these two outcomes possible lead to profound psychological benefits for users.
In building on these findings, I became interested in examining whether social and participatory media (like Facebook and Twitter) could have similar benefits for students. In particular, I was interested in how these media could be leveraged to enhance student engagement in online courses in particular. It is well-known in the literature that student engagement hinges largely on two main factors: students’ perceived sense of autonomy and their feeling of membership in learning communities. Given that my previous research already has suggested that an increased sense of agency and sense of community are two important benefits of new media use, a logical next step is to pursue how these benefits might also enhance students’ sense of autonomy and sense of membership in a learning community.
In particular, I focus on the potential for Facebook or other social media tools like blogs to facilitate class discussions. My hope is that because this medium is already such a big part of students’ everyday lives and conversations that it will help them create a safe and open environment for course-related discussions.
3. You also focus on the processes of establishing the credibility of online information. How reliable is what we find on the Web?
This is another area of interest in my research and it pertains to users’ skills and ability to discern credible from noncredible online information, given the Internet’s notorious absence of information quality oversight. As has been widely discussed, this marks a major change from traditional sources of information such as The New York Times or CNN, which, despite their imperfections, do nevertheless have professional gatekeepers working hard to ensure reliability. Another challenge of Internet-based media is that it allows for relative anonymity, which can be a double-edged sword: While it allows users to express themselves more freely, online content is also littered with unreliable information.
In addressing these kinds of concerns, what we have found is that as people use the Internet more, the more credible they tend to perceive it to be, which is perhaps rather intuitive given that the more familiar you are with the norms and general workings of a medium, the better you get at filtering out or avoiding irrelevant or unreliable information. Most interestingly, perhaps, we also found evidence of a kind of crossover effect, whereby the level of traditional newspaper use also predicted Internet credibility, suggesting perhaps that the Internet functions as a kind of supplement to traditional media rather than merely a substitute.
4. In what ways have you seen communication significantly change for the better and worse in the past 15 years or so?
The most significant change, in my opinion, pertains to the shifting role of media audiences. In fact, we don’t even speak of “media audiences” anymore, but of “media users.” This semantic shift mirrors very well the larger shifts in communication of the past 15 years or so, where we see users increasingly in the driver’s seat when it comes to their media use, no longer merely passive recipients. If with traditional media we were mostly limited to being receivers of information, we now have technological affordances in place that allow us to become senders and producers of information. Everyone is now able to self-publish, as they say, although the quality of information, of course, is not always assured.
5. Time magazine gave its 2011 “Person of the Year” award to the protester. If you could give a 2011 “Communication of the Year” award, to whom or to what would it go?
I would also have to say the protester. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement protests, what we have seen are regular people leveraging the power of participatory media in novel and creative ways to engage in activism, to organize, and – in some cases, like in Egypt and Tunisia – bringing about real, tangible political change. Using the media in this way, of course, simply would not have been possible 15 years ago. But people are now able to have a voice of their own, and at the same time, enter into extended conversations through their social networks with others who share the same concerns.