Do we need an MA in Social Media for International Development & Change?

As with most short, catchy headlines the answer is probably ‘Well, I am not so sure...’
Me neither. And I do not really mean a fulltime MA programme dedicated to social media in the context of international development and social change. But I do think that social media should play a more prominent role in the development studies curriculum.
The example of Northwestern University’s cooperation with businesses (Here, Tweeting is a class requirement) to tap into the creative potential of marketing students is very interesting and made me think about the potential and limitations of a similar cooperation between development organisations and the departments that teach an increasing number of students who want to work ‘in development’.

I will start from a more conservative point of view – meaning from a point of view that the strengths of development studies courses lie elsewhere and social media may only be a trending add-on. But I also want to share a few more forward-looking arguments why social media should not be ignored by traditional university teaching and learning.

1. It’s contents that matters
If you are involved in an interesting research project or your (future) development organisation does some fascinating work, blogging and twittering about it and sharing it socially can be a fairly straightforward ‘learning by doing’ exercise. By making sure that your organisation allows young, bright, enthusiastic graduates to apply their intuitive knowledge of social media to your organisation’s resources it can easily be a win-win situation. But contextualising day-to-day information has always been important and while at university, there is a strong argument to focus on said context, maybe by borrowing a book from 1982 from the library instead of twittering your MA.

2. Do what you know best and stick to the core curriculum
As interesting as social media may be, there are other trends, hypes or emerging issues that also deserve attention. Is social media’s role in development really a paradigmatic shift? And what about entrepreneurism for development or the knowledge of fancy statistical presentations? There are many challenges out there, but they cannot replace solid, theoretical and sometimes dry knowledge about social movements or theories of power and change. Maybe inviting a guest speaker/blogger or offering a one-day seminar could be enough to introduce the topic to students?

3. Be conscious about your reputation and ‘brand’
This may sound a bit like neoliberal higher education speak, but I still believe that development studies should have a profile firmly embedded in traditional social science research and teaching. Interdisciplinary approaches may look appealing in the brochure you send to prospective students, but by bringing journalists, blogger, geographers, software engineers, medical practitioners, economist, anthropologists and historians together you will likely end up with a mash-up programme rather than thoroughly preparing your students for critical debates. Wikipedia is great, Google is useful, but they should not inform your university on how you run an academic programme.

But having shared my conservative argument, I still believe that the inclusion of social media in development studies curricula is a promising idea.

4. Career Fair 2.0: Innovative ways of linking students with potential employers
Social media could be one approach to think outside the box of a seminar presentation of an experienced aid worker and/or representative from an aid organisation. Why not engage students to help with a case study or social media campaign and get to know a great talent pool by sharing something from the organisational reality it operates in? Especially for younger students who may have less experience in the professional world a real-time, real-life case study could be a very interesting learning tool. Plus, it automatically stimulates great debates about the chances and limitations of social media.

5. Social media skills will gain more importance
Good writing skills will not go out of style, but they will be subject to change. Maybe ‘twittering your quarterly report’ to the big donor will take some more time, but Jennifer Lentfer’s interesting experiment on ‘Would YOU fund this organisation?’ is a first glimpse at the new frontier between ‘normal’ programming work and social networking. Not only to gather information, but especially for fundraising, advocacy and public outreach, social media will become more important. A stronger focus can only help students to be (better) prepared for a dynamic job market.

6.Social media may be closer to core foundations of development studies than you think
Who does not want to see positive social change? But any ‘one size fits all model’ is increasingly challenged globally and locally. Nobody argues that, say, health education in the village will become obsolete with the spread of mobile technology or that ‘revolutions’ can be organised on facebook. But ‘virtual development’ will be an interesting field of development in the future. Students (and many faculty, too!) need to engage with the multiple layers of the ‘aid industry’ and the complexity of the issues. Writing practices will change, organisational learning will change (see Ian Thorpe’s brilliant latest post on 'The future of (aid) work is social') and engagement with and between stakeholders will change. A more open and innovative approach to social media will ultimately help academic institutions to continue what they should do best: Challenge discourses in theory and practice, engage with innovations and adapt teaching and learning for positive influencing social change in the real world.
This is far from being comprehensive, but it also shows one great strength of social networking and blogging: Once even a short post is out there it opens up avenues for critical thinking, commenting and changes-and I do look forward to reading your views on the subject!

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