Twittering your MA? Development studies, social media and challenging dominant discourses

During my small research project on ‘blogging development’ one issue that has come up a couple of times and that I had not thought about initially is how social media, i.e. Twitter and blogs, will change higher education in the development field. In short, the argument is that given the amount of information and the emerging sharing and debating culture how can a place like IDS (I just take IDS as an example, because I know it fairly well and know they appreciate critical debates) justify to charge £10,000 in fees for a 9-month course in England (which adds another £10,000 for living expenses and travelling-give or take)? As the MIT has started to put lectures and course materials online (interestingly enough, a year after the THE article, MIT now seems to contemplate to charge for its online content), why would you spend £20,000 on a social science-centred degree that primarily focuses on reading books and articles, writing essays and a longer dissertation at the end? I do not want to summarize the more general debate on why getting more education is always a good thing-others have argued the case for 'Love HE' better elsewhere or in this longer and more abstract essay on 'What are books good for?'. I want to focus on development studies, particularly on issues of ‘access’ to participate in a course – offline or elsewhere.
Robert Chambers always convenes an introductory participatory workshop with the MA students (currently ~120) at the beginning of the academic year and he is always excited about the students: 
Brilliant group. Some passion about the environment. We have a better geographical spread than I remember, and the gender balance is closer to parity than for years – it was female to male 3:1 one year [...]. We have an African woman airline pilot, a vet, a polo player and an enthusiast for vermicompost….a wonderful bunch, energy, enthusiasm…’ 
he writes in a recent email. And even as this enthusiasm may fade a bit throughout the course and students become more critical towards their programme or IDS, nobody would dispute the value of tacit learning that being immersed in such a group adds to the ‘student experience’. Also, for many students from developing countries it is an important learning journey beyond writing essays and reading books: The resources that a place like IDS offers, the relatively good quality of teaching, the accessibility and ability to openly criticise your ‘professor’ and the ability to thrive in a safe space usually free of violence, corruption and sexual harassment. £20,000 pounds (often paid through scholarships) seems to be a small price for the overall experience.
But times are changing and the increasing demand of students for such courses (IDS has basically tripled its students numbers in the past three years) does come with challenges for the future. The bottom line that there is and will be a demand for traditional university courses. But an institute like IDS which does not simply want to fill courses with students, but wants to 'co-construct knowledge' among other strategic goals is faced with some challenges: First, one paradox is that poor students do not get scholarships. Across countries, regions and continents my (personal) experience is that you need to be part of your middle class to access a scholarship. It is a problem all over the OECD and higher education world and there is no simple solution. The key question at the moment is: Is this situation similar to the online blogging universe? Everybody can access the Internet in theory, but if you look around to see who is blogging or twittering actively you may need to search long and careful to find, say, an African farmer blogging about climate change. Development blogging is essentially a representation of most of the ‘elite’ structures you find in the ‘real world’ when it comes to languages, skills, education, background etc (and the author includes his male Western European identity in this, of course). One should not confuse new or more convenient ways of engaging with development with a fundamental problem of whose voices and knowledge still very much count.
The second challenge is that universities are still very good as serving as knowledge gatekeepers. Access to a proper library with books that may not be available on Google Books is one of the big advantages of studying at a place like IDS. And in addition to the physical environment you get access to the Mercedes-Benz of the library, its online journals and resources. Sure, we all have made jokes before about this one academic article full of jargon and irrelevance for the ‘real world’, but peer-reviewed journals are one of the most valuable assets for any kind of academic endeavour. This is one of reasons why publishers charge ridiculous amounts of money for it. If you lowered the cost to access the Swetswise or Ingenta databases and copyright laws changed significantly you could move one step towards a more inclusive ‘global classroom’ in which you share and critique academic literature with less engagement from academic institutions – an essential fundament of any engagement with development studies. Right now, this is linked in one way or another to being a student (i.e. paying said £10,000) at a university.

How can social media become more relevant for development studies?
First, academia is remarkably persistent to fundamental change. This is often not a bad thing per se as not everything needs to adjust to a perceived increase in speed or scope. Blogging your PhD.? Well, it’s unlikely to happen in the near future. But some institutions (and IDS is one of them) are experimenting with innovative tools and modules of teaching and research and including ‘action research’ more in the curriculum will be one important issue for the future-and by acknowledging different forms of learning and research new media will definitely gain more importance. Linking blogging to creative writing and reflective practice in development organisations could be a very interesting field where academia and the development industry could explore further cooperations.
Second, social media will play a more prominent role in the hybridisation of development studies courses: Whether it will be courses based in the global South, or shorter modules at traditional UK development studies institutes, the room for alternative ways of facilitating the student experience online and of marking and assessing different forms of writing will gain more importance. Other distance learning developments will also have an impact on development studies and
there will be a range of options available; ‘twittering your MA’ and ‘paying £20,000’ could be the extreme poles of a continuum of engaging with the discipline academically.


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