Last month, Jeffrey Bigham wanted to nail down a reference for the concept that people will do more work as volunteers than for low pay. So he tweeted a question, hoping his Twitter followers might have a reference handy.
"I got six different responses in about an hour," says Bigham, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester. "What was neat was that because my social network has grown to be pretty broad, I got a couple different perspectives. I got not only a computer science perspective, but also a social scientist and economist perspective."
Bigham, like many other academics, uses social networking to connect, share and engage with colleagues and others in his field. A 2010 survey of 939 colleges by Pearson Learning Solutions found that 80 percent of professors have at least one account with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, LinkedIn, MySpace, Flickr, Slideshare or Google Wave. Fifty-two percent said they used at least one of them as a teaching tool.
Kimberly McGann, assistant professor of sociology at Nazareth College of Rochester, says YouTube is the best thing ever to happen to teaching.
"I have used it for quite a while in a couple ways," she says. "One is for showing examples of things; I teach popular culture, amongst other things, and it's always helpful to be able to have clips from shows, movies or advertisements. I've also used it to put up video assignments I've given to students."
Last semester, instead of a final paper or exam, she had her students make video projects on iMovie and upload them to YouTube. While she does not use Twitter or LinkedIn, McGann does use Facebook.
Deborah Labelle, associate professor and information technology program director at Nazareth, uses Facebook to converse by instant message with students if they need help on an assignment. Students copy computer code assignments into the chat and ask questions.
Labelle says she uses LinkedIn the most to connect with her students and graduates. When a recent college graduate moving to Wilmington, N.C., needed to get to know the area, Labelle connected the past student with a 2007 graduate in that area through LinkedIn.
"I have a paper in submission right now with friends that I met on LinkedIn. I don't know them personally," Labelle says. "The beauty of the online world is that it makes your world bigger.
"Especially at Nazareth, I'm the only one that teaches information technology, so I'm a little in need of some colleagues. I find them out in the virtual world."
Though Labelle and McGann use social media in a big way, they continue to use older forms of online media as well. Labelle reads the Teaching Professor, an online newsletter devoted to the art and science of better teaching in higher education. McGann is on the TeachSoc listserv, a once-a-day email she says is an interesting way to be connected to professors of sociology.
Kira Thurman, a UR student pursuing a doctorate in European history and a minor in musicology, observes that the younger scholars do not do that.
"We aren't turning to traditional academic listservs anymore, like the American Musicological Society's listserv," she says. "We ask each other questions on Facebook.
"The only people that we know posting on that listserv, which is supposed to be the main forum for all musicologists in North America, are senior scholars, really."
Thurman uses academia.edu, a platform for academics to share research papers, as a way to promote herself publicly in case a job committee at another university stumbles across her page. Data show that academia.edu has signed up roughly 1.6 million academics since its launch in September 2008.
But Thurman is apprehensive about having too much information on the site; at a job interview she might look less appealing if nothing is different from her online profile. She also says she would never upload her research papers on the site for feedback.
"In academia, your research is your currency," Thurman says. "If you start giving that away for free, it might be hard to convince a journal to publish your work or for a job committee to take you seriously."
Thurman, however, says nothing beats traveling to a new city, attending a conference and sharing the same physical space with experts.
"If you want to network and meet people, at the end of the day, nothing beats a good old-fashioned handshake and a smile," she says.
Unlike Thurman, Katie Terezakis from the department of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology likes to use academia.edu to share research and follow particular scholars. She says specialized sites and blogs are a gateway to more substantive contacts to network and socialize and to discuss course design and curricular issues.
Bob Ertischek, a professor at Monroe Community College, finds a need for niche online communities that focus on a particular subject. That is why he decided to develop Profology, a professional social network created exclusively for higher education faculty and administrators.
"I was working in higher education and was asked to teach a class about two weeks before the semester," Ertischek says. "I'd never taught that particular class before. I knew the material, of course, but didn't have a syllabus or tests.
"I thought at the time, 'Gosh, I wish there was some place I could go to communicate with people to see what they are doing and share tips and tricks of the trade.'"
Still in a beta stage, Ertischek says, the site will be open to the public soon. It will be available only to professionals in higher education, so users will not have to worry about students seeing things they post. Users can blog, communicate, find other people who do what they do and exchange tips while developing professionally.
Ertischek projects Profology will sign up 15,000 to 20,000 users in its first year.
Megan Goldschmidt is a Rochester Business Journal intern.8/10/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.