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Who’s qualified to teach social media?

December 3, 2012

UAB class

Gary Warner, UAB’s director of research and computer forensics, has guided his
students to help root out cybercrime. His work was featured on
NBC newsmagazine “Rock Center with Brian Williams.”

I was invited to speak at a college class in the spring. The invitation came from a friend of a friend.

Usually, I jump at the opportunity to teach students, having done so throughout my career. If I don’t know the teacher, I do my homework first.

This one was an unusual case: an instructor starting a class in social media at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, though he appeared to lack any credentials in the area.

Sigh. And I wonder why business owners don’t take social media seriously.

Instructor X normally teaches in a different subject area and appears to be well qualified in that regard, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in that field. (I’m overlooking the doctoral degree from an unaccredited university. It’s not accepted in three states, so I’m not alone.)

He has 25 friends on Facebook, 20 connections on LinkedIn and a Twitter account with one follower (a spambot) and a single misspelled tweet. Ironically, his university profile explains his emphasis on practical over theoretical learning.

(See? Homework done.)

Perhaps Instructor X has a trove of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and Pinterest boards that show his exploration of social media. Maybe I judged prematurely.

So I asked why he, as an instructor, is teaching a course in social media without any practical knowledge or experience in social media.

He didn’t answer.

I emailed his department chair the same question. The chair wrote:

“Changes in technology in communication, platforms and uses of both technology and platforms are taking place rapidly. Those changes require both students and faculty to prepare themselves continually to stay abreast of the changes. Dr. X’s research into the communication impacts of social media led to the course you are concerned with.

“No curriculum vitae can possibly reflect the elaborate efforts that go into course development. If, as chair, I had any doubt about Dr. X and his ability to teach a course that he developed, he would not be teaching it. Students who took the initial offering of this class gave it good reviews.

“If you’re asking whether the department would welcome a scholar with formal training and research in social media to the faculty, the answer is yes. But, as are all institutions of higher learning, we are constrained by budgetary restrictions.”

Research, you say? Would we want future doctors to be taught by instructors who’ve done research in medicine or actual physicians? UAB uses doctors as teachers, for example, in the medical school’s pediatrics department, as any respectable medical school would.

But medicine and social media are very different subjects. To become a doctor takes years of study and practice, not to mention tuition in the six-figure range.

To learn social media takes a phone, computer or tablet, a free account and at least a week of practice. The barrier to entry is ridiculously low.

And yet, should UAB students pay thousands of dollars in tuition to learn social media from Instructor X? I bet a few of them likely have more practical knowledge of the basics.

The university’s budgetary restrictions didn’t hamper one of its most successful courses, Social Media and Virtual Communities in Business. It proved to be a hit from its start in 2010, with a full house and media coverage.

The focus is on developing strategy across platforms for various industries. Associate professor Allen Johnston developed and taught the course in 2010 and 2011 for the business school.

But a cursory glance at Johnston’s social media presence reveals an average portfolio: 175 Facebook friends, 28 Twitter followers and 10 tweets in a private account and 151 LinkedIn connections.

His curriculum vitae includes a research grant for social media, along with several speeches to the community.

Would you say Johnston is more qualified to teach social media than Instructor X? I would, even if only relatively. Am I?

A university should provide qualified instructors for all of its subjects. To do otherwise is educational malpractice.

I’m biased, being the son of a retired physics and math professor who taught mercilessly at the University of Montevallo. He published papers on his physics research for 30 years. His former students will tell you candidly they learned in his presence, even those not pursuing a career in science and numbers.

I’m going to pass on this opportunity. I hope those UAB students learn something anyway, even if it’s the value of misspent dollars on a subpar class.

And I’ll continue to teach and promote social media as only I know how. From years of practical experience and successes big and small.

• • •

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2012 1:55 pm

    Good points.. Colleges and Universities seem to often be in at best catch up mode. Similarly I find most to still be teaching proprietary software when the big opportunities are in Open Source. A fact that many of the more leading schools like MIT and Stanford understand but sadly our local schools do not.

    • December 3, 2012 11:09 pm

      I fear they will never catch up.

      • Mark Harvard permalink
        December 12, 2012 9:08 am

        He is correct about one thing. It IS a numbers thing. When my girlfriend (now wife) asked me a few years ago to help her with her computer course at Montevallo, I agreed. I pulled out of helping when she told me that they were being forced to design websites in Microsoft Word. Apparently the college had a deal and that was all they were allowed to use. I told her I couldn’t help her.

        As far as colleges and being in “catch up” mode, that is very true. When I was at UA, the communications school was horribly out of date with their tech. The stuff the classes were being taught on had not been used in the actual industry in years. At the time I was working in radio in Birmingham and would just do my homework there in the Cox studios until the instructor caught on and made me stop because she said I had an unfair advantage over my classmates.

      • December 12, 2012 5:48 pm

        “Unfair” advantage? Using your brain?? Sigh.

  2. December 3, 2012 2:38 pm

    i know of a large number of workshops that are taught, not by the person who does social media for an agency, but by the person who supervises them and who has a more visible presence… decisions by any government agency are not just about money but about what looks good on paper.

    • December 3, 2012 11:09 pm

      I’ll save my rant on poor decision making for another post.

  3. December 4, 2012 9:17 am

    I hear where you’re coming from Wade. Universities don’t usually find many faculty with my unique background.

    I first began engaging online in 1991, when I joined Prodigy and got involved in several online communities (bulletin boards, in those days) who were big fans of the Go-Go’s and the 60s TV show the Avengers. We moved the Go-Go’s communities across several online networks over the ensuing years. In 1999 I reversed engineered websites to learn HTML and built a website devoted to the Go-Go’s and The Avengers ( I shared videos I edited and created, along with other content, and the site was a huge success. I’ll spare the reason why the site came to an end (wasn’t my fault, at least not directly). I was also doing freelance writing in those years, including about 6 months created content for an industrial manufacturing portal. When YouTube came along, I posted two of my videos there and they each had nearly 30K views before I pulled the videos last winter.

    I was on Facebook in days. I would’ve been on Twitter in 2007 but couldn’t be active online during a 2-year window due to employer restrictions at the time (that employer no longer has those same types of restrictions).

    So I feel like I have an innate understanding of the social web, social credibility, as well as 15+ years of real, practical business experience as a business transactional lawyer. And I have a Ph.D. with half my course work in organizational management and org comm (business school courses) and half in media/mass communication theory.

    I’m lucky that I got to create and teach the course. Students from the first section have sent emails and more about how they have jobs now specifically because of the course and the detailed instruction they received in social strategy, analytics and tools. One of the businesses for whom we created a social plan wrote a letter to the Business School Dean praising the class (some business students were in my JMC-based course).

    As much as I love social media now, it’s hard to maintain the very active presence that I’d like to maintain and fulfill all the daily responsibilities of teaching, research and service. But I think I do a pretty decent job, without automating my social presence.

    I appreciate your taking the time to visit several of my classes, by the way, to talk about social media topics and more. We need more professionals who are willing to contribute to higher ed. I certainly couldn’t do what I do without the assistance of amazing resources like you (and many others in the Birmingham community).

  4. Chandler permalink
    December 6, 2012 10:59 pm

    I actually took this course with Dr. X this summer. Although his knowledge and expertise with social media is minimal, the class did expose us to different forms of technology. As part of this class we were required to create a social media campaign plan for imaginary companies. My group developed a plan that used Facebook, Twitter and a blog to reach our audiences. In addition to the social media plan, we were taught how to make QR codes. I am twenty-two years old and had no idea how to create one. Although this may not seem significant, I am thankful that he showed us how simple it is to connect people to the digital world. The class was not created to strictly focus on social media. In fact, this is an issue that the students discussed with Dr. X throughout the summer semester. We discussed changing the name of the course and also the curriculum.

    I understand that he may not be the “best” instructor for this course due to his lack of social media experience, but he is the ONLY instructor in the department that took the initiative to teach it. He understands that social media is rapidly becoming a significant part of our society. Your post is slightly negative and may discourage older generations to learn how to effectively use social media.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, though.

    • December 6, 2012 11:26 pm

      Thanks, Chandler.

      While it is admirable that he stepped forward to teach it, I could step forward to teach heart surgery, despite my obvious lack of qualifications.

      I don’t want to discourage anyone from learning to use social media. I do however strongly discourage those who haven’t learned it from teaching it. Practicing with a classroom full of paying students is educational malpractice.

      • Anonymous permalink
        December 7, 2012 12:15 am

        No problem at all.

        I agree with you, though. I do believe that professors teaching a social media class should be familiar with it. I hope the department itself will truly evaluate what students need to learn in order to succeed. It would help if each professor was on board with social media. I truly admire your passion for social media and communication!

  5. Anonymous permalink
    December 11, 2012 7:43 am

    To Much self promoting in Mr Kwon’s rant. To reach people and improve situations, its better to approach with helpful suggestions instead of a blunderbuss.


    • December 11, 2012 2:20 pm

      Self-promotion? On my own company blog? Heavens above, who’da thunk it?

      Helpful suggestion: Don’t use unqualified instructors to teach courses for credit.

      Helpful suggestion: Students, vet your instructors before signing up.

      Helpful suggestion: Caveat emptor.


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