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September 9, 2010, 06:00 PM ET

A Social-Media Blackout at Harrisburg U.

Professors have experimented with assigning technology fasts for their students—by discouraging gadget use for five days, for example, or rewarding extra credit for a semester without Facebook

Harrisburg University of Science and Technology is going one step further with a “social-media blackout.” Starting Monday, the Pennsylvania institution will block Facebook, Twitter, AOL Instant Messenger, and MySpace on the campus network for a week. Faculty and staff members will be affected as well as students.

“Telling students to imagine a time before Facebook is like telling them to imagine living in a world with dinosaurs,” said Eric D. Darr, Harrisburg’s executive vice president and provost. “It’s not real. What we’re doing is trying to make it real.”

By blocking Web sites—instead of just discouraging use—the university will give its entire community a shared experience, Mr. Darr said. He insisted the restricted access wasn't censorship.

“We’re not denying students, staff, and faculty the right to connect to Facebook since the university network is only one avenue to get to these sites,” he said. “They can drive down the road to a place with wireless if they really want.”

David Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas, has run several social-media fasts in his classes, where his students study such media. Because social media has become so common in the lives of students, he said, it can be harder for them to see how to advance the technology beyond its conventional uses. Asking students to choose to refrain for a short period of time can help them discover more productive uses for the media, he has found.

But Mr. Parry thinks Harrisburg’s approach may be a little heavy-handed: a top-down action on behalf of the university, he argues, as opposed to something done in the context of a college class devoted to the study of social media.

He also pointed out that many modern students get a lot of emotional support from the Internet, such as by instant messaging loved ones in faraway countries.

“Experiments like these are more productive when people make the decision to give up technologies,” Mr. Parry said. “I don’t think blocking access is going to accomplish what the original goal is but instead will drive people to think of ways to go around the system.”

Mr. Darr said his hope is that people would opt to not do that, but instead would take the week to reflect on outside-the-box ways to use social media—such as for entrepreneurship or political advocacy.

“We really want in the end for everyone to see how they can use social media in a more positive and efficient way, whatever that means to them,” he said.


1. phdeviate - September 09, 2010 at 06:26 pm

Interesting approach. It seems, however, much more likely to separate the haves from the have nots. I think “They can drive down the road to a place with wireless if they really want.” suggests that all students have cars and laptops. More and more universities are providing laptops to incoming students, but I haven't heard of a movement to provide cars yet. It seems that there's a real danger that Harrisburg will communicate the message: "Students with means can avoid our policies, and students without means have to submit to our technological whims."

2. billdrew - September 09, 2010 at 07:47 pm

Heavy handed and dumb in my mind. Ridiculous actually

3. arrive2__net - September 09, 2010 at 08:12 pm

It seems like a lot of students with smart phones with internet access, or other wireless access will be able to get around it easily. Would they cut off phone service so students can learn about phone service ... or block TV so they can learn about TV? Maybe if they cut it out for a day...it could be like a long moment of silence, but going for a week just seems like creating a nuisance.

Students may really value social media more after an experience like that, social media could become more of a guilty pleasure than it already it. I think the main effect may be the students may play more sports and get a little more exercise. They are taking away some of the students autonomy, which may be a greater harm than whatever the theoretical benefit there may be.

Bernard Schuster

4. gladiamincorporate - September 09, 2010 at 08:49 pm

I love it. And I agree with Bernard. I am in corporate so I had to laugh at what I assume are the academic cry babies who live off tax payer dollars and donor dollars and have tenure whine about the have and have nots. Simple search showed that HU is urban so these kids will walk outside (never a bad thing) and log on there. In corporate, YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO FACEBOOK at work. Only academia thinks not doing your job is 'the right thing to do'. I think Parry has a great approach too but he sounds like the typical faculty member with "let the classroom decide." THis would be tied up in committees for years. It is great to see a university try a top down approach for once.

5. lurknlearn - September 09, 2010 at 11:03 pm

phdeviate: HU is a laptop campus. All students MUST have laptops to attend there, and are required to bring their laptops to every class. There aren't even any general use computer labs anywhere on campus.

6. downes - September 10, 2010 at 06:54 am

Maybe they don't understand that those students and staff who can afford them will simply use their iPhones or Palm Pres to access the sites through mobile wireless.

7. diacriticalschwa - September 10, 2010 at 07:33 am

@gladiamincorporate: As a card carrying academic cry baby, I am gladurincorporate2. Keep those donor dollars coming.

8. dpn33 - September 10, 2010 at 08:28 am

someone at Harrisburg should look more closely at the research that discusses how and why this generation uses Facebook. Check out the work of Danah Boyd and others. I doubt students will "learn" anything and will create workarounds anyway. And feel annoyed at their school.Stupid on a whole lot of levels.

9. browner - September 10, 2010 at 09:46 am

This is going to sell a lot of smart phones, as the "have nots" see the "haves" checking their facebook accounts on their phones.

10. brethansen - September 10, 2010 at 10:03 am

It is not a good recruiting tool. In a time where schools are spending money to make sure their infrastructure appeals to the technologies the current batch of students use, HU is saying, not here. Maybe they don't have a need to recruit and HU.

11. kbshea - September 10, 2010 at 10:32 am

It would be great to have a follow up article on the results. The topic of finding more productive uses for social networking should be an active dialogue in my opinion for higher ed and others.

12. tothc - September 10, 2010 at 11:08 am

His "study" is non-sensical for so many reasons, some mentioned above.

Moreover, I would like to see the IRB approval! There is no way a surprise study on an entire university population would have been approved. Darr is clearly using his power as an administrator and doesn't know the first thing about conducting ethical research.

13. bmljenny - September 10, 2010 at 11:09 am

And what of groups - students or otherwise - using these tools for business? Twitter in particular is used by things like sensors transmitting data, class feedback. OTOH if my university forced me off email for a week that would be quite helpful!

14. carolyn_guertin - September 10, 2010 at 11:15 am

As someone who teaches digital media, uses iPads in my classes and has course Facebook pages, I confess that Harrisburg U's thinking and approach entirely baffles me. What is it that they find so disturbing about Web 2.0 sites that is not contained elsewhere on the Web? Are they trying to take their students back to a Web 1.0 world? And, even if that made any sense, why is the Web more acceptable to them than social media? I don't understand what lesson the students are supposed to learn from this or what critical inquiry will follow it up. It doesn't seem to be tied to any class, activity, learning experience or even a plan that has been thought through. If you turn off the light on plants for a week, they'll wither, but have they learned something from the experience? A top-down act of denial teaches nothing and is tyrannical--like book burning. Surely we should expect more from our educators?

15. emerson1 - September 10, 2010 at 11:24 am

Whether you're a fan/devotee of social media or not (which I'm not) attempting to block access to social media sites for a week is an ill-conveived idea that would serve no useful purpose, even if it could be accomplished, which it can't.

16. navydad - September 10, 2010 at 11:26 am

Great idea, but it doesn't go far enough. I humbly suggest that the Luddites who came up with this plan force students to give up:

cars, telephones, television, running water, flush toilets, ballpoint pens, copy machines, internet access, computers, musical devices (maybe they can have hand cranked phonographs),

Oh what the heck, let's make it simple: just cut off power to the campus for a week.

17. 11272784 - September 10, 2010 at 11:27 am

All the institution is going to do is create a lot of heartburn. This REALLY falls into the category of trying to hold back the tides. The lack of thought and understanding behind this decision is absolutely staggering!

While they're at it, are there any popular novels they's like to burn? It would be just as effective in promoting right-thinking and good study habits.

18. cb_10 - September 10, 2010 at 11:45 am

It's censorship, whether they admit it or not. Blocking an avenue to certain content is censorship, whether or not they can get it wireless. What's next, seeing how students do without certain political sites?

I strongly suspect that the originators of the plan either don't use or have some animus to the networks that are being blocked. Maybe they should do without their print media subscriptions and television during the same period of time, for the sake of fairness and comraderie?

19. jgatten - September 10, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Maybe they should ban library books deemed to be frivolous distractions so students can reflect on better ways to use the print medium, "such as for entrepreneurship or political advocacy."

20. carolyn_guertin - September 10, 2010 at 12:25 pm

This is the world Harrisburg's administrators are trying to keep at bay:

Love or hate technology, it's here to stay--just like the pencil, paper and flush toilets (as someone mentioned earlier). Pretending the university is a cloister in this day and age is not just unrealistic, it does a disservice to our students' futures. They need strategies to critique technology's ubiquity, not edicts to ban it.

21. itschronicle - September 10, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I've read and re-read this and am not sure what this one-week 'experience experiment' has as its purpose. It doesn't seem to be a social experiement (if it was, was it approved by the university's human subjects process?); it instead seems to be an experiment to see how the community will react to this withdrawal of access as perhaps a precursor to a more permanent blocking. It is censorship. I mean, people in China ... they can just travel across the ocean to America if they want access to things their leaders don't want them to have! Well, not to this campus in Pennsylvania apparently ....

22. chattahoochee - September 10, 2010 at 01:13 pm

Just silly.

23. daveparry - September 10, 2010 at 01:25 pm

Since I am quoted in the article, I thought I would link to my article about this: http://academhack.outsidethetext.com/home/2010/social-media-fasts/

Basically Harrisburg is making a social and psychological ask not a technological one. Social media fasts are a good idea but only when done with some forethought.

24. thirtyeyes - September 10, 2010 at 01:31 pm

They can gather at the end of the week and burn a Qur'an or a bible.

25. walkerst - September 10, 2010 at 02:09 pm

Talk about a clueless action. So many students have other ways to get to the applications, as has been pointed out. But one thing that hasn't been pointed out is that many libraries now use social networking sites to reach students. So do college communications offices. This has proven to be one of the most effective ways to reach students to invite them to certain types of events in the library where I work; we also occasionally use social networking sites for reference service. I guess Harrisburg isn't taking advantage of any of these options.

26. urspider - September 10, 2010 at 02:33 pm

How large are HU classes? If the perceived problem is "goofing off" in a class small enough to police, I have a simple solution: any student with a laptop must send notes to the prof after class. I've begun that this year.

I no longer teach in a lab unless the topic and assignments (say, making digital videos) demand it.

Personally, that laptop-in-class mandate would make me say "shut the laptops, class, unless you are taking notes and then you have to send them to me." Are HU faculty evaluated on how effectively students use the laptops for classes? If not, it's an empty (and heavy-handed) requirement. Students are too easily distracted by the darned doo-dads and it hurts their ability to think analytically.

I say that as a faculty member who requires blogging and wikis in all classes, video-creation and use of virtual worlds like Second Life in other classes. These technologies have their roles, but mostly my students do the work outside of class.

Finally, but it's not my or my university's business if a student wants to use Facebook after class ends.

27. stevenlberg - September 10, 2010 at 02:44 pm

During the past week in my early modern world course, I incorporated the sermon that the Reverend David Grant Smith preached last Sunday as St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Pen Yan, New York.

My students and I have been communicating with the Reverend Smith--sometimes during class--via Facebook. Not only have students been able to see the discussion on facebook that lead up to the sermon, but some have decided to independently contact the Reverend Smith via Facebook to continue the discussion.

Yesterday, during class, we used Facebook to contact Christopher Bargeron in St. Paul/Minneapolis as we began reading an article he just published. Communication with Mr. Bargeron will continue on Facebook during the next week. I will show Mr. Bargeron's Facebook page in class so that students can see his response to our class posting as well as other people's comments that might appear as well.

While there are problems with some uses of Facebook, I am not convinced that a social media blackout is a viable way to acoomplish Harrisberg University's goals. I am convinced that my students would have had a much poorer learning experience had my college instituted a "social media blackout" during the past week.

Steven L. Berg, PhD
Associate Professor of English and History
Schoolcraft College


The Reverend Smith's seron that was taught to help students understand how to approach texts, to learn about scholarly discourse, to see a model of scholarly cooperation, and to see that scholars can disagree withoutbeing disagreeable can be found at:

"'Minority Report:' A Sermon for the Fifteen Sunday after Pentecost"

28. etandrews - September 11, 2010 at 03:51 am

What, pray tell, is so appalling about returning the minds of our students to an era when it took a little more time and a little more thought before you could reach another person? I see no danger at all in asking the students to quiet their cell phones and their laptops for a week--the internet will still be there when they return!

How many of you writing here remember a time before the instant gratification of social media? Every year our students are more and more of an age that they have never known a world without it. Let them turn off the lights! Have our power failures done us any harm? Let's not forget the particular pleasure in reading by candlelight. The iPhone isn't the newest pencil technology--the electric world is an entirely new beast that all of us are still grasping to understand.

If your ideal of education consists of peer stimulation, then by all means, don't have a blackout. But if you're interested in what the students can discover in themselves, independently, then why not simply provide them with a chance to travel for a time to a different world, with a different peace, in a different time.

29. walterecurtis - September 11, 2010 at 01:11 pm

All comments considered, I have the same question as itschronicle. It is not clear at all what what the university's goal is. Without a clear goal, how will anyone know whether it is achieved or not? If there is a goal that has not been clearly communicated, the results will surely reflect that. If there is a clear goal linked to learning something positive, the students will find a way, with or without technology, to achieve it. We older folks need to stop underestimating young folks' understanding of the world and its current insistence on "bottom line everything." If the goal is linked to control or corporatism, then I would have to surmise that that is the reason it has not been clearly communicated ... and a sure foundation for non-achievement.

30. iiehouston - September 14, 2010 at 09:17 am

How aboslutely narrow minded and ignorant of the university to do this. Social media has so many purposes these days including job searching and professional networking. The university has gone way too far and is attempting to micromanage the activities of students in a totally inappropriate way. Shame on them.

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