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.