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Harrisburg University’s attempt to block Facebook, Twitter and IMs fails.

By Steve Kolowich,
Inside Higher Ed

The Harrisburg University of Science and Technology made waves last week when it announced it would block access to Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and AOL Instant Messenger from its campus wireless network for one week. The idea was to make students, faculty, and staff reflect on the role social media plays in their lives.

Several days into the “shutdown,” the college’s inability to keep students away from social media is showing.

It was a bold ambition to begin with. Nationwide, 92% of students log into Facebook and spend an average of 147 minutes there per week, according to the Student Monitor. Harrisburg will not have a firm idea of how many students actually abstained from using Facebook and other blocked sites until it does exit surveys and focus groups. But Eric Darr, the provost behind the plan, says that based on his own anecdotal observations, the proportion of students who are actually going cold turkey is probably around 10% or 15%.

Meanwhile, some students have gone to great lengths to foil the university’s attempts to block them from accessing the sites on campus. Darr says he talked to three who hiked three blocks to log into Facebook from the lobby of a nearby hotel. Some particularly tech-savvy students have tried hacking the campus network to get around the block administrators put in place on Monday, says Charles Palmer, director of the university’s Center for Advanced Learning and Entertainment Technologies.

Still, the provost says that even if only a slim percentage of students actually renounce Facebook and Twitter for the week, the project will have been a success, if only because of the conversations it has started. The university never expected full abstinence from students, Darr says, nor was it trying to conduct a scientific experiment. “This extreme media coverage in and of itself is forcing more focus on social media,” he says, noting that he had just gotten off an interview with a radio talk show based in Seattle. “That was the whole point of this in the first place,” he says.

The proposed moratorium, originally reported last week by Inside Higher Ed, spread to some unlikely reaches, including a Latvian news site and NBC‘s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. In his monologue on Monday, Fallon quipped that students assigned to write about the experience might title their essays, “We all have smartphones, dumbass.”

Not all, but some. “The blackout isn’t really that bad,” says Noel Stark, a junior at Harrisburg. “Anyone with a 3G phone can still view these sites on campus.” A number of faculty have also availed themselves of this workaround, says Palmer.

Then there is the fact, omitted from much of the media coverage (including Inside Higher Ed’s), that Harrisburg is nonresidential. Many students live nearby, but not under the umbrella of the campus wireless network. This means that while the college can try to prevent students from accessing social media sites in class, it cannot make students honor the spirit of the project once they get home. And it appears most students are not.

This is not to say the project has failed to inspire reflection. “Direct social interaction (aka the old fashioned face-to-face kind) seems to be increasing this week based on observation,” writes Rene D. Massengale in an e-mail. Massengale, an associate professor of biotechnology, says he has had thoughtful discussions about the project in his class. He says it has affected his interactions outside the classroom as well. “Sometimes I see a student I know with their head out of their PDA or computer, and I have to resist the urge to go introduce myself,” he says. “‘Hi, I’m Dr. Massengale — you know, that person who teaches your class.'”

Students in Harrisburg’s degree programs are required to have laptops, and, perhaps more than at many other colleges, students have their computers open in class. (“We are a paperless school,” says Mehdi Noorbaksh, coordinator of general education at the university.)

“It turns out that a number of them were on Facebook or chatting online,” says Palmer, the educational technologist. “We had one student who said, ‘I guess now I’ll have to pay attention in class.’ ”

“Some like it, some don’t,” says Gio Acosta, a junior. “Some say they’re getting [more] work done; some of them say, ‘I need my Facebook!’ ”

Acosta says he has been feeling the itch himself. Since being blocked from accessing the site on his laptop during class, Acosta has noticed an impulse to browse Facebook every 10 minutes or so. “I don’t know if that’s because it’s restricted, or because it’s part of me right now,” Acosta says.

He says he misses unwinding with Facebook between classes, when he does not have to be following a lecture but is still beholden to the proscriptions of the campus network. And Acosta has found it hard to keep track of his friends like he is used to, since most of them, remarkably, are more responsive to Facebook than to text messages. But while he is in class, the computer and information sciences major says, being barred from Facebook has helped him focus.

Once he gets home at night, though, Acosta says he makes sure to scratch that digital itch. “It’s fair game at home,” he says. “They didn’t make any rules about that.”

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