Higher education as a social media space

One of the things I have discovered over the past couple of years is that if I want to have an online exchange of views with students, I really must not choose email. As far as I can tell, students rarely read their email these days, and if they do it is perhaps once a week. It is not an effective, and certainly not an instant, medium. On the other hand, if I try to reach them on social media sites such as Facebook, the results are instant, and while the social networking slang is informal and irreverent, the quality of any exchange there is far better than you could get by any other means.

What should we conclude from this? First, we should be aware (as I am sure most of us are) that social networking is the main forum of choice for electronic interaction by most young people; if you want to find them, that’s where you have to go. I occasionally look at Facebook sites that have been set up for ‘official’ purposes by universities, and usually I am shocked at how bad they are, looking like a formal suit grouped awkwardly with the jeans. Secondly, we need to look again at how we build our online teaching presence and what kind of ‘look and feel’ we create there. We need to capture the social networking idiom for this.

As young people weave their way through online fashions, they have opened up a greater cultural gap between themselves and their higher education teachers than has, arguably, ever existed before. Academics need to bridge this gap if they are to be properly credible to their student audience – and it’s not necessarily an easy task. But it’s a task we must address.

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9 Comments on “Higher education as a social media space”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Given the significant privacy issues associated with social media, I think universities need to think very carefully before they begin using them to communicate with students individually (general announcements are one thing, individual messages are quite another). I’ve just sent detailed assessment feedback and final marks to a class of students via college email – I would be very unwise to do so via a social media site.

    Instead, I think that email should simply be added to the list of things students often don’t like/aren’t yet used to doing (being punctual, being organised, using their initiative), yet which they need to learn during college as a vital preparation for the adult and working world. It’s not going anywhere in the working world generally, why should it disappear for college students?

    • wendymr Says:

      Absolutely ditto to this, Jilly. Email is the tool of choice in the workplace. Yes, some workplaces might also use instant messaging, but for different purposes. Email has become, in many contexts, the replacement for formal memos. This year I even received my employment contract as a .pdf in my email, rather than being given a paper copy once it had been signed.

      Just as you say, it’s one of those work habits that employers expect people to possess. If educational institutions indulge students by using their social networking site of choice, then they’re doing students a disservice.

      (And if one must use social networking websites at all – and, yes, I know the institutional Facebook page is now inescapable, though I refuse to get a personal Facebook account – why not also introduce students to LinkedIn?)

    • Jilly, I should emphasise that I was definitely not suggesting that we use Facebook to do university business with students. I was more thinking about the kind of interface that social networking sites use, and to build on that in our own systems.

  2. peoplestring Says:

    I think Jilly knocked this out of the park. She is right on

  3. Niamh Says:

    I agree with Jill – a question though, are you using their university email to try to contact them? In my experience these tend to only get weekly emails of little or no interest to the students and rarely anything they actually need to read, so you’re lucky if they even check them once a week. Most students will have at least one other email account that they check more frequently. It’s not like when I started college, and a lot people were only getting familiar with email for the first time when they got there.

    I think there are some possible solutions to this problem:

    1. Use the students’ own email addresses. One of the arguments I’ve heard against this is that the university isn’t sure of the identity, a strange one I think. I’d be more worried about emails lapsing/bouncing etc.

    2. The Facebook option – but as Jill points out there are all sorts of security and privacy issues there. Also, that lack of control by university IT thing is still there.

    3. Use university email – but make it worth checking more frequently. I’m not sure how you would do that, maybe more course-related emails, notes sent by email? But then you’re getting into what the VLE is for.

    4. I’ve suggested this before and it makes perfect sense to me – just use the VLE! This is where course-related info should usually be, so make it a one-stop shop for all the students need to access. I don’t know which one DCU uses, but Moodle includes a mail function within it. You can also include an information board for the library and links to other university services the student is likely to need/want.

    I think there is a major problem with people having too many places to check when they go online. Make it easier for them by just having one university-related source of information.

  4. Conor Galvin Says:

    Wouldn’t touch Facebook as a teaching / learning platform – for all the reasons mentioned above and because it is in their space, not mine.

    Blackboard is ok as an information storehouse and general notice board but I find it still a bit limited in what it can actually do if you’ve a class group that’s keen to add a digital aspect to their work. But then Moodle is also a bit clunky from a first/ early user perspective so I personally like Google Groups combined with a blogger or wordpress presence (old but still works despite Wave, Google Apps for Ed, Breeze etc!) and use these with my teaching groups. Usually works well.

    Up until recently we’ve often also used Ning. But they are going commercial so that will be the end of that. Another networking site that has a good feel to it is ellg ( http://elgg.org/ ) I think most users find this one intuitive and very well featured. And a site attracting interest in the UK recently is Cloudworks. http://cloudworks.ac.uk/
    Well worth a play, I reckon.

  5. Steve Says:

    You should check out some of Ray Junco’s research on the areas of social networking in the college setting – I did a post on it today actually.

  6. These are all excellent points. As the Social Media Manager at Herzing University, I’ve encouraged participation on facebook by all staff and faculty. I’ve also taken the time to develop a set of guidelines (that our academic advisors need to sign off on) that should be taken into consideration. The most prominent is the need to develop a separate profile for professional use and to set your personal profile to “friends only” on ALL fronts. I would even suggest removing your personal account from the facebook search results. I’ve branded the profile pics on the professional profiles with our logo to further reinforce the fact that it is to be used responsibly as an extension of the institution.

    Being this active on facebook has resulted in a few unexpected outcomes for sure (like how to delete a profile if someone leaves the university), but the benefits have by far outweighed any negative consequences.

    Great points for discussion all!

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