Social climbers

Implementing Facebook, Twitter and other social media in higher education isn’t as simple as it seems, as Luke Evans discovers

Back in February 2010, a blog called Three Word Chant stumbled across an article from the 27 February 1995 issue of Newsweek. The article, entitled ‘Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana’, written by US astronomer Clifford Stoll, was a polemic against those who felt that the new World Wide Web held the potential for great things. Among the many embarrassing quotes in the article, one still stands out: “Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee.”

For a long time, Stoll was right about the isolation of ‘network chat’, where computer users would stare at their screens waiting for messages to load one word at a time. But in the world of social media and smartphones, ‘network chat’ is more engaging than ever, and it’s easy to see why: normal people can create content, share it and talk about it with anyone, anywhere.

From a business standpoint, however, social media’s big draw lies in the data, where metrics and web analytics allow content creators to study exactly how users engage with their work. Despite this, finding the right way to use these statistics can be tough. Earlier this year, internet marketing company Coldlime ranked universities based on their Twitter ‘Social Authority’ score, which takes into account retweets, name mentions, recent activity and follower ratio. While this is great for measuring Twitter presence, it ignores the question of content, with no focus on whether the tweets are being used for promotion, student engagement or teaching purposes. Meanwhile, undergraduate advice website the unipod ranked universities by subscribers and followers on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and found Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics and Political Science at the top. These results are useful for giving a rough idea of market reach, but it’s not as if we need web analytics to know about the power of the Russell Group.

“More important than gauging student engagement with metrics at this point is designing activities which are truly engaging and creative for the students who choose to engage with them,” says Professor Dave Smith. A member of the University of York’s Department of Chemistry, Smith won a National Teaching Fellowship award from the Higher Education Academy (HEA) for his work on YouTube, using the website to create educational videos for both his chemistry students and the general public. In turn, he also lets students create their own videos as part of an assessed presentation. “Over the past four years, over one hundred York chemistry students have made YouTube videos and published them on their own channels – these videos have also attracted viewers worldwide, so the educated become global educators in their own right.” 


Meanwhile, his colleague, Dr Paul Clarke, won a York University Student Union ‘Innovative Teaching’ award for his use of Twitter hashtags to create a feed of questions, comments, retweets and competitions to augment his lectures. “Using a hashtag feed associated with a lecture course is an effective way by which students can be connected to relevant linked content and can also help provide a voice to some students who may be less happy to speak up verbally in class itself,” says Smith.

As for Facebook, many of those working in digital communications feel that it works neatly in tandem with its competitors. “Twitter and Facebook are different in a lot of ways, most notably the fact that Twitter is a lot more open than Facebook,” says Leon Mallett, the Social and Digital Media Officer at the University of Sheffield. “Consequently Twitter feels a lot more conversational – we have a lot more banter with our staff and students on Twitter than we do on Facebook. On the other hand, Facebook feels a lot more visual and personal – it’s a great way to inspire a sense of community spirit and pride.”

Sheffield was singled out in a 2012 report conducted by social media consultancy group Sociagility on ‘The Transatlantic University Divide’. The report found that it was one of only two UK universities which achieved social media engagement rivalling that of their American counterparts. “On the whole I’d say we’ve been in the ‘early adopters’ bracket of UK universities when it comes to social media,” says Mallett. As with many early adopters, Sheffield’s social media team started out on Twitter in 2009, with Facebook and YouTube accounts following shortly after. In the last few years, they’ve been expanding their services onto LinkedIn and Sina Weibo, a Chinese social media platform which holds incredible promise for universities looking to engage with students from across the world. “[Joining Weibo] was actually instigated by one of our students who came to us with a proposal, and it’s been a really successful venture for us since then,” says Mallett. “For us social media is all about being social, and engaging people, more than it is about collecting large numbers of followers. […] Despite us posting about half as much content as a few other similar-sized universities, we tend to get quite a bit more engagement.”

New, content-focused platforms

University College London (UCL) also took on the triumvirate of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in 2009, but they’ve increasingly been looking at ways to harness newer content-focused platforms. “We’ve been blown away by people’s response to our SoundCloud channel, which now has over 500,000 followers,” says John Burnett, the Acting Head of Digital Communications, Communications and Marketing at UCL. “The attributes of the different channels, and the audiences that use them, have informed our segmentation and content strategies.” While their Flickr account is full of media-ready images of events, the Instagram account captures smaller moments of life on campus. Meanwhile, their Soundcloud account covers everything from music and comedy podcasts to lectures and debates, along with plenty of shared content created by their students and other universities.

Whereas social media engagement outside the classroom has moved quickly, getting faculty members to use social media for teaching isn’t always easy. “One of our challenges is colleagues starting social media accounts without a defined audience or purpose,” says Burnett. “These accounts soon fizzle out, creating a poor impression for people who stumble across them.” At both UCL and York, they’ve introduced templates and guides to help their faculty with a few steps for joining social media. The University of Edinburgh, meanwhile, will be trying out a new step for this academic year with their ‘Managing Your Digital Footprint’ campaign. “The project is unusual for its scope, bringing together academic departments, support services and EUSA, the Edinburgh University Students Association,” says Nicola Osborne, Social Media Officer with EDINA, the University’s Jisc-designated centre for digital expertise and online service delivery. “The accompanying research project will help us to gain a much clearer picture of existing practice in these spaces, and help us to identify opportunities for teaching and learning, and potential support needs going forward.”

Edinburgh have been very willing to experiment with teaching on new platforms, taking to iTunes U in 2009, joining the online virtual world Second Life in 2007, and running Coursera MOOCs in early 2013. Osborne feels that the slow growth of social media in academia is due to faculty concerns over privacy. “Social media spaces are often semi or wholly public by nature, which can be […] challenging,” says Osborne. “In theory there should be nothing special about social media,” she says. “However, in practice social media can still feel more risky for so many reasons, not least because postings and presences can be both inconveniently unstable (and often difficult to archive), and also inconveniently permanent and visible. Students also move onto new social media tools and apps quickly.”

In that sense, universities will have to continue finding ways to effectively use existing websites and apps while remaining on the lookout for newer innovations. Over at York, Head of Digital Marketing and Communications Alison Kerwin is looking forward to making the most of professional networking. “I certainly feel LinkedIn has more potential for current students and alumni engagement so I can see us working with this more in the future. We’re also monitoring Google+, as we feel this has a lot of potential – particularly for internal communications, as we run Google Apps.” 

Too much sharing?

UCL, meanwhile, are seeing a slight downturn in performance with certain platforms. Nick Dawe, the University’s Digital Media Manager, wrote a post earlier this spring about the slow engagement uptake on Google+. His colleague Burnett also sees some issues with the monetisation of other platforms. “We have noticed that Facebook reach has decreased slightly, despite increased likes and shares – likely due to the company’s escalating efforts to make money from it.”

The issue of how to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of social media feeds into the larger issue facing all internet-age academia: Is it better to share and experiment, risking academic reputation and security in the process, or is it worth creating more secure, yet private, systems? The popularity of social media is often due to its use by young people still in education – Facebook was, after all, the work of a few Harvard undergraduates. Going forward, then, faculty members should continue playing close attention to how their students create and engage with so much content on such a plethora of platforms.

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