How to use higher education’s ‘new toy’: Social media

EDUCAUSE panelists encouraged attendees to search for social media staff on campus.
EDUCAUSE panelists encouraged attendees to search for social media staff on their own campus.

Campus technology officials in charge of social media efforts have come to a consensus: There are no social media experts, so keep experimenting with your school’s tweeting, linking, and posting until you’ve struck the right balance.

Using social media to communicate with students in the online arenas they most prefer—Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter—was a focal point at the annual EDUCAUSE conference in Anaheim, Calif., where 6,700 campus technology staff came together this week to discuss the latest in educational technology.

Robin Bradford Smail, known as a disruptive technologist at Penn State University, said during an Oct. 12 EDUCAUSE session that campus technology officials have to find and maintain a balance between being passive on Facebook and bombarding students with constant posts.

A campus is considered passive, Bradford Smail said, when the staff in charge of social media initiatives are monitoring their profiles 80 percent of the time and measuring their results—clicks and “likes”—during the remaining time.

Colleges are considered responsive when they limit Facebook monitoring to 60 percent, spending 20 percent of their time responding to student requests and comments and 20 percent measuring results.

The goal for institutions, she said, should be to monitor the school’s Facebook page half the time while incorporating a new element: initiating Facebook conversations and distributing original content that could make the college’s page a regular stop for students.

“You have to let them know that you’re interested in what they have to say,” Bradford Smail said. “Social media, at this point, is still the new toy [in higher education]. … It sort of sputters out if you don’t give it enough information and dedicate enough time to it.”

Engaging students with Facebook posts that could start a chain of comments is key for burgeoning college Facebook pages, but posting too often to the platform could drive students away, she said.

Any more than 15 Facebook posts a week, she said, “and you’re just talking to yourself.”

Three educational technology officials who have headed social media projects spoke to a packed session Oct. 13 at EDUCAUSE focused on the 10 best ways to use Twitter and Facebook in college.

Shannon Ritter, admissions coordinator at Penn State, told the crowd of more than 100 that universities waste time and money when they recruit social media “gurus” to help establish a Twitter and Facebook presence designed to lure students.

“There are very likely people in your departments [who are] already passionate about what they do with social media,” she said. “Look for the people already using it, and trust that they know what they’re doing.”

Ritter added: “There are no social media experts. Anyone who tells you that—they are lying to you.”

Tanya Joosten, interim associate director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Learning Technology Center, said colleges have embraced popular social media sites largely because eMail has fallen out of favor with students.

“Students simply don’t use it,” Joosten said. And research suggests she’s right: Only 11 percent of teenagers use eMail daily, according to a study released in April by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Trial and error, the EDUCAUSE panelists agreed, was the most reliable way to form a social media approach that could be maintained by a small educational technology staff.

AJ Kelton, director of Emerging Instructional Technology at Montclair State University in New Jersey, said campus technology staff would quickly find out that a robust social media presence is rarely measured in dollars spent on online undertakings.

“The biggest cost is the time it takes to do it properly,” Kelton said, adding that it could take weeks or months to learn student patterns of posting and commenting to Twitter and Facebook. “You have to learn the culture … and that’s hard to teach.”

Cross-posting to Facebook and Twitter simultaneously—using sites that allow posting to both platforms without jumping back and forth—could damage colleges’ social media reputation among students who can spot inauthentic posts, the panelists said.

For instance, a cross-post might be addressed to “our Twitter friends,” with the same text showing up on Facebook.

“Cross posting could be a problem and … not genuine, because you can alienate people,” Ritter said.

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