by Jonathan Vandor
I was asked quite recently what I thought about the intersection of social media and higher education. I replied, in full honesty, that while I recognized social media technologies (SMT) like Facebook and Twitter to be powerful tools, my own personal impulse was to back away. I’m not a Millennial, a “digital native” born in the post-internet age—though, like them, I often spend more than eight hours a day being exposed to digital technology. Our students today are predominantly digital natives who are much more comfortable having an online presence, and as an institution, we would be foolish to ignore the potentials of SMT.
We are not, of course, disconnected. The University has a Twitter account, Student Life representatives both tweet and run a Facebook page, and many classes use technology like Blackboard to enhance the classroom experience. And this overlooks the online groups that our students themselves create and use to problem-solve, network, and share.
However, administrators of higher education in North America tend to view one-way communications as the biggest asset of SMT. Yet the medium is the message: if we are treating SMT as interchangeable with “old” media (posters, brochures, mailers, and the like) we could be overlooking valuable opportunities to engage with our students on the issues that matter to them. Despite having over sixteen thousand followers, @UofT’s tweets seem to average only a handful of retweets and likes per item: even though the message is getting out, it isn’t encouraging the active engagement that fosters self-confidence, friendships, and feelings of belonging.
Blackboard-type forums don’t replace real-world engagement, but rather serve to supplement and enhance them. From my own teaching experience, I know it takes a lot of administrative effort to get students involved in the course-specific medium, requiring frequent engagement and multiple reassurances that it is a low-pressure environment. But once both of these tenets are well established, even shy students are willing to get engaged.
So how can SMT supplement and enhance our work in Student Life? While it can be used to disseminate traditional surveys and exit interviews to tell us how we’re performing, in doing so we are faced with another media clash. Anonymity and hierarchy are central tenets of quantitative data collection, while SMT is, well, social: it creates a community of digital identities that might get in the way of honest student feedback. SMT itself, however, can yield lots of qualitative information. We can get massive virtual focus groups if we can convince students that their interests and concerns will be addressed and heard without repercussions. As an extension of the Twitter chats we already run for issues like essay help, we could create and advertise ongoing groups and hashtags in which we facilitate specific conversations with and between our students, learning what works and what is missing from our offerings. Providing useful, directed information along with responses to students’ questions would in itself increase followers and sharing. To extend our digital reach, we should also encourage the students we meet to recommend us to their friends online, while our websites should provide multiple links to related Facebook groups and Twitter threads. More likely than not, our students are already talking about us: we need to join the conversation.
Jonathan Vandor is a Learning Strategist in the Academic Success Centre, University of Toronto