Can Greater Social Connections Improve Higher Education?

I’ve written about my interest in the potential of social media to improve higher education before, and as one of the members of the SMCEDU Board of Advisors, I want to help increase awareness among colleges and universities in how social media can help improve the quality of education and why students should be learning the business applications of social media in college. That’s why when I saw that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently invested $2 million in a Facebook app to improve post-secondary education, I knew that I had to find out more about this app and how it might help further the SMCEDU mission.

Created by Inigral Inc., the Schools App allows you to create a private, branded social network for your students within Facebook that will engage them in ways that Pages and Groups can’t.  It leverages the connected power of Facebook’s social graph with the added functionality of creating “lighter” relationships — that is, connections that don’t require friending each other — centered around common hubs like interests, classes, or programs. I got an opportunity to talk with Inigral CEO, Michael Staton about the Schools app, the $2M in funding, and his vision for the future of higher education. Below is our Q&A.  [note: Neither my company or I have any financial interest in Inigral or the Schools App – I am writing this solely from the perspective of an SMCEDU Advisory Board member]

SR: First of all, I just want to say that I absolutely LOVE the idea of the Schools App – college students have been self-organizing on Facebook, and MySpace before that, for years before classes actually started. It was only logical that a platform would emerge that would make this easier and “official.” Can you give me an overview of the advantages that the Schools App provides over the self-organization that typically occurs?

MS: I like to use analogies with physical spaces for this.  When people look into building a Student Union or Student Center, do people ask themselves – well, aren’t people already hanging out on the campus green?  The answer is: sure they are.  But if you made spaces for people to effectively congregate, hold meetings, and access information and services that would be more effective for the institution than just letting people hang out on the campus green. Students self organize on Facebook all the time.  That’s great.  There’s two issues though –

  1. Institutions have no way to monitor or further facilitate that organization and that kind of activity, even though they’re starting to understand that engaging online is important to student engagement and retention.
  2. Facebook isn’t focused on organizations like universities.  Facebook’s objective is to get everyone on the planet on Facebook and then advertise to them.  To keep them engaged, they make features that help people connect, but they choose what their priorities are – and right now Higher Education isn’t even on their radar.  Pages are great for brands to push out information.  Groups are great for small groups of people to share and communicate.  Community Pages are mainly good for Facebook’s attack on Google search and Wikipedia search results.

So, we’re the only company that’s asking ourselves “How can we engage students around their college and academic experience through Facebook, how can we drive student involvement, how can we make sure that students are getting issues resolved?  Let’s make sure that students are getting connected and involved in ways that help them succeed and graduate.”  So, our design goals are different, our products are different.

SR: But why is it so important for students to get connected and involved with other students? What impact does that have on things like grades, graduation rates, student satisfaction, etc.?

MS: Research by ACT has demonstrated that three of the top five reasons students drop out are social in nature – they didn’t feel like they fit in, they didn’t get involved, or they didn’t have a supportive group of friends.  What the direct impact of a great foundation of friendships has is unmeasurable and elusive, but everybody knows theres an ROI in giving students a great experience, and that a lot of the college experience is in the relationships students make with one another.

SR: What are the biggest challenges that the schools that adopt the Schools App face?  Is it getting people to log on and contribute? Is it typical Internet behavior (bullying/trolling/flaming), etc.?  Is it maintaining engagement once school starts?

MS: In general, our clients’ hope their Schools App is a self-sustaining and self-regulating community.  And, for the most part, it is.  They run into issues when they try to approach it like “administrative” software, as if it’s going to work precisely within their business workflow.  It doesn’t.  It just does it’s own thing.  They also feel like somehow this is “competitive” with Pages that have sprouted up, been promoted, and are generating traction.  But, it’s not competitive.  This is a space for students to connect, meet one another, communicate, and share.  Saying that a Schools App is competitive with a Fan Page is like saying the Student Center is competitive with the Football Stadium.

SR: What kinds of services does Inigral offer – is it just the platform and maintenance, or do you offer professional services like community management and user adoption as well?

We make sure that students are adopting the Schools App, and we do some best practices sharing within our Customer Success services.  Customer Service and Technical Support are available with our annual agreement.

SR: You just received $2 million from the Gates Foundation – how are you going to use that funding?

We’re going to make the product even more useful throughout the student lifecycle, and make cutting edge developments in converting online engagement into off-line involvement.  We’ll use these advancements to contribute and lead the dialog on how to better measure and predict the types of social integration that lead to retention and graduation outcomes.

SR: Where do you see the Schools App going from here? I can see tons of potential for integrating this into classes to enable collaborative note-taking and enhance group projects; I can see clubs and sports teams using it to help coordinate meetings/work collaboratively, etc.  I can also see a lot cross-over application beyond the world of higher education – any thought to leveraging this sort of thing for other groups (churches, community groups, etc.)?

MS: We’re solely focused on education.  We believe there’s enough there to fulfill a lifetime.  Higher Education alone is a $400 billion dollar market, with Lifecycle engagement representing a $7 billion dollar a year effort by our nation’s institutions.  Right now, we’re focused on issues around student engagement and connectedness, and we’re staying away from “transactional” and “management” problems.  There’s lots of technologies that (no matter how poorly) help manage office  information.  Over the next four months, we’re imagining better ways to facilitate interactions across siloes and make sure that students start school with a supportive and diverse group of friends.  We’re imagining better ways to match roommates, organize study groups, foster academic advising and peer-to-peer mentorship. In the next nine months, we’re also exploring ways we can be even more important to the student recruitment process.  We want to get a schools most enthusiastic students to be a part of the recruitment process online, and give prospects a window into the student experience.  In addition, we’ve been dreaming about how to better collect student experiences and work, so that as our users graduate we remain something they come back to as young alumni.

SR: Let’s say I’m a student, faculty member, professional advisor, or administrative staff and I think the Schools App is something that my college or university should be using – what’s my next step? Who at the University should I go talk with? The Director of Residence Life? The Dean of Admissions?  And, do you have any sort of ready-made presentation that I can use to advocate for the Schools App with these people?

MS: We’ve found that the VP of Enrollment Management and the person in Admissions in charge of interactive marketing and social media are our best allies.  It’s a no-brainer for them  – we optimize yield on Facebook and make a great hand off to the Student Affairs crew.  We’ve also found that Presidents, believe it or not, sometimes immediately see that this is a long-run move to make the institution more successful and tighten the community.  When the President has gotten involved, we’ve had decisions to move forward in ten minutes. Lots of other people can be our allies, but we’ve found that getting too many people involved can create a sense of indecision – almost like there are too many moving parts to know if they should be moving forward.  So, limiting the conversation to leadership and admissions is the best way to approach it.

For more information about Inigral and their Schools App:

For more information about SMCEDU, make sure you check out:

, , , , , , , , , ,

About sradick

I’m Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh.

Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

View all posts by sradick