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Can Greater Social Connections Improve Higher Education?

March 3, 2011

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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:

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Social Media Integration in Higher Education

August 18, 2010

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The following is a guest post by Jen Dryer, a current student at the University of Southern Indiana. I first met Jen at the 2009 PRSA International Conference in San Diego, and was immediately impressed with her enthusiasm and eagerness to learn about the business uses of social media. She, along with Brooks Cooper, have since become the linchpins for integrating social media into the classroom at USI. Given her unique perspective and our mutual interest in all things #SMCEDU, I asked her to write a guest post here on what social media in higher education means to her.

Looking back ten years ago, the thought of social media didn’t even exist. We kept in contact through traditional media like phone calls, e-mails, and sometimes even the good old-fashioned hand-written letter. Company promotions and advertisements were broadcast through television, magazines, billboards and the occasional internet banner. Now, fast forward five years and advertising is now found on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, making everyone’s lives a lot easier. Not only are more websites being created, but each individual social media site is expanding and integrating to make things more convenient for its users.  We have entered the world of social media and we are now using our online voices to speak louder than ever before.

Image courtesy of Flickr user woodleywonderworks

Social media is starting to shape the world we live in on a “most recent” basis.  However, since social media has existed, most of the education departments of America have not “signed in.” Social media is an essential part of our professional business world, and if we want students to succeed, then it must be part of the curriculum. One reason it hasn’t is because social media often started out as a fad with the younger generation, so it is automatically assumed that our generation of students is very knowledgeable of social media.

It is true that our generation knows a great deal about using social media, but usually only for personal reasons.  When I had an interview for my current internship they told me one of the reasons I was chosen for an interview was the fact that my Facebook page was “acceptable” to their professional needs.  Employers do not want to hire a person whose Twitter or Facebook page could make their company look bad. The other students may have been very worthy candidates for the position, but the picture with eight shot glasses surrounding them seemed to prove otherwise.  Though my employer may not have necessarily disagreed with the candidates’ drinking, they did think it was very unprofessional to not take the initiative to untag themselves from the picture.

It’s an interesting question – why are today’s students held accountable for not knowing how to use social media professionally, yet they haven’t ever been taught formally?

Social media-focused classes for the core curriculum is an excellent idea. I don’t think it should be specifically called a social media class; rather, it should be a well-rounded class that focuses on communicating in a digital world.  It may be best to start by integrating it into speech classes that every student has to take at every university across the United States. The speech class I took as a freshman had integrated communication skills, such as interview tips, handshakes, etc.  Being that the speech class isn’t solely focused on speech, it would be a good starting place to integrate social media communication.

Image courtesy of Flickr user lawtonchiles

Those studying areas such as health or sciences are taught how and why things work and also how to be ethical. Their main focus is not how to communicate effectively, so communications and social media doesn’t always come natural to them.  A general “Internet etiquette” course would be valuable to them. Or maybe we can follow the University of Kentucky, who recently combined their English Composition and Communication courses to create a more efficient way for students to engage in the classroom.  This revolutionary required course incorporates the use of social media so that students learn the essentials of writing professionally using social media.  No matter what one may be studying, social media importance can’t be underestimated.

I’ve often found that professors are teaching us how to do old school tasks, such as writing a memorandum. But, we don’t learn how to tweet.  Education should be constantly updated with the most effective and convenient ways to educate those pursuing that career field.  Professors wouldn’t teach students to create overhead projection slides instead of using PowerPoint, so why do they refuse to adopt the principles of social media as a quick and effective way to replace less effective methods?

One main question always arises when discussing how to integrate social media into higher education. How would we assess a social media course?  Let’s be honest – all of the college grads have heard of how Facebook content can limit their chances of scoring that job. What we need to be teaching is not to just delete the bad content, but rather to teach students how to add valuable content. The best way to grade would be to assess them on the valuable content that they post, not just for the inappropriate content they don’t have. The main point of the social media class should be graded on “what if” situations and facts about professional Internet writing, social media settings, pictures, videos, news and crisis management on the Internet.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Liako

We have come a long way from Morse code and telegrams to a much faster and easier way to communicate. It almost boggles or “bloggles” our minds!  Perhaps five years from now everyone will jump on the social media bandwagon and will be more advanced and complex enough to create classes in our higher education system.  If students are not even being educated on the current issues, we can’t expect to move on to bigger and better things. As for now, we must try to push social media into our higher education and create a more professional and more networked world. After all, students learn much better in a natural environment and nothing is more natural for our generation than social media.

This video is a great example of how social media is being integrated in not only the professional world, but also secondary education.  It’s a great idea to grab young adults’ attention and expand their possibilities in communications today.  But, why doesn’t higher education, the institution where one becomes a more intellectually rounded individual,  jump on this opportunity to help better prepare their candidates for the real world?

For more information about integrating social media in higher education, make sure you check out the following resources:

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Grading Social Media

March 1, 2010

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Later this week, I’m giving the keynote address at the University of Southern Indiana’s Communications Symposium, and while I’m there, I’ll be meeting with a number of their communications classes, including Intro to Interpersonal Communications, Special Events Promotions, Internet Communications, and several others. If you’ve kept up with this blog, you know that I’m really interested in the intersection of social media and education, and my old Public Relations 101 professor now teaches in the USI communications department, so I’m particularly excited for this opportunity.

While I’m sure I’ll be having a ton of conversations with both students and faculty, about a lot of different topics, one of the things that I’m interested in learning more about is how (and if) social media has had any impact where it really matters at the collegiate level – student grades. In last week’s #SMCEDU chat, we discussed the issue of grading students in classes that teach social media. If you’re teaching social media, how do you grade your students on how well they’re using it? What about those classes that aren’t teaching social media, is there a place for social media in those classes too? How should social media fit into the world of academia? What’s the real-life impact of social media on the integrity of the academic process?

I remember back when I was in college, social media wasn’t really used yet – the closest we had was AOL Instant Messenger and Wikipedia. My campus didn’t even have cell phone coverage until after I graduated so no one had cell phones either. Grading the use of social media was a non-issue. But now, with social media such a huge part of public relations, advertising, marketing, sociology, and even biology, it’s becoming even more important that the next generation not only understands how to use social media, but how to use it for more than just organizing fraternity mixers or keeping in touch with your classmates.

The question then becomes – how do we teach our students to use social media? Do we even need to, or is this a case of the students knowing more than the teacher? Is it better to have a separate “Social Media 101” class, or to integrate it into existing classes? Do you teach all students, or just those in particular disciplines? And then, how do we grade them? What makes one better at using social media than another – more fans/followers? Higher quality posts? Greater engagement?

I tend to subscribe to the theory that social media should be:

  1. Weaved into how the students work – More and more professors are starting blogs, using YouTube in the classroom, and even tweeting.  When students see their professor using social media tools as part of the normal day-to-day way of doing things, it makes the students look at these tools not as “cool new things,” but a normal part of doing business. When email first came into vogue, how did students learn how to use it? They learned it from their professors – they knew that the professor was going to be using email throughout the class and unless you used it as well, you weren’t going to get a good grade. The use of email itself wasn’t graded, but you were at a severe disadvantage if you didn’t use it.
  2. Integrated into the class rather than as a separate class unto itself – If you’re a communications major, I think you should learn about social media’s impact to communications. If you’re a biology major, you should learn about social media’s impact on biology. I don’t see a need for a “Social Media 101” course, primarily because everyone will use it differently, especially across disciplines. Would you have a Social Media and Communications 101, a Biology and Social Media 101 course, etc.? It’s just not scalable. No, I’d rather see social media taught as it’s applicable to the individual classes, not as a one-size fits all approach to learning how to tweet or blog.

Grading social media then, becomes not so much an issue of identifying if or how well students are using social media, but of integrating social media into the curriculum where it makes sense for your class, of integrating it into the way the teacher teaches, and then just grading as you always have. Because if a student gets an “A” in my PR 101 class, that would mean that they’ve read my blog posts, that they’ve taken my quizzes on books like Brian Solis’ “Putting the Public Back into Public Relations,” that they’ve completed the class assignment where they had to write a collaborative paper using a wiki, that they had to create a relationship with an external blogger and write a guest post for them, and that they’ve participated in class discussion, either in person, or via our closed Yammer network.

How would you grade the use of social media in today’s college environment?

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Rethinking Public Relations Education

November 20, 2009

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How should social media be incorporated into a PR degree?

How should social media be incorporated into a PR degree?

I was speaking to a group of college students the other day about SMCEDU, and I asked them, “how many of you are learning about social media in your communications classes?”  About a third of them raised their hands and said that they’ve discussed the impact of social media on traditional news, about how Twitter and citizen journalists are breaking the news. Some were in media relations classes where they were learning about the differences between pitching reporters and bloggers.  But, for the most part, social media had yet to become a substantial part of their communications curriculum.  I asked them if they thought that was a problem, if they thought they should be learning more about social media in their communications courses?”  Their response ranged from the dismissive – “why would we have a class on learning to Twitter – only old people use it anyway?” – to the inquisitive  – “it’d be great if we could learn more about how these tools are being used by companies so we’d know before we got hired.”

Social media education curricula was the topic for the first #smcedu chat held a couple of weeks ago, and has been a consistent topic of discussion among all of the members of SMCEDU – teachers, students, and professional sponsors. This got me thinking…left to my own devices, how would I integrate social media into the communications curriculum at the university level?  (*admittedly, I don’t have any education training, nor have I ever taught a communications class)

I thought I’d start by looking at the current course listing for Communication majors at my alma mater, Bethany College. You may first notice that there is no “Social Media 101” or “Principles of Social Media” course listed, and I’d never advocate for that either.  That’d be like adding a class for “Business Email 101.” Social media shouldn’t get it’s own special class – social media IS media. What I would like to see though, are the principles and terms of social media interwoven throughout all of these classes.

In “Introduction to Mass Communication,” I’d like to see more discussions about how personal communications can easily become mass communication because the Web has hyperlinked everything.  Students should explore the changing models of mass communications – how int he past, content used to be broadcast to the masses, and would then be shared person-to-person.  Today, content is often shared person-to-person first, to be followed by dissemination to the masses.  Why?  How?

In “Human Communication,” I want to see the students dive down into the intricacies of how relationships created and maintained using social media are different than those that are solely face-to-face.  How does social media enhance or degrade these relationships?

In “Visual Communication,” the students should understand the visual impact of content on the Web.  How did we go from fancy, tricked out websites being a best practice to something as plain and boring as Twitter?  How and why did the banner ad die?  Why, when asked if there were ads on Google, did one teenager at the Web 2.0 Summit say, “no – are there supposed to be?”

In “Digital Skills and Information Gathering,” how do you differentiate between what’s fact and fiction online any more?  How many sources are need to verify?  What’s the definition of a source?  How do you use tools like Wikipedia and other social media as breadcrumbs to find more credible sources?

When I took “Media Writing,” I learned the AP Stylebook and how to write press releases.  Students should absolutely still learn these skills.  But, they should also learn how to write like a human being, in a conversational tone, not as a public relations machine.  They should learn what a good blog post looks and sounds like.  They should learn how to take a key message and put it into their own words, into their own writing style instead of conforming to a style guide.

Media Law” should still involve a LOT of discussion of past cases and legal precedents, an exploration of the First Amendment, thorough reviews of the Pentagon Papers trial and other landmark cases.  But, there should also be a lot of “what if?” questions that tackle today’s social media landscape that hasn’t, in a lot of cases, gone through the legal rigor that other media has.  Let’s study Cybersquatting cases like LaRussa vs. Twitter, Inc. – let’s discuss the impacts of cases like that that don’t have a long legal history, but will surely help define the environment in which these students are going to be working.

I’d rename “International Communication” to be “Global Communication,” and I’d focus not just on the differences in communication styles between Western and Eastern countries, Asian cultures and Hispanic cultures, but on how it’s just as easy to communicate with someone 10,000 miles away as it is with your next door neighbor.  I’d have my students study the differences in how Americans communicate with each other online vs. how Eastern countries do it.  Do the basic communications differences that apply in face-to-face communication apply online too?  If not, why?

In “Communication Ethics,” this class would bring up discussions about attribution in an online, shareable communications environment.  How do the old rules of copyright and intellectual property apply?  Do they apply?  What about basic human interactions – if you ignore someone who sends a DM on Twitter, is that akin to ignoring someone who reaches out to shake your hand?  Where’s the line between criticizing the service your receive from a company on Twitter and attacking the person?  If I say,”I think @comcastcares is an idiot who doesn’t know which way is up, am I attacking Comcast or am I attacking Frank Eliason? Note: Frank is awesome 🙂

I would also add a class on “Principles of Customer Service” and make “Creative Writing” a prerequisite as well.  You see, social media shouldn’t be a class – it’s interwoven throughout a lot of classes.  And this isn’t just for communication classes, this would apply to political science majors (Barack Obama’s campaign anyone?), economics majors (how has the ability to share data globally and instantaneously impacted the speed at which the market changes?), sociology (how has social media changed the way families and friends communicate with one another?).

I don’t want to hire a social media guru or ninja – I want to hire an innovative, entrepreneurial communications professional who understands how to use social media.

*In a future post, I’ll do a deeper dive into the PR 101 class, and give you my thoughts on how I’d structure an entire class.

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