Higher education is working hard to find the best ways to integrate social media into its practices. They’ve approached it from a number of angles: marketing, community building, student support, and instruction. Instigators behind the efforts include software vendors looking to build the next edu social platform, colleges, individual educators, and on a less formal basis, the students themselves.
As of late 2011, there are very few scalable, institution-wide initiatives – but a great deal of isolated experimentation by innovators. The opportunities seem endless, but higher education management professionals are on the lookout for the right approach to make social media work for them today.
Not all areas of higher ed will be equally well-suited to the opportunities that social media presents. Of all of the possibilities, integrating social media and instruction may be the most difficult, for example – due to the conflicting properties of social media and higher ed. While social media is particularly well-suited to facilitating open-ended exchanges between people – with no clear or prescribed beginning and end – higher education has clear boundaries (e.g. course duration) and largely predetermined objectives (e.g. syllabi). Social media is user-generated and leaderless. Higher education is top-down and instructor-directed. Social media thrives when there are thousands, if not millions, of users. High volume provides online communities with enough activity and content to ensure that each user finds what and who they want with sufficient frequency. (Although Twitter and Linked In have over 100 million users, only a fraction of the users are of significance to any one user.) On the other hand, higher education instruction typically restricts participation to a single class (e.g. 100 students).
This is not to say that higher education won’t find ways to use social media for instructional purposes. Innovative educators are experimenting with new approaches and some of these strategies will stick, be shared, and ultimately picked up by other educators in time. But at this relatively early stage in its development, the low-hanging fruit of social media for higher education will likely be found in the areas of marketing, building communities and student support.
Two initiatives – MyEdu and KnowU from Harrison College – offer a glimpse of the possibilities.
MyEdu is a Texas-based company that has built a student-facing platform that combines a number of applications designed to help students manage their education careers. The platform includes course scheduling, textbook ordering, facebook-style interaction with other students, reviews of instructors and courses by other students. Soon to be added is information about graduate and professional schools, tools to manage transfer credits, and mobile applications.
Frank Lyman, SVP at MyEdu suggests that the core value of the platform is that it helps students make more informed decisions about their educational careers. In this respect, MyEdu is part of a larger drive to improve the volume and quality of information available to higher education’s stakeholders. Students, parents, government (e.g. Spellings Commission), and policy professionals (e.g. Education Sector) argue that we need better information about higher education in order to track student success, reward better schools, minimize student debt, and increase the speed with which students complete their programs.
Most of the information available to students within MyEdu is user-generated or “scraped” from public sites. Presumably, MyEdu will eventually need to gain access to college-based applications, such as student information systems, to further improve the currency and value of the information that the platform provides. But this will require the participation of the institutions, not all of which will want to make this kind of information available. MyEdu’s alliance with the University of Texas, announced in the Fall, will prove an interesting test case.
Harrison College of Indiana takes a different approach. Their new social platform, KnowU, is designed by Harrison College specifically for Harrison students. This allows the institution to integrate as much of the student and institutional information into the platform as they wish. But, of course, by limiting the application to one institution, unlike MyEdu, they limit the potential benefits that can be found in capturing data across multiple institutions.
KnowU is an ambitious project. Though still in its early stage of development, the platform will ultimately serve a range of purposes – marketing, community-building, instructional support. Of particular concern to Harrison is their growing number of online students (73% increase in the past two years). Harrison wants to provide these students with all of the tools necessary to succeed. And it is rolling out the initiative on a university-wide basis, the way only proprietary colleges with strong management seem capable of doing. (Official launch: January 2012.)
It’s interesting to remember that the original value proposition of online education within proprietary colleges was to provide adult, working students with only those parts of the college experience that they needed (or for which they had time). Proprietary schools recognized that many students didn’t need residential life, sports facilities, and the like. Traditional colleges essentially over-served them (see Clayton Christensen).
To a significant degree, these “extras” of the traditional college experience were social in nature. But over the past five or so years social media has become a key means by which people execute their social lives. Consequently, these colleges can now revisit their value proposition; they can now offer a more social experience to online students. In effect, they are putting back the social part of the college experience that their original business model removed. It will be worth watching to see how this grand effort unfolds.