GLOBAL: Universities respond to social media

Facebook has 500 million users and counting, Twitter generates 65 million tweets a day and the latest version of the free blog publishing platform Wordpress has been downloaded more than 32.5 million times. Students are more than ready for social media, said Rahul Choudaha, an international education specialist at World Education Services. "If we're doubting it, then it will be a mistake."

Social media has experienced rapid growth in a very short time. Tweets, blogs, status updates, IM and newsfeeds are just some of the terms that have entrenched themselves in everyday speech. Higher education institutions worldwide have been responding by creating Facebook pages, blogs, interactive web platforms and Twitter accounts.

Choudaha was speaking at the annual Association of International Education Administrators conference held in San Francisco late last month. Along with other digital media experts, he examined strategies to successfully implement web-based and social media initiatives in international higher education.

Social media is perhaps most critical in international education, and can be used to attract prospective students, manage students studying abroad and keep alumni connected after graduation.

Choudaha empasised the importance of incorporating social media into a university's internationalisation strategy. With the surge in student mobility over the past decade, students have far more choice when it comes to institutions, making competition between universities fierce.

"The student is trying to minimise risk and get very authentic communication," he said. That's where social media comes in, adding value to the authenticity of communication. "It is driven by peer-to-peer communication, by people who have experience with the product and the institution, so there is much higher credibility."

The 'old' internet model was characterised by centralised control, limited access, a lack of flexibility and high cost. Social media, however, differs wildly from this and represents collaboration and an absence of hierarchy.

"Now it's really about the collective intelligence of information sharing at a very low cost," said Randy Zadra, director of the international office at Carleton University in Canada.

There are untold advantages to using social media in higher education, such as the ability for staff and students to communicate internally. In the past professors, for example, might have had no idea what other professors on campus or at other universities were teaching in their courses. Now, with the click of a button, staff members can have access to this information.

Feedback and opinions flow through this new technology as fluidly as speech itself.

"A traditional webpage has good analytics, but the information is passive," said Zadra. "With social media, we know what users like by the comments they make."

But with uncharted territory come challenges. Cheating, identity theft and general mischief are some of the issues administrators need to navigate when launching and managing a social media platform.

Utilising Web 2.0 is one way a university can place itself in whatever digital conversation it chooses. Put simply, Web 2.0 facilitates interaction between users, as opposed to static, non-interactive websites. Wikipedia is an example of a Web 2.0 application, where any person can contribute and share information.

"[Web 2.0] is a platform where people exchange ideas," said Zadra. "It really is about the conversation, it's not a one-way dialogue. That's the most important thing, it's about conversation."

Web 2.0 differs from social media in that it focuses more on content, whereas social media is centred around people and building a community.

Zadra is spearheading an ambitious Web 2.0 project at Carleton University. Called GlobalU, the initiative is an interactive tool to help international offices at universities manage and share information about their global activities, programmes, projects, students and alumni in a graphical, easy-to-use way.

GlobalU, he said, "helps international administrators deal with vast amounts of information. This is a way for everything to be very quickly updated, and it brings together all the information that people really need from an international administration perspective."

GlobalU is open to all universities, with 25 currently using the platform. An international office has only to sign up, post information, and any person with that university's email can log in and view the institution's page.

For example, an alumni can see where other alumni are situated and what projects they are working on, or a student interested in studying abroad can see which overseas institutions have exchange agreements with his or her university.

A user can also modify or add information, as they might on Facebook, with varying degrees of freedom. Professors and students, for example, can add or change information about their projects or a particular profile.

"One of the challenges with social media is retaining your brand," said Zadra. GlobalU "is an opportunity to control your brand. You can choose to make certain things public or private."

Eastern Illinois University is also utilising Web 2.0 and social media. The university's international office has launched AbroadScout, a web platform aimed at empowering foreign exchange students, schools and providers with reliable information and tools to cross reference their needs with the experiences of students currently studying abroad.

"Our question was: 'How do we build study abroad programmes through reputation and quality?'" said Wendy Williamson, director of the study abroad office at Eastern Illinois.

The platform grew out of an online course and programme finder, which helps prospective study abroad students match programmes with their needs. But the finder had a serious limitation: there were no reviews of the various programmes, or information on how many other students had completed that particular course.

"We thought it would be wonderful to have that information go into our programme finder, to be monitored and controlled yet fair to everyone involved," said Williamson.

The platform has a country and blog section, updated weekly with a stream of articles from students currently on study abroad programmes around the world.

Students can also read other students' reviews of a particular university and view scholarships linked to programmes. Universities can add and manage information about their study abroad programmes, configure their own school directory of approved programmes with reviews, and create and share surveys.

"Before you move into any sort of social media and Web 2.0, it is extremely important to have a strategy in mind," said Williamson. "You have to be very careful of your approach. You must link to your mission and strategy."

I would certainly agree with this. I am the MD of eSocialMedia, an enterprise social media consultancy in London and we are getting more and more international employers asking us how to enable two way online engagement between their staff and top talent in international universities.

The big companies can no longer simply spend lots of money on fancy online messages and trust that that is enough. Their staff now have to converse online and convince their audience because if they don't then the competition will.

In many instances spending money on expensive social media advertising campaigns is a waste of money. What most students are influenced by is real people and genuine online word of mouth.

Colm Hannon