Social media and higher education – Rich possibilities

Social media could be a useful tool for transforming governance, teaching, research and community outreach in African universities, according to Nickson Otieno. However, for this potential to be fully realised, African academia and policy-makers need to break the stereotypes that social networks are primarily for students interested in expanding their social lives, and embrace them as critical tenets of the higher education transformative agenda.

Otieno, who is president of the World Student Community for Sustainable Development, believes that as the primary medium through which students communicate with each other, social media should be recognised as a valuable tool for African universities and a potential platform for improved service delivery.

Speaking to University World News, he said: “With increased numbers of students who want to pursue higher education, universities are using social media channels to advertise and share their curriculum, faculty and culture. This in turn can enhance identification and recruitment, and increase visibility of the university to potential national and international students and partners.”

He said social media should be an integral part of the university’s e-learning ecosystem and could be used to facilitate virtual group discussions and share content.

“Also it holds the potential to reform research and community outreach and presents great potential for crowd-sourcing research questions and data collection. I look forward to our universities embracing blogs as one of the important channels for dissemination of research to a larger audience in a format that they can easily understand and respond to,” he said.

Governance reform

According to Otieno, social media also held the potential to re-shape campus governance and create non-hierarchical participative governance structures.

“Imagine what kind of universities we would have if the top university managers were to break down the current bureaucratic communication channels and engage directly with their customers (students) through periodic live chats, as has been embraced by a growing number of political leaders,” he said.

Otieno noted that social media also provides opportunities and platforms for universities to solidify their brand, attract potential students and connect with alumni who are potentially useful in funding universities through giving back both financially and in kind.

Also, they act as a mode of communication, information sharing and networking with other professionals, staff and students. For example, LinkedIn will give students an opportunity to acquire and share professional information with like-minded people, to apply for internships and to seek job opportunities.

“Importantly [social media] is empowering youths to venture into small business enterprise and community software development programs. It can promote research and the sharing of ideas, provide a platform for medical health services and is the number one source of news on the continent to the youth of today.”

Beyond universities, Otieno said social media could be a powerful social force, allowing for huge and progressive changes.

“Social media plays a key role in raising awareness on development issues, improving monitoring of environmental and social realities, mobilisation and fundraising for local environmental and social actions as well as political activism, hence achieving some of the Sustainable Development Goals,” he said.

Online social networks are already "changing the processes whereby societies and institutions make their important decisions about sustainable development, determine who they involve in making those decisions and how they render account".

However, with the increasing use of social media to express views on emerging issues, African universities are challenged to implement policy without infringing on civil rights.

“There are increasing concerns about the misuse of social media and the need to apply ethical standards as far as social media is concerned. These efforts have been futile as governments grapple with the implementation process. This puts many universities in a dilemma,” he said.

Making agriculture ‘cool’

Emmanuel Okalany, programme officer at the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture told University World News that social media has the potential not only to improve the visibility of agricultural research and make it more accessible to a wider audience, but to change the image of the discipline.

Because the content shared using social media is made short, attractive or “cool”, this attracts young people, especially from universities, to the agriculture sector, he said.

“Hence the image of agriculture is slowly changing from a “dirty” and undesirable venture into a profitable undertaking. Therefore university researchers, scientists and students should make use of this platform early enough for the benefit of the universities in which they are involved,” said Okalany.

He said farmers were using social media platforms such as WhatsApp to take and share photos from the field with research organisations. During a recent outbreak of the fall armyworm, for example, farmers in Uganda who took photographs on their mobile phones were able to communicate directly with researchers to identify the pest and work towards its eradication.

Okalany said there was scope to equip graduates and researchers with soft skills to better communicate their research via social media and increase the visibility of universities’ contributions to the agricultural sector. He said social media platforms could be used to enhance impact research, link universities with the private sector and influence policy changes.

Telling stories ‘our’ way

Gillian Karani, a student of Moi University in Kenya pursuing a communication and public relations qualification, said if social media was properly utilised by students it would enable them to tell their stories in their own way. She described the opportunities made possible by social media for university students and lecturers as “endless”.

“With the right skillset and attitude, students can harness this immense chance to advocate and raise awareness about policy changes, investments and share research innovations that are making a difference to the communities they come from,” she said.

“For example it improves communications between students and lecturers, lecturers and lecturers, and students and students. Lecturers are able to give assignments and pass important information to students, and students are able to share knowledge and help each other with their studies.

Similarly lectures and researchers may use various social media platforms to conduct surveys and seek opinions from students and staff about any quality assurance matters in the university. This will, in turn, translate positively into an improvement of students’ performance,” Karani said.

However, she urged students not to waste hours on social media platforms. She also cautioned those who post content on social media to do sufficient research before posting. “There’s an information overload out there and information needs to be scientifically filtered before dissemination,” she said.