How students and faculty can build their social capital

Social capital is an intangible asset derived from social relationships and networks. Individuals and groups, including higher education, form networks and establish personal and professional relationships in order to collaborate. They seek to collaborate with others because they can achieve personal and group goals in ways not possible to achieve alone.

In higher education, the benefits of these social networks include, among other things, sharing intellectual resources, co-development of knowledge and joint research. Like any other human motivation, people form networks because it serves their own interests, and when people’s interests align, the relationship becomes mutually beneficial.

The evolution of social networks

It is useful to first understand how social networks evolved over time. Ever since humans decided to form social communities during the Neolithic Era, social networking and relationship-building have been a part of the human experience. As these communities grew, the quality of those interpersonal relationships became increasingly important and progressively complex.

And as communities became more complex, and as the division of labour increased, and as the family unit became more structured and more prevalent, people took on an increasing number of roles (for example, daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, aunt, friend, teacher, pottery maker, food maker and clothing maker). Communities required people to interact with other people in ways never before imagined or required.

From these first communities, the concept of private property arose for land, livestock, crops, dwellings, tools and the like. The concept of governance also evolved as nomadic tribal societies morphed into sedentary societies led by community leaders (military or religious or monarchal).

In these first agricultural societies new technologies and techniques were invented to aid in their development, such as crop and animal domestication, writing, the wheel, time-keeping devices and better tools to clear and cultivate the land for crop and animal husbandry. All of these developments allowed humans to control their environment to greater and greater degrees rather than always being at the mercy of the natural environment.

In the modern era, however, the social roles that people play have become increasingly fluid and more complex. With the advent of human rights and justice as chief concerns over the past century, greater expectations have been placed on social institutions like colleges and universities to address these concerns through such initiatives as diversity, equity and inclusion. As a result, social networks in higher education also continue to be more diverse and inclusive.

Technological changes

Over the past 20 years, social networks have expanded with the use of digital technology. With the advent of the internet and digital communication platforms (for example, websites, blogs, webinars, podcasts, social media sites and smart phones), people have been able to connect in ways never before imagined.

With these technologies, traditional time and space boundaries are no longer an obstacle for many people. With the emerging Industry 5.0 and Society 5.0, industrial capitalism is giving way to post-industrial capitalism which is based primarily on a service economy driven by knowledge, innovation and social capital.

In the past, the productivity of farmers and factories increased many-fold with the implementation of technological innovations. The results of many of these innovations have led to a global increase in economic growth.

In like manner, recent technological innovations have had a significant influence on higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an exponential increase in online learning which, in turn, has significantly affected conventional pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning. The next step is to develop a solution that will address the digital divide in order to enable education for all.

The COVID-19 crisis caused many schools and universities around the world to start using digital learning management systems (for example, Zoom, Google Classroom, Blackboard and Canvas) to provision most or all of their courses and programmes.

Universities are now making huge capital expenditures to implement a wide array of online teaching and learning technologies, including making them more social. In addition, innovative technologies like blockchain, virtual reality and artificial intelligence will become a critical part of the future of higher education.

Furthermore, changes in technology can occur very fast and it is often a challenge for organisations to respond to those changes. The change often requires significant resources such as training facilities, operational changes and transformation management, among others.

Organisations are also relying more on automation and artificial intelligence. It is within this context that students need to learn the right skills to help with both employment and employability prospects.

Enabling innovation through social networks

Cooperation is an important factor to enable innovation through social networks. In higher education, collaborative projects between different groups have been regarded as a way to diffuse ideas and knowledge.

Through online tools, many governments, universities and industries have collaborated using their expertise and technical or research skills. This was also witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic when institutions and laboratories worked together to level up research-based productivity in health care and medicine, for example.

Connectedness is also correlated with the increase in use of social networks. Due to the recent advancement in technological tools such as discussion forums and social networking platforms, geographical distance and demographic factors have diminished in importance. Social networks have taken on a vital role in spreading knowledge across countries.

However, there is a dilemma to choose whether ties with social media contacts should be strong or weak. Strong ties typically consist of close family and friends. On the other hand, people who choose to establish ‘weak ties’ with people can more readily disseminate new information with those outside their close network, thus increasing their social capital.

Cohesion is another factor to consider when setting up a learning environment through social networks. More researchers are inclined to share their ideas and research findings through social networking websites because they can reach a wider audience instantly. This kind of attitude towards the dissemination of knowledge can bring knowledge holders together and increase trust and reliability among them.

As a result, technology-enabled researchers can have a greater impact, which accelerates the development of innovative ideas.

Lastly, conciseness is a factor to enable innovation through social networks. The level of heterogeneity among network partners is crucial when determining the effectiveness of the network, which enables diverse voices to be heard. In order to cluster like-minded voices, discussion groups and online forums can be created to foster collaborative ideas.

Building social capital

“Invest in community-led networks; they make a difference,” says Margaux Jacquemin, head of alumni at Enseña por México/Teach for All Network.

“When networks are at their most powerful, they make people happier and more inspired in their work and the impact can be really strong. Networks are very effective in contributing to systemic change in education.”

Social networking technologies have become pervasive in students’ lives. Students today are very technologically savvy. The social identity of students is important. Digitally networked learning communities have great potential for innovation and they help foster a more human-centric economy. Thus, social networking technologies have the potential to advance the common good.

The success of social networking depends on diversity, equity and inclusion. As human tendencies are, we tend to associate with those that are like us and reflect our own thoughts and perspectives. However, social networks enable people to view problems from different perspectives which, in turn, tends to enable better outcomes.

A network built on a foundation of shared values empowers its members through multiple perspectives and collaborative approaches, which is especially important in higher education. As such, social networks are now one of the primary mechanisms through which faculty and students can build their social capital.

Patrick Blessinger is president and chief scientist of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning (HETL) Association, United States; Enakshi Sengupta is an author and independent scholar, India; and Serpil Meri-Yilan is assistant professor of languages at AICU, Turkey.