Are you as sick of this meme as I am? Just for once, I wish a new technology could come along without some kind of totalizing discourse suggesting that everyone must participate, or that there are relatively undifferentiated strategies for participating. The fact is, while some institutions can benefit from social media, there are a lot more who would be better off spending their money elsewhere.
Time for a quick definition: “social media” is not equivalent to “web-based communication.” Specifically, the term refers to communications vehicles which allow user-generated content. But there’s a pretty big difference between platforms which allow user-generated content (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), and institutions actually using those platforms as a means to engage with the public.
Take Twitter, for example. A number of institutions tweet – but basically, this involves someone in the media department writing 140-character notices which link to press releases they were issuing anyway. You usually can’t chat with them or engage them in meaningful discussion. Or, take YouTube: anyone can upload videos, but by and large what institutions do is create “channels,” which are essentially homepages for collection of videos. I can’t upload a video to my institution’s home page – you might be able to comment on a video but as anyone who has actually spent time reading YouTube comments pages know, they are not an ideal place to trawl for people aspiring to higher learning. In other words, a lot of “social media” activity is actually just a form of electronic publishing – it doesn’t require any real change of behaviour.
Some people think it’s really important to have institutional/faculty/department Facebook pages where students can talk about institutions (or prospective institutions), and they think this is quite important because you can “pick up” chatter about the institution that you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.
Personally, I have yet to hear a story where anyone in an institution learned something genuinely new– that is, something you couldn’t pick up by doing satisfaction surveys or reading the student press – from this source. At the margin, one might be able to pick up some chatter from high school students that might be interesting in terms of picking up new students, but that’s probably more important for institutions that have trouble filling their seats than it does institutions who are trying to get a different mix of students.
And that really sums up the issue of interactive social media in higher education. Not all institutions are going to get the same return on their investment. Institutions which are trying to change their positioning will want to use it a lot; institutions which aren’t probably won’t.