The following is my guest blog post for the Higher Education Development Association to be published mid-June.
Social media is everywhere. Particularly in higher education, every institutions home page now proudly boasts a complement of follow buttons from the ubiquitous Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to the fast growing Pinterest, Vimeo and Google+. Matter of fact, some publications estimate as high as 98% of institutions are active on at least one social media platform.
So how are we going?
While it’s hard to make a call on how effectively we as a sector are using social media, it’s a safe bet to assume that most institutions are struggling to understand exactly where it fits into the existing communications mix and what they should be posting which is ironic given the sheer volume of content we generate. The problem is that social media is often treated like another channel, lumped in with television, radio, print and (to a lesser extent) email without much consideration to the seismic change it has had on society, culture and the way we interact with each other.
Social media isn’t just another channel to broadcast messages. It is more than a specific platform but a monumental change in human behaviour.
To illustrate what I mean, consider the students who are the lifeblood of our institutions:
- They are as old as Amazon and eBay
- They grew up with instant messaging, mobile phones and SMS
- They have always turned to Google and Wikipedia anytime they have a question
- They rely on social networks to stay in touch with their friends and make plans for the weekend
Most tellingly, the way they communicate is in stark contrast to how their parents do. They are no longer ‘locked in’ to a medium but are happy to converse non-linearly across multiple platforms. A conversation that begins in the classroom can spill over onto Facebook and IM before finding its way to a blog a few days later igniting a debate in the comments followed by rebuttal post on another blog. This is accompanied by a back channel discussion on Twitter with complementary photos uploaded to Instagram and indexed using the same hashtag. While this may seem confusing to digital immigrants, for digital natives like them, it is very much the norm.
Free social media
The future isn’t coming; it’s already here.
As a sector, higher education has typically required that people engage on our terms when we are ready. The level of paperwork and hoops prospective students must jump through to study with us not to mention deal with while they’re here sends a clear message: you must do it out way.
For our students, technology and the Internet isn’t something new to be fawned over; it’s been part of their lives as long as they can remember just like electricity, gas and water that’s it’s just expected.
We must take off the kid gloves and fully embrace social media. It must be taken out of development, walled off from the big, bad world and put into production.
In a world where we can pick and choose the mediums we participate, organisations can no longer dictate the rules of engagement. For higher education to continue to engage students and remain relevant, Universities must deliver dynamic, transmedia experiences that respond and adapt to the learning style of each individual student, a la the Khan Academy, or risk alienating future cohorts.