Social climbers

Implementing Facebook, Twitter and other social media in higher education isn’t as simple as it seems, as Luke Evans discovers.

Posted by Rebecca Paddick on University Business.

Students and social mediaBack in February 2010, a blog called Three Word Chant stumbled across an article from the 27 February 1995 issue of Newsweek. The article, entitled ‘Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana’, written by US astronomer Clifford Stoll, was a polemic against those who felt that the new World Wide Web held the potential for great things. Among the many embarrassing quotes in the article, one still stands out: “Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee.”

For a long time, Stoll was right about the isolation of ‘network chat’, where computer users would stare at their screens waiting for messages to load one word at a time. But in the world of social media and smartphones, ‘network chat’ is more engaging than ever, and it’s easy to see why: normal people can create content, share it and talk about it with anyone, anywhere.

From a business standpoint, however, social media’s big draw lies in the data, where metrics and web analytics allow content creators to study exactly how users engage with their work. Despite this, finding the right way to use these statistics can be tough. Earlier this year, internet marketing company Coldlime ranked universities based on their Twitter ‘Social Authority’ score, which takes into account retweets, name mentions, recent activity and follower ratio. While this is great for measuring Twitter presence, it ignores the question of content, with no focus on whether the tweets are being used for promotion, student engagement or teaching purposes. Meanwhile, undergraduate advice website the unipod ranked universities by subscribers and followers on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and found Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics and Political Science at the top. These results are useful for giving a rough idea of market reach, but it’s not as if we need web analytics to know about the power of the Russell Group.

“More important than gauging student engagement with metrics at this point is designing activities which are truly engaging and creative for the students who choose to engage with them,” says Professor Dave Smith. A member of the University of York’s Department of Chemistry, Smith won a National Teaching Fellowship award from the Higher Education Academy (HEA) for his work on YouTube, using the website to create educational videos for both his chemistry students and the general public. In turn, he also lets students create their own videos as part of an assessed presentation. “Over the past four years, over one hundred York chemistry students have made YouTube videos and published them on their own channels – these videos have also attracted viewers worldwide, so the educated become global educators in their own right.”


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