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Why educators can't live without social media

Eric Stoller

From student recruitment to alumni relations, social media has a place at every step of the student journey, says Eric Stoller. Institutions and educators ignore it at their peril.

Communication is at the core of the human experience. How we learn, teach and engage is predicated on our ability to communicate with one another, and technology-based services have added layers of complexity, efficiency, innovation, and disruption to how we do this. How we communicate is ever-evolving, especially with the rise of digital services as a primary method of engagement, and social media is one of the most exciting communication channels higher education institutions can use today.

But, while social media provides myriad conduits for interaction, learning, and communication, it requires nuance, experimentation, and intrepidity. The payback is that this kind of digital communication is multi-directional, almost always available, and provides utility in ways that are constantly emerging.

Digital capabilities

The importance of technology competency has been increasing for both staff and administration. It's no longer just about being savvy with MS Office, email or the VLE. In addition to those baseline skills/tools, social media has become a channel for individuals to communicate and teach.

Enhancing the digital capabilities of educators is just as important as expanding the digital literacy of students. Learning how to use social media for practitioner-based learning and educationally relevant activities means that today's educator will experience an always-moving digital learning curve. In  what perhaps could be considered a true definition of lifelong learning, social media services create opportune locales for learning, teaching, and engagement that are embued with community-generated creativity.

In order to increase the digital capabilities of educators, the number one factor is time. Finding daily moments to progress through cognitive digital dissonance can be challenging. Institutions that reward staff and administrators for taking time to improve their digital capabilities will usually be much more forward-thinking than their counterparts.

Getting digital isn't difficult once time has been taken, apps have been downloaded, and competency has been amplified.

Digital experimentation

Once an educator has committed to becoming more savvy with social media, it can be difficult to know where to start. Which tools, services, or apps should be tried? Experimentation with digital tools can be a transformative educational experience.

Educators and students learn a lot about communication simply by figuring out the processes, group norms and functionality found within each social service. For example, what works on Twitter might need to be modified to fit in with the communications style found within Slack or Yik Yak. Perhaps an educator is thinking about using Google+, YouTube or Periscope to connect their students to someone via streaming video in another country. 

Each channel has pros and cons that can be discussed. In that process, learning takes place via problem-solving, group collaboration, and content creation tactics. Social media is what we make it. Our creative endeavours shape the tools by way of innovative ideas, community-based learning and the tension of figuring out how to clearly communicate in meaningful ways.

Student engagement

From the recruitment of students to alumni relations, student engagement is accentuated and sometimes improved by way of social media. What might start off as mostly marketing-based communications at the beginning of a student's institutional journey quickly becomes a conversation about community, leadership and support. Institutions can use social media as community management interfaces.

Unlike traditional marketers, community managers are student-focused representatives. Connecting with students in a "digital iceberg" style may begin with a tweet, but end in a face-to-face interaction. Social media doesn't replace communications, it adds a needed layer of options.

Combined with traditional communications channels (eg email), staff and administrators can connect with students to enhance engagement. Additionally, student engagement can take place via social media using peer-to-peer digital channels. The ultra-rigid communications hierarchies of the past are flattened.

While that might be a bit unsettling for some, as power structures dissipate, a true sense of overall engagement can emerge due to the expansion of digital learning partnerships.

Student experience

Who "owns" the student experience at an institution? In practice, everyone at a university is responsible in some way for the student experience. Changes to the enrolment capabilities for UK higher education institutions are bringing about a more focused emphasis on the student experience. Similar to how student affairs/services have become essential to student success in the US, the UK student experience matters.

As enrolment rises, digital communications become the primary outreach channels for customer service, retention programmes, academic advising, career development, and student services. Student experience becomes part of the competitive advantage for an institution: whoever does it best will impact student satisfaction, enrolment, and alumni development.

University leaders who understand the connection between digital engagement and student experience will cause dynamic changes within their organisations. Student-focused efforts, led via savvy social media practitioners, will win the day.

Digital literacy

Learning happens everywhere. Learning is part of the constant journey that is existence. Who is teaching university students how to be more digitally literate?

Educators who use digital tools such as social media are showing their students how to acquire knowledge via a variety of global sources. Digital literacy is made up of multiple facets. Regardless of the app, service, device, or reason for connecting, digital literacy plays a vital role in the development of today's student.

Educators are role models in the digital space. Digital balance, communications, search, knowledge acquisition and networking are aspects of digital literacy that are important for students as they move throughout their university experience and beyond.

Career development

Students generally attend university for two reasons: to learn and to set themselves up for a future career. Employability may not be a primary concern during the first year, but as a student nears the completion of their time at university, the next step is almost always about employment.

Getting digital at university, as in learning how to lead, connect, and network, is an important part of employability. For example, students should be using LinkedIn for networking and career intelligence and/or learning how to use Twitter for professional development.

Social media channels will evolve over time, but the functionality and value within each site/service/app is what matters in the present. Building a network on Twitter and LinkedIn can lead to a job or at the very least, to someone who can connect you to one. However, social media isn't the be all and end all for employability. It is part of an individual's career development tool kit.

Digital identity

At an institution, it's ok that everyone isn't always available on social media or that some individuals choose not to use certain tools. However, when a campus is focusing on recruitment, retention, and learning, the digital identity of its constituents makes for a community that is accessible for greater levels of connection and access.

It's important for institutions to think about their overall social media presence and how each individual's actions on social media impact the community's identity. At induction, practitioners should lead the way in terms of modelling what it means to use social media in higher education.

It's useful to consider the digital environments that students are coming from prior to attending university. Higher education, in many ways, shapes the future, both online and offline.

Note that what people communicate online matters just as much as what they say in face-to-face environments.

Getting digital

There are enhanced educational opportunities that come from getting digital. Educators who are student-focused will always be ready for the challenges of the present and the opportunities of the future. It's up to institutions to provide support, resources, and rewards to those who are using social media to benefit the learners that they serve. So let's get digital in order to get learning.