Universities and Social Media

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My friend Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) recently wrote a thoughtful piece in The Conversation web site entitled Academics behaving badly? Universities and online reputations. For the record I think that the points she made were valid and true but I also think that there is an underlying issue that remains uncovered. Simply put, it is that fact that policies around the use of social media by the academy have, in many cases, been outsourced to individuals who are not members of the academy and do not understand the purpose of the academy. As a result they fundamentally miss the opportunities that social media offer universities in engaging with the wider community. This seems to me to be particularly true in Australia where rampant managerialism associated with the corporate university has led to situation in which ‘brand positioning’ and being ‘on message’ is seen to be more important than concepts of sharing, collaboration and collegiality in knowledge distribution and generation.

It is not unusual to find the University Social Media Manager (normally a self appointed guru) has been previously employed by Acme widget makers where their use of social media revolved around broadcasting content, occasionally giving personal insights into how great the latest widget is and designing some random competition in the hope that something will ‘go viral’. They never realise that universities are fundamentally different organisations. The role of a university is knowledge creation and dissemination. It seems unfathomable to me that a modern progressive university would not look at social media and say here is the most fabulous set of tools for helping us carry out some of our core tasks. Such universities should be saying to the faculty, why aren’t you blogging, tweeting etc your thoughts and ideas as privileged members of the academy? Not, why are you?

There are a few things going on here. Firstly, current policies represent a deep seated mistrust of university employees. This level of mistrust is telling in itself. Secondly, there is a culture of command and control. I firmly believe that most University Social Media Managers do not want anyone other than their trusted team of gurus to be contributing to social media. They protest otherwise but in reality they will make it difficult for others through the use ‘policy’ around branding and attitude.

Finally there is there idea of the university as a business whose reputation requires protection. This has, sadly, taken hold to an extreme level in Australia which is one reason we have no equivalent to the UK’s Open University or Canada’s Athabasca University (but that’s another blog post).

I think it’s worth pointing out what these social media policies cost the university. I was meeting with an LMS vendor last week. He was talking about the new social learning components being incorporated into a new version coming out soon when he observed that another university would not be deploying these tools in their LMS because the ‘contravened the social media policy’. So here we have a policy developed by a guru from Acme widgets determining the future pedagogy for an entire university.

At a previous institution I had proposed that we should make it much easier for our students to set up their own blogs. I remember watching the Social Media Manager’s face go white at the prospect. And so an opportunity to become a leader in the use of student blogs in learning and teaching disappeared. Thankfully I can still look to progressive universities like the University of Mary Washington to see that sense can prevail.

We have early adopters of social media sharers and collaborators from many different  institutions being marginalised within their institutions and having their contributions considered to be not worthy or even not considered to be scholarly activity. Inger herself is an example of this having helped literally thousands of PhD students through her blog and tweets and yet, my perception is that she remains under valued by her own university.

We have the huge missed opportunities for inter institutional collaboration that can generate research and teaching opportunities. Who knows how big that cost is?

The good news is that rigid social media policies are unworkable. The future belongs to networked institutions and, increasingly, virtual inter organisational teams built up between people that actually like each other (rather than just happen to work in the same place) and facilitated by social media. It would just be nice if Social Media Managers actually helped facilitate this rather than holding institutions back into a late 20th century model of the corporate university. These are times of rapid change. University managers need to make bold decisions and these include how to use social media. We can’t outsource it to the Acme widget gurus any more.

10 Comments On “Universities and Social Media”

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Universities and Social Media

  2. Interesting that you have highlighted Canada’s Athabasca University as an example of progressive education. As a Canadian university (York Universality, Toronto, Canada) administrator (but from a series of academic management roles, not a widget maker) with a mandate to engage research with non-academic partners from the private sector (industry liaison, technology commercialization) as well as community and government sectors (knowledge mobilization) I not only promote the use of social media but we also run social media capacity building sessions for faculty, students and their partners so they can get on line and use these tools not only to enhance dissemination but to promote engagement and collaboration. These tools have great potential but only when they are used in a flexible policy environment that creates reasonable expectations of standards and then gets out of they way to allow creativity to flourish.

    It’s not without it’s tensions even inside a university with a mandate to promote engaged scholarship and that’s also one of my jobs, to help faculty and brand management find a space where both mandates can co-exist.


    • Hi David,
      Thank you for the reply. It sounds as though you and your university takes a very progressive view of the role of social media in furthering the role of the university. Great to hear.
      Incidentally, I mentioned Athabasca because of their record in open and distance education, not necessarily as an example of good social media practice.


  3. Pingback: Universities and Social MediaMark Smithers | Mark Smithers | Flexibility Enables Learning

  4. To add to David’s comments, I think universities have an opportunity to make what they do more accessible beyond their own ranks of faculty and students through social media. Most academic research findings are not targeted towards the public as its first point of destination,. Traditionally we wait for a lumbering process of conferences and publications and usually lose enthusiasm for the research by the time we ‘get to the public’. Social media doesn’t have to be another channel for dissemination, but a way to engage the public and other stakeholders in conversation about what the research is all about, why it might matter, and what other questions come with it.

    The problem is that this isn’t a part of the explicit structure of the way universities approach knowledge mobilization. Many don’t see it as a priority or lack the organizational means to build social media capital. David’s team is a rarity and a bright light in a otherwise dim landscape in academia and certainly Canada. There are others doing good work, but mostly it’s individuals doing their own thing, rather than as sanctioned, supported or even known entities from their institution.


  5. I’m amazed that anyone tries to control social media usage by university employees. The technology is just so diametrically opposite to any kind of “top down” treatment. Now that I think of it, though, I don’t see many professors contributing to the e-learning and instructional design discussions I follow, even though there are tons of instructional design programs at colleges and universities. And in spite of the fact that social media is becoming more and more important as an element of e-learning.

    One comment I would like to make, as a side note. You generally have to work with people in an informal, one-on-one sort of way to get them to start participating in social media. I tell people to just think about the things that cross your mind in the typical workday, and tweet your thoughts. With the caveat that you should probably filter out the four letter words. Telling that to a group of people doesn’t result in much new participation. Having an ongoing conversation and helping someone get his/her footing often does.


  6. Pingback: Universities and Social MediaMark Smithers | Mark Smithers | John Ayers

  7. Great post! I have been promoting the use of social media by academics for quite some time. A polished and vibrant online presence helps with building expertise, sharing knowledge, and creating new connections that matter. It has been said that social media is the wave of the future. The future is here. We learn online, we share online, we connect online, and social media is the tool that helps us reach our goals. What better way to “get your message out there!” is there in this increasingly networked world?


  8. Some universities seem to be standing out for the way they are utilizing social media to engage with students, faculty and the community. Being from the U.S., I’m familiar with the way some universities such as Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins and NYU Stern are using social media. Here’s a short but interesting article about how these three schools are using social media: http://www.postano.com/blog/how-universities-are-using-social-media Thanks for the great post, by the way.


  9. Pingback: Social Media is not being used effectively in Higher Education and Universities

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