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[Your College Here] Wants to Be Your 'Friend'

[Your College Here] Wants to Be Your 'Friend' Resourceful college administrators, marketers, and technologists are discovering that the best way to reach their students—and prospective students—is to speak to them in their own social networking space.

In the past five years, social networking has rocketed from a leisure activity to a "phenomenon that engages tens of millions of internet users," according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit that follows the impact of the internet in differing social environments. In a recent national survey on teenagers and social networking conducted by Pew, more than half of all online American youth ages 12 to 17— 55 percent to be precise—are heading to online social networking sites. What does this mean for higher ed? Simply this: Your incoming students are now expecting a presence of your college or university on social networking sites.

With little to no investment, schools can 'push' special campus activity announcements to their communities, via social networking sites.

New Generation of Community Tools

"Since students are adopting these social technologies anyway, schools will be better served by delivering to students tools that are just as engaging as mainstream social networking tools, and that are connected to other campus systems, like student event calendars," says CEO Dave Hersh of Jive Software, a collaboration software provider. Jive recently launched Clearspace enterprise software for collaboration, which allows students and faculty to blog, wiki, share files, and instant message (IM) within one interface. "Students will be able to connect with each other in a much smarter and easier way," says Hersh.

Even eBook technology providers such as VitalSource Technologies (maker of Bookshelf) are integrating community 2.0 elements into their product lines. Says VitalSource CEO Frank Daniels III: "[Our] technology is somewhat analogous to social networks like MySpace, only the communities and interaction take place around books." Users/members have the ability to not only collaborate, but to communicate comments, as well. Bookshelf, for instance, enables students to load onto their laptops any number of texts (from hundreds to thousands), annotate them whether the students are on the network or not and, on a central server (as users connect via the web), send the notes to friends in their network. It's basically a Web 2.0 application that can be used from the desktop.


YOU MAY HAVE HEARD the term "social computing," but who really knows much about it? Students in the Master of Science in Information program at the University of Michigan now can study the ways that computation around social processes can inform our understanding of them, and ways that computation can be harnessed in support of those social processes, as well. In fact, they can major in Social Computing, which includes a focus on online communities, social networking, and user-contributed content.

According to Paul Resnick, professor at UM's School of Information (and the force behind the university's new program), "One of our courses is on 'social network analysis,' which provides techniques for analyzing patterns of interaction among people; that's an example of computation about social processes. Other courses on recommender and reputation systems deal with techniques for supporting social processes: in particular, information sharing and exchange among people who don't have strong personal ties." Resnick has researched and taught social computing for a number of years and in 2001 was the founder of the Community Information Corps, an organization created to allow students, faculty, and community members across disciplines to explore the changing role of information and technology in a civil society.


"Students are already massively engaged in social networks. It's part of their discussion environment to talk about different parts of their life. You need to put [their academic work] into the context they're familiar with, and that they understand," says Daniels. In the next generation of VitalSource's Bookshelf (just released this summer) users can rank each other's notes. That way, when studying, users may, for instance, rely most heavily on those notes/highlights that were ranked highest by their classmates, and create their own social or study groups.

But institutions are finding even more ways to engage the already Web 2.0- savvy student: They're using social networking to recruit the new generation of students, and they're using it in all sorts of new ways to keep students connected and collaborating—in and out of the classroom.

Campus Community 2.0 Recruitment

According to E-Expectations: Class of 2007, an annual report of 1,000 collegebound high school juniors conducted by the higher ed enrollment management consultancy Noel-Levitz, marketing solutions provider James Tower, and the National Research Center for College & University Admissions, 72 percent of those surveyed would like to interact with an admissions counselor or student admissions worker via IM. Officials at Mars Hill College (NC), a liberal arts institution, must have been paying attention to findings like this: They wanted to get closer to their current and prospective students, so they decided to do it by congregating where the kids actually congregate— online on social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and LinkedIn.

"Attending college or university is already an important part of the young adult experience, but so are technology, friends, and socializing," says Andy Mrozkowski, webmaster of admissions and marketing at Mars Hill. "So, it seemed natural to have a spot for the college within the normal online experience of our students; their social network environments." Mrozkowski knows a good deal about reaching out to various constituencies: He came to Mars Hill directly from the corporate world, where he developed training systems for top-flight corporations, and became an expert in the use of streaming media for training and outreach.

He is now focused also on social networking, and explains that many schools are beginning to understand the benefit of this interactive type of outreach. With little to no investment involved in setting up a profile page on a social networking site, schools can "push" special campus activity announcements and other communications to their communities in a matter of minutes. Of course, there are always concerns about investing the time and effort to adopt this type of online outreach, and there is the fear that after the work is complete, the students or the general community may not respond or even find the page. But Mrozkowski has forged ahead and coordinated Mars Hill student interns to build the school's profile on MySpace, and populate the profile page with facts about the institution that could be attractive to a prospective student. The unnamed MySpace project quickly took off when schoolmates of the interns added the college MySpace page to their friends list. The school's intranet produces information in XML format which, in turn, is consumed by the social networking sites. "All that is required is to specify the RSS feed and then every time the RSS feed is updated, the social network page is updated also. We use feeds for events, public news releases, and now videos!" says Mrozkowski. Whenever a faculty member adds an event to the school's intranet, it is automatically added to the school's MySpace page.

Though still a fairly new profile page (it launched this past spring), the Mars Hill College page is growing, and instant connections to existing oncampus content and resources give the site enhanced credibility and help it to grow virally. "[We figured that] if we couldn't get the attention of our own students, how could we expect anyone else to take notice?" says the webmaster.


Paul ResnickResnick says that the drivers behind the program are the rising popularity of of social networking sites, and the university's desire to leverage the research expertise of faculty. Moreover, with the growing demand for online community jobs in the private and public sectors, positions such as online community managers and eMarketing associates are on the rise in almost every industry. "On the internal side [within the faculty of the School of Information], we have some of the world's best researchers in recommender and reputation systems, network analysis, computer-supported cooperative work, and the social psychology of participation in online communities," he says. He goes on to add that, "It made sense to try to integrate that research expertise into our master's degree offerings, to offer a program where we would have a clear edge over other information schools with which we compete for students."

Resnick foresees other institutions adopting social computing programs. Some, he says, are already offering one or two related courses on this topic. "I expect that other universities also will expand their offerings in this area, as we have been doing for the past few years, but it will take a few years for most of them to gather enough faculty to support as broad a program as we are able to offer." For more on the Social Computing program at the University of Michigan, go here. The University of Southern California is also offering a similar program. For more, go here.

Mrozkowski and his team also dabbled with Facebook and YouTube. They attempted to launch a Facebook page, which initially took off and the school's network populated quickly. However, Facebook "put an end to the party," says Mrozkowski. "They shut down the page saying that their profiles were only for 'individuals' and not 'institutions.' We pleaded with them to reconsider, but got no response."

Clearly, college administrators seeking to establish a school presence on a social networking site should be warned: What can start off as a campus networking initiative can come to a screeching halt when the community managers at the mainstream social networks put the brakes on what they consider obvious marketing ploys on the part of school recruiters and PR folk.


WHILE SOCIAL NETWORKING vendors are starting to integrate social networking into their collaboration products, some schools have taken the initiative by using already existing social networks and websites for academic projects, as part of their curricula.

Even geography professors, for instance, are finding that social networking has application to that discipline. According to James Craine, assistant professor in the Geography department at California State University-Northridge, “Social networking is a part of the larger domain of cyberspace, so it is my belief that since there is indeed a spatial component, the study of these [virtual] spaces is certainly relevant to geography. There is a lot of new and unique research being done in other departments at other universities (mostly in communication departments) and that is now being introduced into geography in a modified form.”

James Craine So, Craine and the students in his Geography of Media seminar launched a MySpace page; they wanted to see if they could develop and expand a geography "friends" network by the end of the semester. The page offered a study of "virtual identity and the study of virtua," reports Craine. "Virtual spaces are just now finding their way into our discipline, and it's pretty exciting to see the results coming to fruition in the form of articles and books by geographers." The class ended up with close to 500 MySpace friends and got picked up in search engines, to boot.

Craine also teamed up with Assistant Professor Chris Lukinbeal at Arizona State University, and Lecturer Jason Dittmer at the University College London, to create the website Aether. The premise? To share resources and showcase work with geography of media such as advertising, television, and newspapers, and to publish an eJournal on the subject. The website, say the geography-minded academics, has given them a space to network and connect with other "like-minded geographers."

The truth is, each of the commercial social networks has its own standards of what is considered appropriate user-generated content and what seems like a school's effort to grow its own networks. Generally, school profiles created by students stand the test of time, but when such profiles come directly from school administrators, they are flagged for investigation—and often are removed.

Admissions Counselor Nick Venturella at Wisconsin's Edgewood College (another small liberal arts institution) has, from his own personal experience, always understood the benefits of social networking websites. Venturella is a professional musician and, like most of his musician colleagues, he has been virally marketing his music on MySpace since the site launched. He introduced the idea of similar viral marketing efforts to the higher-ups in his department, and with support he was able to marry his social networking experience to his admissions background.

[Your College Here] Wants to Be Your 'Friend'

EDGEWOOD COLLEGE IS LOOKING for 'friends'—current and prospective students who welcome up-todate, informally delivered information about the school. MySpace is the perfect place to find them.

Says Venturella: "The basic macrolevel idea of creating the Edgewood College MySpace page was to stay connected to the campus community, and build and maintain relationships with traditional-aged college students and prospective students who are utilizing this kind of technology anyway, in order to stay connected, build, and maintain relationships with their peers."

Today, many schools are starting to support the idea of students, faculty, and staff being active on social networks. Although college and university staffers are in the minority on this front, many are starting to see the value in this type of networking. In fact, many now have their own personal pages, says Mars Hill's Mrozkowski.

And according to Venturella, "We figured if we were to use a social networking site like MySpace, and approach it in an appropriate, focused way, utilizing the five Edgewood College core values as guiding principles—truth, justice, community, partnership, and compassion— the college could benefit from the relationships it builds and maintains through the online community. It would thus become more of an integrated extension of the Edgewood College offline community. Then, through users' participation on the social networking site, it could become an additional recruitment tool."

Adds Mrozkowski, "In short, we are already their friends and they are ours, so why not make it official?"

Campus social networking efforts can come to a screeching halt when the mainstream networks sense a marketing ploy.

Mars Hill continues to have its student interns access the school's MySpace profile to perform the occasional update. But Mrozkowski and Communication Director Mike Thornhill also have administrative access to the MySpace page; they help the interns oversee the sites. "The internet and web devices are becoming ubiquitous in everyone's lives, and virtually every new faculty member we've hired in the past couple of years has come with web pages of his or her own," notes Mrozkowski. He adds that if current faculty and staff join in the institutional initiative, he imagines the school's social networks will grow "at a blistering rate."


Andy MrozkowskiMARS HILL COLLEGE, a small liberal arts school in North Carolina, is encouraging its students to generate their own news content and broadcast it online, to help raise the awareness of the school. The effort launched in 2006 as a marketing experiment on YouTube and "was very successful," says Andy Mrozkowski, webmaster of admissions and marketing. "We had many colleges like Duke University [NC] follow our lead and duplicate our YouTube channel with their own videos." But after YouTube removed a video and the college ran into a conflict with Viacom International, "We decided we wanted to host our own videos, and have more control over how they were presented. For example, YouTube might display our video next to a banner for an online correspondence college." By creating the school's tvMHC streaming video site, however, "we gave ourselves ultimate control over how our material was presented." Today, tvMHC is an online, on-campus television program operated by Mars Hill students where any site visitor can view clips filmed by the college's students, and find out more about campus life at the school. Students simply check out video cameras from the media center and become on-the-scene reporters, querying campus community members about classes, relationships, technology, fashion, dating, music, and more. "Since we started producing a weekly half-hour news show, we've had great participation from students," explains Mrozkowski. Now all administrators have to do is determine how many 2007-2008 prospects found or chose Mars Hill because of its compelling coverage.

With the Good, Comes the Bad

As the new generation of students enters school expecting forms of online social networking, offline social networking is sure to take a hit, say campus pros. "I see [online social networking] replacing a lot of the face-to-face contact between students and staff, and that is unfortunate," says Mrozkowski. Virtual tours and video blogs from admissions counselors are starting to replace a lot of that face-to-face interaction, he admits. "On the positive side, we have had the opportunity to reach students who may never have thought about Mars Hill College, and each one who decides to attend makes the project worthwhile," he says.

There is also the issue of quality versus quantity: Not just anyone can be part of these institution-managed social networks, so many of the website administrators filter who legitimately can be admitted to the "friends" list (generally limited to prospective and current students). Because Edgewood College follows the mainstream online social networking models of filtering, its profile views aren't as large as other schools. But "Our focus is only on connecting with current and prospective students, and in that respect we have been successful," says Venturella. "I'm working on a metric for measuring level of site visitor engagement as well as effectiveness of the site; currently, we measure click-throughs, number of 'friends' and Edgewood College-related groups, and quality of content—positive, negative, or indifferent.


"Traditional-aged college students and prospective students know when they're being marketed to, and they don't always take too kindly to groups or organizations that try to use this kind of ruse to market to them," explains Venturella. "This is why we are very up-front in 'About Me' and 'Who I'd Like to Meet' about why we put this social networking site together. I also write brief, informal, informational blogs at least once a month. We have tried to keep it fairly light and fun, and we link the blog to the Edgewood College Facebook account so students can read the blogs from either site. We're definitely focused [on giving out information and acquiring friends]. And I think our MySpace friends appreciate that kind of honesty."

On the other hand, Venturella says, "I don't see social networking drastically changing the way we communicate with students, prospective students, and faculty/staff. I believe it will just become more widely used as a standard and expected communication tool. Those institutions that will get the most out of it will be those that adapt to it, use it, and are able to successfully integrate it into their general communications and marketing plans."

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