Administrators, professors look to social media to communicate with students

Tuesday, August 4, 2009 | 6:03 p.m. CDT; updated 12:12 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 6, 2009
Larry G. Brown, Jim MacMillan, and Dianne Lynch

COLUMBIA — On Stephens College President Dianne Lynch’s blog, you’ll get the skinny on password coupons for Shakespeare’s Pizza and a rundown of her road trip with Baby the basset hound.

On MU human geography professor Larry Brown’s Facebook page, you’ll find his head shot and a link to his storytelling Web site. And with new MU convergence faculty member Jim Macmillan, you'll find more than 50,000 Twitter followers. 

Columbia educators and college administrators use social media, a term for blogs or networking Web sites like Twitter or Facebook, for a variety of purposes. For some, social media plays an important role in their social lives, in how they teach and in how they connect with the community. 

Educators, however, have mixed feelings on the importance of social media in higher education and its role in the classroom. Some see it as the wave of the future, an important tool to connect with students, yet others try it begrudgingly in classes, convinced that nothing can replace or supplement face-to-face contact.

More people worldwide are using social media., which tracks Internet activity trends, reported that in April, social networking grew to 140 million users worldwide. Facebook had 67.5 million visitors, and Twitter had 17 million visitors. The MU Facebook network now has about 45,000 profiles attached to it.

But educators are still unsure what effect social media will have and are  experimenting to find what works.

The University of Missouri System has begun incorporating social media into its public relations and media resources within the past 18 months, spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead said.

The UM System uses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and podcasts. UM Web coordinator Michael Hill said social media has been a good way to generate traffic to the system Web site, keeping UM in the news and raising its national profile. 

“We really started using it because these new mediums of communication are really changing the way people are receiving news,” Hill said.

Hollingshead said the system has also found it useful to podcast to employees, making announcements more interesting than they would be with traditional mail or e-mail.

Hill said there is no way to know what the next popular medium will be, but the system’s foray into social media has been effective so far. 

MU is also experimenting with social media by using it to make the workplace more efficient in the recession.

“With the hiring freeze, many of our staff are performing at their maximum or beyond that,” spokesman Christian Basi said. “When we look at technology, when we decide to use technology such as social networking sites, we want to make sure it will help with efficiency or try to alleviate workload.” 

Many MU departments have social networking pages such as Facebook or Twitter. Basi said the campus is drafting a policy and creating guidelines for department social networking pages.

Basi said MU is cautious with this technology, however. 

“We’re going to explore new technology,” he said. “But we’re not going to engage it until we know we can use it effectively.” 

Jeff Rice, director of the MU campus writing program and author of a book on electronic media called "The Rhetoric of Cool," said social media is so pervasive that professors will have to learn to manipulate it because social media is here to stay.

“The applications may come and go,” Rice said. “But you have to think about social media as a concept. The concept is going to be around for awhile.” 

He said instructors must tailor education and social media to students. Participation is something the instructor has to find a way to foster, he said. 

“If instructors are complaining about students not doing X, not doing Y, they should ask, what are we not doing?” Rice said. 

Rice said businesses require students to be able to manipulate these media, so he’s made it a priority to advance social media with professors. In 2007, he set up a blogging system for English composition students. He said he made it available for instructors to incorporate into their classes.

“I’m asking folks to consider what this might do, how this might help their teaching,”  Rice said.

Jason Ohler, a former professor of education technology at the University of Alaska, is an expert on social media and education. He said there will always be a place for face-to-face education, but social media will continue to grow and evolve. However, Ohler said there’s no way of knowing where it will go.

“We’re globally connected,”  said Ohler, now a media psychology professor at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. “It only makes sense to be globally connected when we pursue education.

“It’s (social media) going to head in a number of different directions. Our anchor is in having high expectations in education and research.” 

Yet, some Columbia students were nonplussed by social media’s effect on education and were indifferent about using it in classes.  

"I don't really care. It (social media) probably wouldn't help. It's social type stuff — we're trying to learn,” said Michael Phillip, a 20-year-old junior mechanical engineering major at MU.  "It wouldn't be distracting. It just wouldn't be necessary." 

Amanda Yoder, a 24-year-old MU law student, said that as she gets older, she uses social media more for communication rather than for her personal life. She said she can see its benefits and how it could help make professors and administrators more accessible, but she’s not sure it’s necessary.

"I get overwhelmed by how many different ways you can do that (social media)," she said. "If I have professors wanting me to follow different forms of media, I think that would get a little overwhelming, distracting." 

One student was concerned about professors using social media.  

"I guess I'm old-fashioned,”  said Denver Moore, a 20-year-old MU education major. “I don't use any of it. I wouldn't want teachers to start using it."

However, Kristin Carringer, an MU history student, said she appreciated when history professor Jeff Pasley used new media in classes. 

“I always thought it gave him credibility that his name was out there," she said.

Carringer said she probably wouldn’t use social media to contact her teacher, however. 

"That's kind of creepy to Facebook your teacher." 

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