That’s a significant number of young people (dare we say “millennials?”) in colleges and universities right now, as well as there’s a lot of colleges and universities too: over 3,100 four-year colleges.
We talk a lot about education in aspirational and inspirational terms -- the importance of a college degree to the economy, for example -- and all that is true. What we discuss less is how colleges and universities connect with, inform, and reach out to their students. A college student in fall 2016 is massively different than one in fall 1996. That latter student barely had Google, and certainly didn’t have social networking and apps.
In only 20 years, then, everything about connecting with students has changed. Colleges need to find new ways to plug into their world. So what's higher ed doing to keep up? Turning to where students spend increasingly more and more time: social media apps.
Let’s start with the big players: major social networking apps. Logically, we should begin with Facebook. It’s the biggest platform for many, although 13 to 17 year-olds are fleeing the site right now for other apps. (Those kids will be in college in just a few years.)
Way back in 2009, there were already “100 ways to use Facebook in your college classroom” lists. How individual professors use it still varies by individual, but some universities are using Facebook very well. Consider this from UT-Austin:
Nothing seems remarkable about this, right? It’s just a Facebook cover photo? No. Look at the bottom right. See the “Sign Up” button? Most universities have not been great about working with Facebook’s call-to-action button features, but UT-Austin’s “Sign Up” button goes to a newsletter subscription. This means that all year, they’re capturing email addresses from current students, prospective students, and parents too. The newsletter, via social building, becomes a great way to connect and keep in touch with the community.
Facebook is the “old man” of social media and college apps, though. 12 years is an eternity in social and mobile. Let’s move to Instagram and Snapchat, the newer darlings on the block.
Check out this use of Insta via Miramar College:
Jessica Matthews, assistant professor of health and exercise science at Miramar College assigned a 30-day Instagram challenge for extra credit last semester. Students were asked to post photos related to overall wellness for 30 days. Images would be related to healthy food choices, yoga poses, exercise ideas and positive affirmations.
Instagram is obviously very photo-based, and as the TCU Director of New Media notes here, “photos are one of the best ways to sell anything.” Dozens of universities, from TCU to Cal-Berkeley to University of Florida, use Instagram and special hashtags to encourage participation in major events. This typically includes move-in, orientation week, graduation, major football/basketball games, and fairs/carnivals/big-time speakers.
Now we come to Snapchat, the app (and college app) of the moment. Someone entering college this month (or at the end of August) is quite likely a Snapchat user and potentially has it as the main app on their phone. Colleges are getting wise to that, like Tennessee Wesleyan University. Last year, they made homemade valentines, hid them around campus, and sent students “snaps” of the location to go find them. It seems a little Pokemon Go meets romance, but the engagement levels were very high.
Similarly, the University of Houston uses Snapchat to post campus news -- when there were icy roads on campus last winter, that was a main channel they communicated on -- and Eastern Washington University uses the “Stories” feature for major campus events such as football games.
Beyond the social media apps, some colleges are now embracing chat bots too. AdmitHub has been working with Georgia State University on a chatbot called “Pounce,” allowing students to navigate the highs and lows of college via SMS. There’s also a Social Radar app from the co-founder of Blackboard (which was a major way of connecting those 1990s students we discussed above). Social Radar has a location beacon feature, which allows universities to locate students and students to locate their friends in classes or common areas.
The main thing to remember with college apps is this stat from Pew Research: only 6% of teens use email daily. In contrast, somewhere around 91% use texting,chat, or messaging apps daily, and social is somewhere between those two extremes. As a result, the conventional ways that colleges and universities have communicated with students -- primarily email and postings -- don’t work anymore. As you can see above, though, some are starting to embrace new apps (and some old ones) to connect with their students more effectively.
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