Social Media in Student Affairs and the Need for Institutional Support

Institutional support is necessary for social media to thrive in higher education.  Individuals and grassroots efforts have opened the door for social media to be accepted at universities and have proven the values of it.  To further the use of social media,  institutional support is required for it to be embraced, to be sustained and to explore further uses. While the mention of policies and guidelines and even having committees that represent the different factions of the university including marketing, IT, legal, business unit reps could be seen as overly bureaucratic, it is my opinion, based on experience, that it is necessary for social media to be embraced as part of official university business. If a group, representing the different functions of your organization, does not clearly define the use and boundaries of social media, some individual(s) will improperly define it for the organization based on limited and biased perspectives.


Ask anyone you work with or anyone you interact with for that matter and they’ll probably have different interpretations of  social media. Every person will have different motivations and concerns about it. In my conversations with colleagues about social media, the feedback I receive range from fully adopting it for business use to outright banning it.

For a network security administrator, the most likely response you’ll get is far from endorsement. Social media from a security perspective is a nightmare because it increases exposure to security threats like phishing, viruses and other malicious activities.  It is in the very nature of social media wherein networks are built around acquaintances, friends and people that trust each other that even makes it more dangerous. One would probably be more apt to click on a link provided for by someone we know with minimal hesitation.

Ask a developer what social media means and a response you might get is something like “how can I build something cool around it?” and something like “How do I integrate it into our enterprise systems?”.

Ask a business manager and a concern might be that it’s a waste of  their employees time.

A power-social media user might tell you that it’s about conversations, it’s about connecting.

Ask a high level executive and they might give you a puzzled look followed by “How can we use it responsibly for our goals?”

For a policy administrator the concern might be on whether confidential information could be leaked and whether any rules are broken by just using social media. Existing policies created before the age of social media may not be as applicable or may not be consistent with today’s practice. For example, facebook terms of use states that “you grant us (fb)  a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”).” This statement may contradict existing university policies on the use of photos, logos, etc. The question is whether this would be enough to ban the use of facebook for all university units.

Given the different perspectives, if the use of social media is to be embraced  in higher education, individuals representing the different perspectives like I mentioned above should be included in the discussions. In the last few months, I’ve been doing substantial research, immersing myself in facebook, twitter, this blog and other forms of social media  to gain some perspective on the benefits and pitfalls of using it. Frankly, I’ve had many frustrating conversations trying to convince others  to even give social media a chance in student affairs.  However, I do appreciate the concerns being voiced and having experienced the process of introducing new technologies to my organization more than once, I know that it is only through open discussion and continually proving the legitimacy of social media that I can start having skeptics believe in it and for adopters to more effectively use it. In my position as Associate Director of Information Systems/Software Development for a central Student Affairs IT department, I understand the perspectives and I  have consider all of them. I worry about security and policies and I think about how to leverage social media to meet the business needs of student affairs as a division and as individual departments. I also just want to have fun using it, learning and connecting with others just as I have in the last few months.

For the last few months, I’ve used social media for personal use and for mobile web/social media research “under the radar” because it was seen by some individuals as a security risk, against university policies and not an appropriate use of university resources. It was only within the last two months when our Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs officially endorsed it that I have been able to openly promote the use of it. With his support, I am now in the process of defining a social media team to discuss guidelines, trainings, resources, assessment and  the how to integrate social media in all aspects of our division including recruitment, communication, marketing,  student engagement and building communities. Two weeks ago, I presented at our annual Professional Development Conference.  Next month, I will be presenting the use of social media to the campus. Coincidentally, in this pursuit of promoting social media, I have also been able to use the opportunity to promote mobile web development as these two are very much related in how we could use them to interact with our customers.  My colleague and I presented on Intro to Mobile Web Development to about 40 web developers/managers from 22 departments last week.

I’ve often heard that social media is about connecting, about conversations. For that to happen, guidelines need to be defined and established, not to restrict the connections and conversations that are happening, but rather, to ensure that academic freedom and freedom of expressions are protected and at the same time, these conversations do not become issues of misconducts.  Without defined guidelines/policies and understanding of how to apply them,  it seems easier to impose restrictions on the use of social media. One inaccurate argument I have heard from time to time is that social media should not be used because it violates FERPA or HIPAA.  I think there are potentials for these violations (like sharing personal medical information on facebook for example, inadvertent or intentional) but through education, I think these violations could be avoided. Some universities have embraced social media for use in and out of the classroom. Many universities get the value of social media. StudentAdvisor.com just today listed what they consider Top 100 Social Media Colleges. In addition, Purdue University has developed a suite of applications called “Studio by Purdue”  using social media and mobile for academic use.

Last week, I visited our university’s children center and it was so wonderful seeing the children playing on the playground with no care in the world. I also  saw some children playing with a couple of bunnies and some asleep in their cribs being cared for by the teachers. Not so obvious behind this care-free environment for the children are many policies, procedures, information systems behind the operations. There are legal requirements to make sure the cribs meet safety standards, reporting requirements to the state and federal government, required training/certifications for the teachers, information systems to track parent/guardian information, wait list, and payment information. In some way, I can make an analogy of how social media should be approached just like the children center. For social interaction, community-building, connections to happen between the members of our  institutions and to our customers as well as to ensure social media is used for the purpose of our organizations, institutional support must be defined and present.

A colleague recently asked me this question – “Are you worried that you will be blamed for promoting social media if/when things go wrong?” My answer to her was “Yes, I’m worried.”  I see the value of social media for student affairs as I did in 1996 with websites when I created the first homepage for our division and the same concerns were brought up back then. The security concerns, abuse of this very important medium are real and the question is not whether “if things will go wrong” but rather “when things go wrong” and I’m fully aware of that, given my role overseeing many information systems containing student and medical records. I would sleep better knowing that the use of social media for our university is a product of many perspectives and not personally my own biases and limited perspectives.

Note: This post is solely my opinion and is not representative of my university’s position.

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