Research, Social Media, SocioTech

How Do Higher Ed Institutions Use Twitter?

In a very limited way. Based on two recent studies examining Canadian and US post-secondary use of Twitter, we found most colleges and universities are using social media platforms as either a communication or marketing tool. Higher ed campuses have the ability to optimize social media technologies in the service of teaching, learning, and research – rather than focussing on institutional branding and marketing.

In looking at 145,822 original tweets and 70,792 retweets of 77 Canadian public universities Twitter profiles, we learned a great deal about colleges/university use. Results from this analysis indicated these institutions mostly use this Twitter to broadcast information and construct overwhelmingly positive representations of campus life. Here is a quick video overview of the paper:

In general, higher ed institutions represent university life as gratifying, enjoyable, and beautiful, by commonly showcasing:

  • Smiling and happy students;
  • Mostly middle-aged white male faculty members;
  • Upgraded and attractive campus buildings;
  • Accolades for graduation ceremonies;
  • Announcements about groundbreaking research; and
  • Highlights of sporting victories.

Unfortunately, Canadian universities are not alone as they present their “best self” on Twitter by:

  • Highlighting positive events and happenings
  • Showcasing a positive university life for the public; and
  • Promoting the institution’s brand

In looking at American college and university primary Twitter accounts (n=2411), Kimmons, Veletsianos, and Woodward (2016) found the Twitter histories [a sample of 5.7 million tweets, representing 62 % of all tweets created by these accounts] offered little innovation and value for the campus communities they are trying to serve. Most tweets posted by an institutional account are monologic, share information instead of eliciting action, offer an insular ecosystem of web resources, and express a neutral or a positive sentiment. This whiteboard animation can provide you a brief overview of this paper:

Based on my previous research on sociotechnical stewardship and social media guidance (Pasquini & Evangelopoulos, 2017), it is not surprising to see an emphasis on branding or focus on a promotional strategy for postsecondary social media use. In examining 250 institutional social media policies/guidelines, 64% (n=161) of these documents originate from an office connected to communications, marketing, and/or public relations at each higher ed institution. The primary direction and emphasis for social media use in higher ed have been co-opted from marketing and business planning to encourage a specific institutional brand, that is, one with a consistent voice and presenting strategically tailored messages that highlight positive campus environments.

From this examination of institutional Twitter accounts in Canada and the US, it is apparent the information and images portrayed in social media streams represent an incomplete student experience and an idealized image of college/university life. This is problematic, as these crafted messages with only positive sentiments could mislead students, staff, and faculty who are active in social media spaces. This use of Twitter presents an inaccurate portrayal of campus life, limit the representation and narrative of the student story, and it does little to model expected behavior or interactions in these online environments for all campus stakeholders. From this research, I would challenge our higher ed institutions to “do better work” if they are engaging on any social media channel for their college/university. These should be more than just communication and marketing spaces in higher ed. Think about the ways you can reach and involve your students, staff, faculty, alumni, and campus partners on these channels. Why are you not researching problems out loud, sharing the struggle of your learning, showcasing your teaching challenges, or offering/asking for advice? Twitter is the new town hall at our institutions and in our society. It is up to our higher ed institutions and its constituents to be present, to be active, and model ways to show value and real experiences on these social media platforms. We can do better than just use social media spaces as a marketing, communication, or promotional tool.

References:

Kimmons, R., Veletsianos, G., & Woodward, S. (2016). Institutional Uses of Twitter in Higher Education. Innovative Higher Education, 42(2), 97-111.

Pasquini, L. A., & Evangelopoulos, N. (2017). Sociotechnical stewardship in higher education: A field study of social media policy documents. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 29(2), 218-239. doi: 10.1007/s12528-016-9130-0 Published Online November 21, 2016.

Veletsianos, G., Kimmons, R., Shaw, A. G., Pasquini, L. A., & Woodward, S. (2017). Selective openness and promotional broadcasts: Twitter use in Canada’s public universities. Educational Media International, 54(1), 1-19. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09523987.2017.1324363

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