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5. Choosing the right tools 

This section at a glance:

  • we review the choice of social media tools as part of the overall information flow within the institution;
  • we look at achieving the right balance between institutionally familiar tools and tools that are popular with students;
  • we suggest some approaches to help you ensure you are meeting the needs of your wider user population and not being diverted by short term trends or minority demands.

There is a vast array of tools available, and the number increases every day, so selecting the best tool for a particular purpose is far from easy. At an institutional level the selection of tools for communication and collaboration needs to be thought through in terms of your overall information strategy and information flows. The ad hoc addition of tools in an organic fashion can lead to confusion on the part of staff and students about which tools to use for which purposes. Currently there is a lot of thought being given to reputation management but less evidence of effort being put into looking at how information flows via social networks support all aspects of the student lifecycle.

The University of West London considered a holistic approach to student support when it devised its award-winning[1], West London Guru. It aimed to deliver a conversational approach to customer service and providing expert advice. The aim was to empower students and the Guru was intended to be a friendly expert who was there to facilitate discussions not to control them. West London Guru listens and responds to conversations and builds relationships between students, presenting them with a credible voice from the University. It goes beyond a typical corporate presence and is a low-cost way of filling an important information gap. A range of student social media ambassadors mean that the Guru is available for almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week. West London Guru is described as a personality not a channel. The Guru is an engaging and important link to current and prospective students, a means of support to central departments at peak times, a means of early identification of issues affecting students and a means of fostering a sense of community. It is an example of having a clear focus and using a limited range of tools (mainly Facebook and Twitter) well.

An analysis by Russell (2012) looks at what tools UK universities are using and how many different social media channels each university uses. Any such analysis will of course date very quickly but is worth referencing here as the raw data has been made available.

In Section 2, Social media: what is it?, we identified that there is a strong element of fashion in relation to the tools e.g. evidence that the 16-18 group are leaving Facebook behind. This has been noted in a few studies including one by researchers at UCL as part of the Global Social Media Impact Study (nine anthropologists in eight countries researching use and consequences of social media).

    “What appears to be the most seminal moment in a young person’s decision to leave Facebook was surely that dreaded day your mum sends you a friend request. You just cannot be young and free if you know your parents can access your every indiscretion. The desire for the new, also drives each new generation to find their own media and this is playing out now in social media. It is nothing new that young people care about style and status in relation to their peers, and Facebook is simply not cool anymore.” (Miller 2013b).

The difficulty at an institutional level is therefore getting the right balance between tools that are readily available to you (and possibly already familiar to your staff) and tools that your students prefer to use, bearing in mind that you may have a diverse student population and a set of younger users whose habits and preferences change quite frequently. As an example, WhatsApp is a messaging service that is popular with young users because, unlike text messaging, it has minimal cost. It would appear difficult and risky for a university to move away from its reliance on email in order to use such a tool but on the other hand institutions are finding that many students simply do not use email any longer. It may be time to take a look at how the most urgent messages are delivered; there is some evidence from the schools sector of learners responding much faster to messages sent via Facebook groups than to email. The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) has been using Twitter to get urgent news to students and staff since 2011
“I stress over and over the importance of putting the ‘why’ before the ‘how’ and not the other way around (as the volume of unengaging Facebook pages with no clear target audience set up by universities demonstrates).” (Playle 2011)

Many of the most popular social media tools are free at the point of use (the value proposition for the providers being in advertising and the vast amounts of data they can harvest and sell on to others), but the ability to customise and adapt the tools can sometimes come at a cost. It is also unsafe to assume that a tool that starts out as free will always remain so. One example of this is the social network Ning , which gained considerable popularity with the academic community because it offered the ability to customise the platform to your desired look and feel, manage security permissions and was free of advertising. The platform launched in 2005 and in 2010 informed users that it would no longer be providing a free service and would only be available with three levels of chargeable service.

Most social media tools aim to attract the widest possible user base so are very conscious both of usability and the need to be accessible on a variety of end-user devices. Institutions nonetheless have an obligation to consider the accessibility features of each of the tools to ensure they are suitable for users with disabilities. There are however some examples of tools which, although widely used, have both hardware and skills requirements that can represent a considerable barrier to new users. An example of this, discussed in Section 2, Social media: what is it?, is the virtual world Second Life.

Universities also need to consider the international dimension of their activities, as social networks and other tools that are popular in Europe may be little used or even banned in some key target overseas markets such as China and other parts of Asia. Universities should also note the popularity of tools such as WeChat in China (438 million active users, of which there are 70 million outside of China)

Alongside the question of which tools to use is how exactly the institution-related elements should be managed. It may be reinventing the wheel for institutions to try to develop their own platforms and compete with the features and functionality of the most popular tools, but should institutions be creating some kind of walled gardens, particularly for learning and teaching purposes, to protect privacy and give participants a sense of being in an institutionally-managed space with clear boundaries?

Finally, many institutional learning platforms are increasingly integrating social media and institutions therefore need to think about whether it is reasonable to ask students to access institutional learning spaces or resources using a social media ID.

Institutions may also wish to consider the use of tools to help manage scheduling of posts across social media channels and to provide statistics on their reach via different channels.

The choice of tool should ultimately be driven by fitness for purpose, taking into account a range of factors. 

Good practice tips: 

  • View social media as part of service delivery – think about your stakeholders and their needs and preferences. A service design approach and the use of individual user stories or personas can help to ensure your approach is not driven by the needs of a vocal minority. See Baranova et al (2010) for a useful guide to using this approach in higher education . 

  • Look at the fit with IT infrastructure – consider the possible tools in relation to their compatibility with your other infrastructure. If your institution is involved with the UCISA Enterprise Architecture Community of Practice you may already have a roadmap against which to measure fit. 

  • Solve real world problems – for example, consider whether social media tools might address issues due to students not reading email? 

  • Be inclusive – ensure that the tools you use are accessible to the widest possible range of potential users. The Web2Access site has useful information on the types of test that should be applied to social media sites in order to meet the needs of users with particular disabilities and you also need to think about whether the tool can be accessed in the range of countries where your target audience might reside. 

  • Look at total cost of ownership – consider the total cost of the various options available, bearing in mind that tools free at the point of use may require chargeable customisation and that some tools may have cost implications in terms of the guidance and/or training needed





Additional resources

  • The University of Leicester has produced a useful Social Media Framework worksheet that helps define objectives, audiences, messages, goals and means of evaluation as an aid to choosing appropriate communication channels.



  [1] UWL won Best Social Media Strategy at the Institute of Internal Communications awards 2011

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