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Executive summary 

This Toolkit provides a general overview of social media supported by specific guidance for particular types of user and scenario.

Why should we be interested?

Social media is a general term for a range of internet-based applications that allow people to create, co-create, share and interact with information. The scale of use of these tools is phenomenal with the most popular applications having many millions of active users worldwide.

Use of such tools by higher education providers is already common and is increasing. The cultural trend implied by use of such tools is a significantly different and more social relationship between higher education providers and their stakeholders. Effective use of such channels can nonetheless benefit from a strategic approach.

There is much good practice around but many universities have not yet been able to pick up on these pockets of good practice and embed them into more strategic approaches that fit closely with their particular mission. Having been, to a certain extent, swept along by a global trend, the time is right for the higher education sector to be both more visionary in its approach and more tactical in the use of particular tools and to determine what kind of metrics or other evidence will help evaluate whether or not this type of engagement is delivering the desired benefits.

What are the benefits?

There is strong evidence that the effective use of social media is delivering considerable benefits across all aspects of university activities. To take but a few of the examples we discuss:

  • Students are making contact with their peers through university networks prior to arriving on campus, and in some cases even prior to application, aiding recruitment and retention. 
  • Researchers are engaging in action research and conducting dialogue about their research using such tools. 
  • Students are using the tools to develop and demonstrate their competence in skills required for the world of work. 
  • Universities are using the tools to reach, interact, and work collaboratively with, a range of audiences and using such public engagement to show the value of their activities in relation to the wider economy and society. 
  • Social tools are changing the nature of internal communications between University services and their customers. 
  • Social media tools are being used effectively to enhance learning and teaching practice: in this Toolkit we look at examples of their use to support peer review, peer support, collaborative working and enhancing learning in large group settings. 
  • Social networks offer another channel to maintain ongoing engagement with University alumni.


What are the risks?

As with any tool, social media can be misused and higher education institutions should seek to educate users about good practice and ensure they take steps to prevent any illegal action on the part of staff or students for which they might be held legally responsible. We suggest that the legal issues in relation to social media are not significantly different to the issues already faced by institutions and that much good practice and guidance already exists.

At first sight the range of legal issues that need to be considered when using social media is quite daunting. In practice however there is nothing significantly new about any of this: all of the relevant legislation has been in place for some time and HEIs already have well established procedures for ensuring compliance in matters such as copyright, data protection etc.

Matters relating to academic freedom and freedom of speech are particularly prevalent and contentious in relation to the use of social media. Situations where online behaviours go beyond the bounds of normal acceptability to the extent where they are illegal and/or constitute harassment of others are in some ways easier to deal with than grey areas where the right to express certain opinions using certain social media channels is more contentious. We look at some examples and suggest the simple guidance that standards of behaviour on social media channels should be no different to those pertaining to other aspects of university life.

Who needs to read this?

Effective and appropriate use of social media tools requires a willingness to innovate and experiment and effective collaboration across many different functional areas of the institution including: senior management; marketing; IT; learning and teaching; legal; and student support. We offer sections with specific guidance for different types of user.

For users from professional services we look at how to gain an understanding of your institutional readiness to embrace social media, to analyse where you are at the moment and to develop a plan for moving forward that includes both staff development and measurement of outcomes. We suggest a focus on how your use of social media supports your core principles and values rather than on defining a detailed set of rules about what can and cannot be done.

For individual staff we look at issues of digital presence and identity that occur when you are using social media to deliver learning and teaching or other services or to enhance your own professional practice. We look at how to find an approach that suits your personal style whilst maintaining appropriate professional standards.

For staff involved in supporting students we look at how to support students in creating the kind of digital identity they are happy to carry with them into their future lives, how to support them in staying safe online and using social media as an example to introduce concepts relating to academic integrity and reflecting on the development of transferable skills.

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