The often lengthy and emotionally charged process of applying for a higher education course means navigating different stages. There’s research to be done, choices to make, deadlines to meet, exams to swot for and futures to anticipate. For young adults, used to structured learning environments, it can be their first experience of trying to define their own lives as individuals. Reaching out to students via social media can be a surprisingly effective way to support them on this journey.
It’s true that even a few years ago some educators viewed social media with suspicion, fear or even disdain. A potentially disruptive, unknown channel that was ‘interactive’. And that last bit meant that students could answer back. Add to that the understandable concern that many parents have about excessive social media usage, and the potential for online bullying it throws up, and some educators chose to steer clear.
But many schools and colleges are now using social media in a positive way, with most having an active Twitter feed of news and information targeted at their communities of parents, students and staff. Meanwhile, staff and learners are exploiting social media tools to support learning and teaching throughout higher education.
Why should you start using social media?
- It’s where your students are. There are an estimated 3 billion people worldwide now using social media networks, including frontrunner Facebook, and young people are the highest using age group. So if you’re still channelling your energies into composing emails that may never get opened or read, it may be time to join the party.
- Your students can access social media content wherever they are, on any device, including their smartphone.
- It’s an easy and quick way to post reminders about anything from application deadlines and admissions guidelines to interview preparation and information about colleges. You can direct them to further reading, information or videos with a link.
- Where parents are following you, too, your posts will serve to remind them about key tasks and dates, so they are more likely to feel ‘in the loop’ and able to lend support at home. Or at least understand the slammed doors.
Which platform is best?
Focus your efforts on one or two key platforms – say a Facebook group and/or a Twitter account. Set up professional accounts to support your students, rather than using your personal accounts. On Facebook you can manage the settings so that no-one outside the intended group members can become a ‘friend’; and posts can be moderated (so you get to approve comments before they are published). Use your job title and the name of the organisation you work for, ideally with the logo and/or brand colours displayed in the background. Use the ‘bit about you’ section to explain your job role. You’re allowed to be human but this isn’t the place to go into too much detail about your love of classic cars or cats.
If you’re a new user of social media in your professional life, then familiarise yourself with your own school or college’s social media policies as well as the basics of e-safety.
Once set up, you can encourage students to join your Facebook group or follow you on Twitter, by email, and verbally – and by including your social media handles in print outs you distribute. Expect to have to do this repeatedly over time to build followers.
- Aim to post regularly – perhaps once every couple of weeks, plus more frequently when there is a key date or message to relay. Make a note in your diary to stick to your schedule of posts to avoid going silent for long periods when other things have taken priority.
- Social media posts should be short and to the point. Convey one message per post.
- Avoid barking orders. Think friendly reminders, motivational tips and encouragement. If you’re posting a link to further information, try to explain the benefit in a few words – ‘Some great tips here if you’re thinking about studying abroad’ or ‘I know some of you have found this article useful for filling in application forms, so I’m sharing it more widely to the group’ alongside a link is likely to work better than a curt ‘Read this’. And avoid hyperbole – overuse of words like ‘must-read’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘excellent’ can backfire as students start to screen them out.
- Respond to students. Social media is about relationship building – try to listen to what they say and engage in (short) conversations with them. Avoid anything personal. If a student flags that they are struggling with something you can always offer a general, useful tip in the group as well as an invitation to direct message you to discuss the issue further or arrange an appointment.
- Celebrate success. Good news is a great motivator, so tweet positive stats and results.
- Soften the blows. For example, on exam results day, don’t forget to post positive messages about opportunities to get places via schemes like the UK’s ‘Clearing’ process.
- If you’re a more confident poster, consider using pictures and graphics. Short videos can work well, but don’t use pictures of students without their permission. Adding a filter to a graphic can have good impact for little effort. You can also learn how to schedule tweets in advance.
- If you get negative comments, sometimes using humour is the best way to deal with it. Whatever you do, don’t ignore negative remarks: deal with them promptly, fairly and reasonably. Be yourself and stay professional.
Keep track of how you’re doing
Of course, just because you’re having an interesting discussion online doesn’t mean that students are all completing stellar applications and getting them in on time.
Treating social media engagement as part of your ‘proper job’ means keeping a firm eye on how well it’s working for you, making tweaks and adjustments and monitoring time spent. So, link your social media activity clearly to your strategic objectives and keep track of how well you’re achieving your goals. Good luck!