For students of the new millennium who are more tech savvy than previous generations and almost everyone has access to a computer the conditions are conducive for higher education to immerse in eLearning and social networking. As a large segment of the general public increasingly makes Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr and blogs as their means to socialize and network with each other; colleges and universities are responding by embracing social media as means to market, engage, teach, and interact with current and prospective students. (Reuben) Social networking tools also referred to as Web 2.0, are websites and applications that are fast becoming a part of the post secondary high tech arsenal of educational resources. Incentives for colleges and universities to partake in these new high tech eLearning social networking programs are spurred by current and future unrelenting waning of financial resources. In addition, higher education institutions need to develop effective strategies in attracting and engaging unprecedented tech savvy, very independent, active learners.
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History has taught us that with most societal advances education is the foundation of its continued growth and development. If that is the case, then the future of social media and higher education merging with continued success may depend on academia's acceptance and its response to the demands being exerted by students and other external forces. A major challenge or opportunity in higher education's eLearning process is how to motivate and keep the students engaged in the online process. In response to these challenges colleges and universities are expanding their use of distance learning integrated with social networking sites as a means of enhancing their instructional delivery of course material to students (Brady, Holcomb, & Smith).
The richness of the delivery and interaction process of eLearning integrated with social networks sites are part of the process in maintaining student engagement and enhancing students' ability to work in teams. This is extremely important since students do not have the opportunity for face-to-face interaction with the instructor and other classmates. Currently most college online courses use Blackboard, WebCt and other course delivery systems however they offer a limited cumbersome means for students to interact with instructors and each other. The process becomes somewhat constraint whereby instructors post assignments, exams, or questions on discussion boards while students post their responses, thus limiting the interaction process (Brady, Holcomb, & Smith). The end result is that some students tend to lose interest, become frustrated and disengage from the eLearning delivery method. To counter the situation instructors are incorporating blogs, discussion boards, chat rooms, video clips, and other tools to increase communication, teamwork and individual student engagement.
There are numerous networking systems such Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and other networking sites that have become the primary source of social and entertainment communications for many students. However, higher education leadership has shunned away from using the much commercialized networking sites in the classrooms due to safety and privacy concerns (Brady, Holcomb, & Smith). The development of educational social networking sites such as Elgg and Ning in Education has helped minimize the privacy and safety concerns of some institutions. Ning in Education allows online users to create their own private or public social network at no cost. The creator can design and make it make it perform just as they intended. This allows faculty to create social network sites that communicate with students about educational subjects or how to design specific projects with the goal of encouraging students to work together and interact as a group (EDUCAUSE). For students the network allows them to work in a setting in which they are familiar, where they can create their own network, and where they can encourage other students that may have similar academic and career interests to participate. The site is gaining interest as reported by Ning in April 2008. They recorded 220,000 networks, with over 70% being active within 30 days of the report. The network covers topics pertaining to news, entertainment, professional development, current events, and other educational support elements. Elgg is similar in scope as Ning. Elgg was introduced specifically for the education industry in 2004, with the intent of creating a social network center. It has evolved in the education industry and now has become a social platform for government agencies and business as well. (Elgg.com)
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Other more commercialized social network sites are still very popular among students but are predominantly used for personal and entertainment applications with less importance placed as an educational source. The online community of students using these sites share photos, music, ideas, videos, and other matters of interest. The following social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, blogs and Twitters, offer an array of opportunities for higher education organizations to share information to a broad audience in an efficient, effective and inexpensive manner.
Facebook for example is used as a source for individuals to connect with friends and other individuals with similar interests. The Facebook site has additional features permitting individuals to upload or download photos and share videos. Facebook also launched the Fan page feature in 2007. The Fan page feature created opportunities for colleges and universities to launch their own fan page where they can post videos, photos, wall posts, and discussion boards (Reuben). This created an opportunity for students to become fans of the institution. This became a very promising concept for college and university alumni associations to stay in touch with current and past alumni for fundraising opportunities. Other groups such as sororities, student government, and other student clubs and organizations find this social network site an ideal and inexpensive method to maintain connectivity with their members. Students can share information about specific courses, instructors, career opportunities and other educational points of interest as well.
MySpace, another online social network site offers similar features as Facebook. Students use the site to stay in touch, share photos, and exchange ideas. A major difference from Facebook, however, is that it allows for MySpace users to change their profile completely to include the background, appearance and format of the page. MySpace however, remains less popular than Facebook. Facebook has kept an image that attracts colleges and universities because its users' profiles reflect individuals that are more educated and have higher disposable income (Reuben). Colleges and universities use the site since it is a convenient and inexpensive way to reach current and prospective students to keep them informed about campus activities that may interest the college community.
YouTube in contrast, has become the online video networking site that spans across the globe. Colleges and universities use the website to reach students via the Internet, websites, email, mobile devices and blogs. The higher education institutions used to produce expensive CD' and DVD's to showcase their institutions to their targeted audience. It wasn't the most effective method of branding themselves and using it as part of their marketing mix strategy. The YouTube web sites offer a convenient and inexpensive method of uploading videos targeting prospective students.
Flickr is distinct from the rest of the social networks since it concentrates on uploading photos that can either be posted as a collection or sets of photos which can be used as slideshows. It is a very convenient for colleges and universities to share campus or community supported events or special programs with students, alumni, faculty, staff, and external constituents. The site also provides an opportunity for individuals to view the photos and comment or provide feedback to the institution.
Blogs and Twitters allow individuals to post comments on posted items, send messages or offer updates to family and friends. The online blogs respond to postings, inquires, or other items of interest, which offer colleges and universities a variety of opportunities to market their institutions to incoming freshmen. The trend for students to blog with admissions and recruitment offices is a growing experience that is receiving high reviews from colleges and universities. Twitter sites permit users to send short instant messages to update their followers, post questions or comments, and reply publicly to inquiries. Reasons why higher education institutions show great interest is that promotes program awareness, institutional branding, reaches targeted audiences, and is a great source of instant feedback from students (Reuben).
Delicious.com, a new social bookmarking website was recently introduced to store bookmarks online. The originated in 2003, known as del.icio.us, and as recent as 2008, it was launched with its new name of Delicious. The principle use of the website is to store bookmarks online. This permits users access bookmarks from any computer and also adds any bookmark from any location. Tags instead of folders are used to organize and recall bookmarks. The user can also see or share links that their friends have originated as well as those that the user has created. A useful benefit from the bookmark social website for colleges and universities is they can bookmark news articles, educational programs or other items that they wish to share with their target audiences (Reuben).
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The combined eLearning and social network sites value is immeasurable in terms of opportunities for reaching, engaging, and building relationships with new millennium students in their social and innovative lifestyles for educational purposes. High on the priority list however is for each college and university to develop strategies as to its purpose, application, and its future and align them with their institutional vision and mission. In order to develop these strategies they must analyze and evaluate its benefits, challenges and costs associated with its educational connectivity and delivery processes.
One of the major benefits of social media and higher education is that it provides an opportunity of reaching prospective students before they set foot on a college campus. Institutional marketing via social media provides an inexpensive platform for the institution's image and position statement to go viral. This provides a way for colleges and universities to build student relationships and rally them around their college status and reputation. Another advantage for using social media to communicate with prospective students is that it can engage them with campus advisors and counselors and help them through the maze of college enrollment requirements, degree opportunities and campus life. It can publish and provide e-catalogs, course descriptions, e-newsletters, e-calendars, e-mail, e-library services, public relations e-blasts, and other online media services. In terms of current students and alumni, it is a way of maintaining students engaged in and out of the classroom and keep alumni informed as to campus activities, community work, and fundraising opportunities. The use of social network sites and scholastic use is also encouraging. Numerous colleges and universities can benefit from developing and launching their own social media plan. The plan should support and encourage faculty in developing hybrid/blended or entirely online courses integrated with social networking opportunities to expand the learning process beyond the classroom. This would provide institutions of higher learning the ability to increase total student enrollment and class size without the financial burdens that traditional face-to-face classrooms place on institutions. It offers instructors a greater role in developing collaborative skills among their students by using online social network tools to spur the exchange of ideas which can add value to the eLearning process (Reynard). Usually eLearning and social media foster creativity and innovation giving students a sense of ownership in their work (Reynard). For graduate students networking with other students and professionals in their field of study may provide a greater impact in their eLearning experience that spans beyond the classroom setting (Reynard).
Conversely, there are some challenges that colleges and universities need to address for the successful integration of eLearning and social media. A significant challenge is the reluctance of students to interact with faculty thus impeding the online delivery/learning process. This may prompt faculty to feel unable to connect in the student/ faculty relationship building. A key element in the process is for instructors to realize that the majority of students are used to socializing and networking with their friends via social media. What instructors are challenged with is how to raise the level of participation in their eLearning course work (Reynard, 2008). Students must become highly motivated to independently navigate through volumes of information, do research and complete assignments (Wagner, Hassanein, & Head,). There will be however, students that are unaccustomed to interactive online networking and prefer the traditional face-to-face learning, which will impact teaching situations that may require midstream adjustments in their course delivery (Reynard, 2008). This shifts additional burdens on eLearning instructors whereby they must develop new skills to manage and coordinate educational resources for students to complete assigned tasks. Additional challenges are privacy, safety, technology accessibility and accreditation agency standards have to be overcome to successfully apply social media and eLearning in higher education (Wagner, Hassanein, & Head,).
The future of eLearning and social media in higher education will continue to experience change as improvements in information technology stimulates the process. Colleges and universities have a responsibility to promote change to realize the endless opportunities in developing online world class educational programs for future generations. The physical barriers that prevented students from attending the college of their choice is quickly being erased all driven by information technology expansion and new development. Students have the ability to access digital libraries, online resources, instructors, and other specialists in their field of study, and interact with other students to further their knowledge, skills and abilities (Oblinger, 2010). For academian's, information technology has made it easier for publishing, doing research, and expanding their knowledge all at their convenience and at their disposal. Search engines make it possible to reach databases rich with information, videos, photos, and other scholarly work that previously would be labor intensive and time consuming (Katz,). It is the openness to resources, its clarity, its vastness, its cooperative environment that promotes serious consideration for its continued use by higher education. The changes in technology have obligated higher education to take into consideration the innovations that have taken place, which are changing our society, to reconsider intensifying their online degree programs. For many institutions' the outsourcing "University of Phoenix" model may seem a viable alternative in the delivery of online instruction, while others debate whether education is will become too commercialized bordering from losing its scholastic rigor and educational value (Oblinger, 2010).