Social Media’s Role in Higher Education

It’s part of the technology ecosystem, and helps students—and institutions—thrive.

GUEST COLUMN | by Elena Cox

CREDIT vibeffect.pngUniversities spend millions building the best possible recreation and athletic facilities—such as lazy rivers, rock walls and football stadiums—to dazzle prospects in the ritual college tour seasons.

However, too often they breeze right through the technology talk.

Some students will never use the athletic center, and won’t be into the college booster scene—yet, every student will use technology every moment of their life on campus.

Most schools leave their technology infrastructure investments off the tour—and only touch briefly on their “free laptop policy” or their reliable campus-wide Wi-Fi.

Some students will never use the athletic center, and won’t be into the college booster scene—yet, every student will use technology every moment of their life on campus.

There is a noteworthy correlation between an educational institution’s technology ecosystem and their students’ joy of learning, and this can be backed up with cold hard data.

Joy of learning can also be called “thriving” and thriving should be a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for every school, because it is associated with

-higher start rates,

-increased engagement,

-higher retention rates,

-better persistence,

-on-time completions, and

-greater likelihood of becoming a loyal alumnus.

Our annual study of thriving across four-year colleges nationwide, conducted in collaboration with the University at Buffalo, NY and DC-based Greenwald & Associates, found that students who believe their college has an “excellent technology infrastructure” and “innovative teaching techniques” are far more likely to be high-thrivers.

After three years of independent indexing of thriving revealed the increasing importance of “excellent technology infrastructure” and “innovative teaching techniques”, we dug deeper to identify the specifics of what makes up the ideal technology ecosystem for all students.

The highest-thrivers strongly identified with their institution’s infrastructure on the following aspects:

  • Their professors effectively use technology in classes and coursework
  • Their assignments and coursework helps keep them up-to-date with technology and software
  • They have highly effective IT support for themselves and their devices

The data shows that all students need to be connected online with their classes and professors—as well as the folks that help them fix any connectivity issues (IT to the rescue!) —but, do they need to feel connected to their colleagues as well?

The short answer is yes, and in today’s world, that means through social media.

Social media connectivity is part of the technology ecosystem for thriving in higher ed

In our research, we found two interesting things related to social media use and students thriving.

The first is that, for a certain type of student, being able to engage with faculty on social media about their research is highly correlated to thriving.

This social media presence could be considered the expression of a faculty’s position as a thought-leader, the digital equivalent to promoting the publication, grants and original research leaders in university departments.

If students, outside of class, find their faculty’s use of social media intriguing and worth following, their sense of appreciation and expectations for how much they may learn and grow could increase.

The second is that students are more likely to thrive if they perceive that their institution has no tolerance for and vigilantly protects against cyberbullying.

This includes maintaining safe spaces online, and by curbing any cyberbullying threats quickly and effectively.

While they are not at the top of the list, we found that students also care about:

-free access to new and updated software,

-that their university provides a variety of social media resources that allow students to connect and interact,

-working Wi-Fi connectivity across the campus,

-the ability to access missed classes through videos online, and

-that their professors use technology to inspire learning and collaboration.


What can higher ed institutions do from a technology perspective to help students thrive?

We know that today’s college students are avid social media users, and that this has carried over from their high school lives.

One way for higher ed institutions to increase engagement rates between the time of the students’ acceptance and when classes start could be to proactively understand their incoming class’ “social media personas” and create engagement campaigns across some of these platforms.

For example, they can customize their content to the bloggers, amateur photographers, socialites, comedians and the friend networks to reach students who have identified as “social media comedians,” “Vine or YouTube stars,” “selfie-obsessed,” “involved activists,” etc., and foster excitement, enthusiasm, engagement, and pride—leading them on the path to thrive.

The data on high-thriving in college included a new twist by asking students to identify their high school “social media personas” from a list of pre-identified options.

They were allowed to select multiple options as well.

The data shows that the top three personas selected are “Facebook socialite” (22%), “Twitter junkie” (13%) and “social media comedian” (12%).

Nearly half of respondents indicated they do not identify with any of the identified personas, yet use social media regularly.

And, just one in six indicated they were not big social media users in high school.

Considering that these respondents may have entered college before options like Snapchat became widespread, it is likely to see the number of non-social media users shrinking in the coming years.

A robust and thoughtful technology ecosystem won’t alone produce ‘thriving’.

But our research shows it’s every bit as important to thriving as those climbing walls—and perhaps more.

Institutions of higher education would be well served to make tech infrastructure a more focused component of their student success and ‘recruitment of best-fit student’ strategies.

And maybe put it on the campus tour as well.

Elena Cox is CEO and co-founder of vibeffect, a company using science and predictive modeling to help universities increase the probability of students thriving and completing their degree programs. She is passionate about finding new ways to more accurately discuss and demonstrate individual potential for the majority of students who do not fall into either of the extremes — elite or at-risk. Write to:


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