Late last year Google opened up Google+ to Google Apps customers as an enterprise communication and collaboration platform. This past June, Microsoft acquired Yammer, a popular enterprise social networking platform. These major technology industry players certainly see the trend of business communications getting more social. As we evolved from email to real-time chat and video conferencing, now social networking has become the next logical step in communication. Blame it on the influence of Facebook (and Twitter, and Pinterest, etc.). We’re used to catching up with friends and family through our favorite social media platforms. We can easily share images and documents, post status, IM or video chat from our workstations, tablets or smartphones. We’re now expecting that same degree of seamless communication in all of our interactions, including education.

Why is this social communication capability so useful? The same reason Facebook has become a phenomenon. When we log in, we can see which of our contacts are currently online and chat in real-time, we can communicate asynchronously by sending a private message, or we can post a more public message to a broader audience; lots of options for how we can communicate – all through one platform.

All of these features are immensely useful for group communication and collaboration, particularly when members of the group are not collocated, which is very common these days, especially in online education environments. It’s always been more difficult to work and communicate across distance, or across time zones, but social networking tools help to bridge the gap – enabling more of a conversation than just passing email or voicemails back and forth.

Social networking tools don’t necessarily introduce brand new technologies, since chat, video conferencing and the ability to exchange messages or documents are capabilities that have existed for quite a while. What they do provide is the consolidation of all these communication options into one platform. You can choose how to communicate with others without having to use different software products (one for chat, another for email, yet another for video conferencing) or to maintain multiple contact lists. A record, or stream, of communications is also maintained, so there’s no need to dig through email inboxes or chat logs to find information.

While social networking platforms are useful for a range of business communications, they can be a particularly powerful tool for extending the campus community online. As online universities have proliferated, and traditional colleges and universities have expanded online, the challenges of creating a vibrant community online quickly became apparent. In a traditional college or university environment, communication and collaboration among students and faculty occurs on campus - on the quad, in the student union or in the faculty lounge. In an online learning environment, students and faculty can certainly communicate through email or tools in their learning management systems, but those platforms don’t create the same sense of community and connectedness that informal gatherings and discussions engender on a physical college campus.

college student on cell phoneRetention of students and degree completion are key goals for all colleges and universities. Online programs have been particularly challenged in these areas for a variety of reasons: typically part-time students, many of whom are also busy working adults; difficult transition to online self-directed learning; limited student interaction with faculty and other students (compared to traditional higher ed environments). Although a lack of a strong community is not the only factor, it has been recognized as one hindrance. On a traditional campus you can walk up to someone, a fellow student or faculty member, and ask them a quick question and get an immediate response. It’s not as easy to do that through email. Counseling, mentoring, networking and day-to-day social interactions are much less effective in an online context without having the right tools in place.

One approach to address these types of issues is an initiative that the University of Phoenix embarked on starting in 2010. It launched a social network called “Phoenix Connect,” which was designed to create a virtual version of the traditional campus environment and was accessible only to members of the university community. This online community was developed on a social networking platform from Jive Software. The capabilities of this platform are similar to Facebook, you can search for other members, “friend” them, chat live, post a status, etc. Sure, you have the same basic capability in public platforms like Facebook or Google+, but social networking platforms like Jive, Yammer and others enable you to create a closed, controlled and managed community. Control is particularly important in higher education where Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) regulations dictate student data protection requirements.

In addition to deploying a social networking platform, the University of Phoenix also implemented a strategy to seed conversation and engagement, and to measure the growth and “health” of the community. Too often great technology solutions get deployed without much thought given to engaging users to actively leverage that technology. We think it’s so innately useful, why wouldn’t people want to use it? Reminds me of the overused saying “if you build it, they will come;” it’s just not true, they won’t. A carefully crafted approach to nurturing the community is critical to its success. That entails devoting resources to seeding conversations, addressing complaints, preventing inappropriate or abusive behavior, etc.  

The University of Phoenix is certainly not the only institution to deploy an online community; other online and traditional institutions have done so as well. The point is that as colleges and universities continue to venture online, the need to develop an engaged community of both students and faculty is key. It’s a means to connect geographically dispersed students, provide services like counseling and mentoring, answer basic questions that students pose regularly, and finally, a tool to enable faculty to engage regarding academic and professional matters. The ingredients to success are two-fold, select a flexible and easy to use platform, and develop a community engagement strategy.