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Stuart Johnson*, Matthew Mobbs*, David Morgan† * Student Support and Development Service, University of Leicester † Students Union, University of Leicester
This paper will share our experiences of using social media (specifically Facebook and Twitter) to engage with students about issues important to Student Development and the Students' Union at the University of Leicester. The key issue has been how to engage with students without causing them to feel like we have invaded their social spaces. This paper will outline how we are seeking to do this.
Up until early 2009 the websites of both Student Development (www.le.ac.uk/studentdevelopment) and the Students' Union (http://leicesterunion.com) at the University of Leicester had consisted mostly of static content; made up of pages of information that changed infrequently and which facilitated little interaction beyond basic form submission. Both Student Development (SD) and the Students' Union (SU) have independently been working to develop their respective websites to encourage more engagement with students and better communication of information. One of the main strategies employed, and the aspect this paper is concerned with, has been the use of so called 'social media' to encourage engagement. Static pages require users come to us whereas the use of social media has enabled us to go to them.
The uptake of Facebook and Twitter has grown enormously in the last 12 months and whilst it is difficult to pinpoint student usage, or even UK usage, easily, there have been some interesting figures in the media relating to the increase in uptake of these services in 2009. For example: "Compete’s numbers for April show that Facebook has grown from 91,000,000 to 104,000,000 unique visitors, a healthy 14.35% increase from March. [...] The number of unique visitors [on Twitter] has grown from 14,000,000 to 19,000,000, which is 38.56% growth." (Schroeder, 2009) and "Some 19% of internet users now say they use Twitter or another service to share updates about themselves, or to see updates about others. This represents a significant increase over previous surveys in December 2008 and April 2009, when 11% of internet users said they use a status‐update service." (Fox et al.., 2009) Page 1 of 11
The reason for both SD and SU using Facebook and Twitter, therefore, is simply because this is where many of our students are resident when they are online, so it makes sense for us to have a presence there too. SD and the SU have developed a significant presence on Facebook and Twitter (see Table 1). As of 11 December 2009 SD has more than 650 fans on its Facebook page and more than 250 on Twitter, whilst the SU on the other hand has more than 2,500 followers on its Facebook page and more than 400 on Twitter. Clearly SD and the SU have slightly different intentions in using these accounts; SD's is, on the whole, aimed at encouraging students to develop their academic and career skills whereas SU is largely about promoting campaigns, social events and student community. Facebook address Facebook page active since Fans on Facebook Twitter address Twitter account active since Followers on Twitter Purpose Student Development http://tinyurl.com/uolsd‐facebook 1 September 2009 665 http://twitter.com/uolsd 1 September 2009 279 Students' Union http://www.facebook.com/Students Union 11 February 2008 2,629 http://twitter.com/percygee 18 March 2009 418
Development of academic and career Promoting campaigns, social events skills and student community
Table 1: SD and SU Facebook and Twitter figures as of 11 December 2009
It is important to not e that both SD and SU are using Facebook pages rather than Facebook groups. Facebook pages, which are a more recent addition to the Facebook infrastructure, have much more functionality than Facebook groups. People who become a 'fan' of a page receive updates in their news feeds from that page in the same way that they receive updates from their friends, thereby integrating information much better than groups.
Data was gathered from the Facebook accounts using the fan page insights data (http://www.facebook.com/help/search.php?hq=insights&ref=hq). The Twitter accounts were analysed using the following services:
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http://tweetstats.com/ http://www.twitteranalyzer.com/ http://twittercounter.com/
In order to assess users' experience of the Facebook and Twitter accounts a survey of users was conducted (see http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ssds/sd/facebook‐twitter‐survey). A total of 36 responses were received during the period 3‐13 December 2009. 31 of the respondents identified themselves as University of Leicester students, 3 were staff and 2 described themselves as "Other". Figure 1 shows the accounts the respondents follow, unsurprisingly, due to the numbers following
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the accounts shown in Table 1, more of the respondents were following SU accounts than SD accounts.
Figure 1: The accounts followed by the survey respondents
The daily subscription figures show that on Facebook SD have seen a constant increase in user numbers at the rate of 10 new subscribers per day since the beginning of the academic year 2009/10, as shown in Figure 2. The Facebook statistics show that SD have an equal split between male and female, with the majority (45%) being age 18‐24, with followers in all age groups from 18 to 55+. SU have a much greater number of followers and also have an almost equal split of male (45%) and female (55%). The majority of the SU demographic is aged between 18‐24 (88%), however the SU have no followers over the age of 44.
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Figure 2: Facebook fan page growth since 01/09/09
A similar pattern has emerged with the followers of the Twitter accounts, as can be seen in Figure 3; the SU Twitter account has seen a linear increase in followers between August and November whereas SD, although having fewer followers, has seen a more rapid increase in followers during the same period.
Figure 3: Growth of Twitter followers
One of the main benefits of using social networks has been the engagement with international and distance learning students, with 44% of SD Facebook subscribers' country of origin being external to the UK. The SU has much smaller percentage of non‐UK subscriber (8%), however the service is still appreciated with one distance learning response to the survey stating it gives them a "sense of belonging to LUSU". Page 4 of 11
The users of both SD and SU are very positive about our use of social media, the vast majority of respondents describing the services as being "Informative", "Useful" and "Interesting" according to our survey, as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4: How the survey respondents described the SU and SD accounts they followed
Additionally, many respondents explained why they followed the accounts, including: "Its easy to get to know about events, programmes that being organised at ssds through daily uploads. its saves time as you don't have to search for the information in web pages. Just click on the link provided with upload, its convenient than searching info on website." and "Easy way to find out what's going on, given that I don't usually go into the Union." It has already been discussed that one of the key reasons for using social networks is it gives the University a non‐invasive presence within the networks that students are regularly using. Nonetheless, as the name of this technology suggest and as it frequently suggested in all the Facebook help services, the purpose and challenges of these services is to be social and interact with other users. Both the SD and SU services accomplish this by using the following features; • in Facebook allowing students to 'post' to the 'wall', comment upon a post and suggest if they 'like'/'dislike' a post; on Twitter students interact directly with the accounts using @replies and, if a message is seen as relevant to others, re‐tweet key messages; also, if a student wishes to discuss something without broadcasting the topic to the rest of the world, students sometimes send direct messages to the accounts.
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Table 2 illustrates some of these more social interactions. Facebook (Student Posts, comments, likes) Number of tweets Twitter @replies Twitter Retweets Twitter Direct Messages SD 49 582 158 (27.15% of total tweets) 41 (7.04% of total tweets) 7 SU 1278 613 139 (22.68% of total tweets) 23 (3.75% of total tweets) 10
Table 2: Number of subscriber interactions as of 1st September 2009
What is important to note in the behaviour of the subscribers is that they see a clear distinction between the two identities of SD and SU, which have very different purposes and context within the University of Leicester. Student Development is a University of Leicester core service whose purpose is to support and develop students’ academic skills and career opportunities. Whereas the Students' Union's purpose is to represent student rights and provide them with entertainment. The users understand this and consequently interact with them in very different ways. Students tend to use the SD services for advice and guidance and discuss educational/developmental issues. For example, the quote below is a Wall post from a distance learning student on the SD Facebook page seeking advice about the Blackboard virtual learning environment. "My Dears, I'm new student in University of leicester by distanse learning Msc finance. I need to help from any one using blackboard . In fact I enrolled an outline course by mistake and I want to know how to delete it from my blackboard. I will not need this course to study it because it's not in my module . Ple...as if any one can help me because i don't know who's my tutor until now." The following quote is also from the SD Facebook page and is a conversation about office suites. SD: Could a kind #uol student confirm whether you can access these ms office tutorials http://ow.ly/FClR They're on Bb so need to login User 1: Yes it works!! Thanks for that!! User 2: Definitely it works properly. Anyway, personally, I prefer Open Source software instead. Nice to see you have a link to the Open Office suite! ;) SD: Thanks for letting us know it works. And yes some v good (much better?!) MSOffice alternatives out there! User 2: Yes, sure! Google Docs is reaching really good rates as well, though it's not open source :‐/ User 1: Student Development's online MS Office tutorial will help lots of student to gain professional skills. We should thank the team for doing a fine job rather than introducing other software here!! :p Conversely, the students often use the SU account to discuss political and University issues, campaigns and social events, including points to be raised at SU Council meetings. In the two Page 6 of 11
Facebook conversions below the SU and subscribers discuss the two very different aspects of student life; the first is a discussion between the SU and a subscriber about tax legislation and the second a pub quiz in the Students' Union. SU: Further correspondence from MP for Leicester South, Peter Soulsby, "I have generally taken the view that higher education is a benefit to society generally and therefore ought to be funded out of general taxation." User 1: But general taxation is a regressive tax! I dont agree with raising the cap but the general taxation isn't a fair way of doing it IMO! Don't ask me for a fairer system though... SU: He went on to pledge that he "will continue to press for fees to be capped and for the system to ensure that Universities are not enabled or encouraged to compete on 'price'." User 1: We must not overlook that fact that those who now make the rules, and remove funding, are of the generation who enjoyed a very well funded university education. Taxation at the right level, barely touching those on lower incomes, increasing substantially for those in the extreme wealth category. Robin hood had a point. A well educated society is ... See Morethe ultimate goal of all, less crime, better civilisation, netter citizens, it's fairly obvious stuff. Naturally it doesn;t suit the media moguls purposes. SU: Excellent points Paul. The first point you made was one that was continually reiterated by most of the MPs who turned up to support us in parliament on Wednesday. And SU: Think you're clever; who was the first man ever seen on Channel 4? Pub quiz tonight in the Scholar from 21:00. User 1: Richard Whitely? SU: Correct! :D Now, anyone know the capital of Latvia? User 2: Riga?? SU:That's right. I think you're both clever enough to come to our Christmas Charity pub quiz tonight :D User 3: not only do I know it was Richard Whiteley, I actually SAW it. That's how much older I am than anybody who is allowed in a student union pub quiz. This conversational style is very powerful and probably one of the most important factors in getting students to engage with organisations via social networks, this is also one of the largest challenges. To tackle this challenge SD and SU have invested time in personalised and responsive updates. These interactions are evidenced in Table 2 where 27% of SD and 22% of SU tweets are @Replies directed at a specific user. These tweets can also be integrated into Facebook using the selective Twitter status, this enables messages directed at one person, if seen as important, to be shared with the masses. Nevertheless, it is noticeable when looking at the frequency of these interactions over a period of time, that during the final two weeks of the academic term, when there are multiple assessment deadlines and exams are drawing near, the number of interactions is dramatically reduced. This would suggest that students are drawing a clear distinct between academic work and social network engagement, not allowing the later to interrupt formal assessment.
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To achieve this personalised approach SD uses Hootsuite (http://hootsuite.com) to enable multiple users to inhabit a single Twitter account. This configuration means the SD account can be covered throughout the working day by SD's helpdesk staff (PhD students employed on a casual basis) and on an ad hoc basis by other members of staff, who check and update the account as necessary (Figure 5). The SU mostly uses a web client and Facebook to update Twitter (Figure 6) and also the individual clients Twitteriffic and Tweetie. The SU also uses a Twitter search for "percygee" to alert them to relevant tweets and replies to all @replies.
Figure 5: Interfaces used to update the SD Twitter account
What is noticeable about the example conversations above is the language and the informal style used by the students when talking to the University, this makes social networks a powerful medium for student engagement. Because the platform being used is not owned by the institution, the way in which users interact is more relaxed and sometimes more honest, especially in comparison to the conversations seen on Virtual Learning Environment discussion boards. For institutions, and especially organisational services like SD, these platforms can act as avenues for instantaneous feedback, this is especially demonstrated in the second example Facebook conversation where the 'spark' was asking if the students could access some online support. However, use of these mediums is not intended to be primarily beneficial to the University but rather as a method of engagement for students. The survey has shown that the social networks have not only enabled students to engage with SD and SU, but with one another, with 20% of respondents stating they had meet someone in person as a result of following the accounts. Both SD and SU have worked hard to develop their Facebook and Twitter profiles, but as has been seen, the hard work is having a positive impact. Importantly, using the Facebook and Twitter accounts has been about much more than just posting status updates ‐ all accounts have both Page 8 of 11
Figure 6: Interfaces used to update the SU Twitter account
automated and personalised/responsive updates and have deliberately adopted a an informal and friendly style and tone to in order to encourage engagement. Of course not all the posts on these accounts can be personalised, as part of the intention of using the services is to raise student awareness of activities and developmental opportunities available to them. This has been a very effective method of advertising these opportunities as the survey showed that 89% of respondents had attended an event as a result of reading about it on Facebook or Twitter. SD have been able to raise this awareness by some of the postings to SD Twitter and Facebook being automated (the 20% of tweets in Figure 5 via the Twitterfeed interface). This is achieved by connecting up the RSS feeds from news items on the SD website (www.le.ac.uk/studentdevelopment) with Twitterfeed (http://twitterfeed.com/) which automatically sends the RSS item to Twitter and updates the SD account. The tweeted RSS item is then automatically sent to the Facebook page using a service called selective Twitter status (http://apps.facebook.com/selectivetwitter/help) as shown in Figure 7.The SU don't automate tweets from their website (http://leicesterunion.com), instead choosing to link image uploads from Twitter to Facebook.
Figure 7: How automated status updates are organised for SD accounts
Although SD and SU offer these social media one of the challenges is to get students engaged with services offered to them by the University and letting them know it what is available. Interestingly most users have found out about the accounts from within social media services themselves, as shown in response to the survey question "How did you find out about these accounts" (Figure 8).The SU, who have been present in Facebook since 2008, had expected this to be the case, realising that new students coming to the University of Leicester would use the social network to meet one‐another beforehand. Therefore to avoid the situation of students setting up unofficial, un‐ moderated groups ensured they had an official presence early on, including the registration of the URL http://www.facebook.com/StudentsUnion on the day of release.
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Figure 8: How the survey respondents found out about the accounts
The final challenge of social networking is to prove to your subscribers that you are serious and genuinely engaged, this is achieved in part by constant maintenance and management of your accounts to ensure it is not been abused. Abuse, in terms of social networking, means spammers and inappropriate posts. SD and SU have attempted to ensure this does not happen on the Facebook page by not allowing subscribers to post website addresses to the 'wall'. Before this setting was enabled occasionally wall posts appeared on the page posted by companies offering services to students, for example the post quoted below advertising a Hair Salon (their detail have been removed, as we wouldn't give them the pleasure of free advertising!). It is felt the presence of this type of content devalues the site, therefore if anything gets through the filter is removed. Spammer: 50% Student Discount! xxxxx Hair Salon Leicester City Centre. We are currently offering all students 50% discount on all hairdressing services.For more details visit our website http://www.xxxxxxxx.co.uk/news.php or give us a call on xxxxxxxxxxx. On Twitter both SD and SU 'Block' any spam followers that are trying to use our accounts to advertise or gather user details. This has become a major issue on Twitter, with spammers ranging from the commercial to the inappropriate. Therefore, by ensuring we block spammers we make the number of followers shown in Table 1 a true reflection of our accounts’ popularity and furthermore, having the presence of a quality group of followers on your account gives a clarification of purpose. For the foreseeable future SD and SU intend to have a strong presence within Facebook and Twitter, with a larger percentage of the student population following the accounts. This will however increase the challenges of personalisation and engagement. Therefore the model of support will have to adapt, with more members of SD staff trained to engage with the account. Furthermore, it is hoped that our subscribers follow each other on a more regular basis, this will enable a moderated peer support model, in which students can answer one another inquiries, with SD and SU stepping in when necessary.
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The key outcome is the development of a presence or 'brand' that students are motivated to follow because it is of use and engaging to them, rather than pushing unsolicited information at them. The main advantage of using such channels is that information and updates will appear in their own social spaces rather than students having to visit our official spaces (websites). The presence in such social spaces, however, should drive students back to our official sites to enable them to discover the full range of support, advice, activities and opportunities available to them.
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