AS I’M FINALLY SITTING IN front of my computer to write this column, I’m frantically following real-time developments at one of the major conferences for web professionals working in higher education: HighEdWeb in Springfield, Mo. Even though I couldn’t make the trip this year, I can keep up with the greatest insights shared at the opening keynote, learn of the smartest tips presented during multiple sessions, and even get the lowdown on the parties, the food, and the quality of the internet network at the conference site. I’m thousands of miles away, yet I feel very connected to the community of attendees and all the action going on at this conference.
No, I don’t have telepathic powers. I just use Twitter—following the conference hashtag: #heweb08—as many attendees of HighEdWeb did in October to post 140-character multiple updates about anything and everything happening before, during, and after the conference presentations.
Never had to pass on an interesting conference for budget reasons? Or wondering why you should read a column about a web service powering the dissemination of 140-character messages?
Here’s a short, 140-character answer about Twitter: It can help individuals and institutions reach out to their network to share info, request help, organize, and update everyone in real time.
A bit dry, I know. Here are a few more examples to illustrate the long answer.
At The Pennsylvania State University, Twitter has really brought together a core of web-related professionals. Instructional designers, social media folks, web managers, and marketing staff from all across the Penn State system—the College of Arts and Architecture; the Penn State, Great Valley campus; The Office for Research Protections; Penn State World Campus; the Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) department—are represented.
“We started off following each other around the time of the TLT Symposium, then connecting further through the Penn State Web Conference,” says Anne Petersen, assistant director of electronic communication for undergraduate admissions at Penn State. She answered my call for success stories using the social networking and microblogging platform, placed on Twitter itself back in September.
“It’s become a very tight little community of members who bounce ideas off each other, share fun things, use each other for any sort of questions,” says Petersen. At Penn State, all that connectivity through Twitter eventually led to a daylong professional development event last August. The new Learning Design Summer Camp was almost entirely designed by this community.
At the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Student Affairs Webmaster Todd Sanders has been an avid Twitterer for a year and half (902 followers and more than 4,100 updates at the time of this writing). So it was a natural move for him to secure and set up 16 different Twitter accounts for all the offices within UWG Student Affairs about a year ago.
Originally, it was supposed to be another way to distribute information to students. The experiment was rolled out over the summer by admissions, advising, and registrar’s offices. Early users among the different offices disseminated across campus discovered it was also an easy-to-use and efficient communication channel for these administrative office teams. “When everyone is up and running by the end of this year, it should be a great way to collaborate across Student Affairs and solve real problems faster, build stronger working relationships, understand current project workloads, etc.,” says Sanders.
According to the Wikipedia entry about Twitter, the web service was initially started as an internal research and development project at Obvious, a San Francisco-based startup, in March 2006. A year after, it won the prestigious 2007 South by Southwest Web Award in the blog category, obtaining de facto a direct pass to broader success with technology aficionados. As of October 2008, Twitter was used by more than 3 million people according to Twitdir, a search engine for Twitter accounts.
Twitter also has a small but growing following among the higher education web and communication community, as indicated by the early results of an online survey I administrated in October 2008 about different web services targeted to this community. When asked about their communication channels of choice to receive professional development information, 19 percent of the 540 responders (all professionals working in higher education), named Twitter as one.
While more and more professionals have started to rely on their personal Twitter accounts in their daily jobs, many have also created official accounts for their institution. In July 2008, Rachel Reuben, director of web communication and strategic projects at the State University of New York at New Paltz, surveyed her peers online about the use of social media in institutions of higher education. Among the 148 responses, 33 percent indicated that their institution had an official Twitter account, managed by the marketing and communication department in half the cases and updated on average between 1 to 4 times per week.
But what are these higher ed users doing with their official Twitter account? “Fifty percent use it to communicate with current students, and the other half uses it to reach out to alumni,” reports Reuben in the paper she wrote about the survey, “The Use of Social Media in Higher Education for Marketing and Communications: A Guide for Professionals in Higher Education."
A quick review of institutional Twitter accounts reveals that most post news and don’t try to engage their follower base in this two-way communication platform.
Mike Richwalsky, assistant director for public affairs at Allegheny College (Pa.), created the official Twitter account for his college in May 2007 to republish news available on the website as well as via several RSS feeds. In February 2008, Richwalsky automated the whole process using Twitterfeed, a free service that will post to a Twitter account any update detected by the service at a specified RSS feed.
Allegheny College’s account had been updated a total of more than 610 times but only counted 159 followers in mid-December 2008. At the same time, the personal account I set up in August 2007 and started to use regularly a year ago had 282 followers as of mid-December.
This alone probably says something about the capacity of Twitter to reach members of any campus community.
Allegheny College’s follower base on Twitter is actually comparable to that of most institutions. In September 2008, Colgate University (N.Y.) made a bold move by featuring the updates of its official student Twitterer, Ajay Chahar of the class of 2012, on its website homepage, on the bottom left corner. By the end of the first day, Chahar had 10 followers. A month after his first Tweet, that number was up to 43, including several Twitterers working at other institutions or media outlets.
“Twitter has not hit critical mass with the demographic I am targeting,” says Brad J. Ward, electronic communication coordinator for admissions at Butler University (Ind.). When he surveyed the incoming freshman class last summer, he had a clear confirmation of the poor penetration rate of Twitter among college-age students: out of the 340 incoming freshmen responding, only 31 had heard of Twitter before and two were using it.
That’s the main reason Ward decided in May 2008 to start using Twitter—behind the scenes—to enable Butler student bloggers to provide quick updates about their whereabouts between longer posts on their admissions-sponsored blogs. Twitter acts like a simple back-end messenger displaying on the blogs the short updates that the bloggers sent via a regular text message using their cell phones.
Wayne State University (Mich.) has taken an original stand on Twitter. Instead of using the platform to communicate with potential followers, the Web Communication department has decided to use it as a customer service tool to listen, address, and reply to any problems reported via Twitter.
After the creation of Wayne State’s official account, any mentions of variations of the institution’s name were tracked and their authors “followed” in the Twitter sense of the term. “Students started talking more about Wayne State both positive and negative. We made it a point to respond to everyone, figure out what they are having issues with, and offer our help,” wrote Nick DeNardis in a post published in early September 2008 on the Wayne State Web Communication blog.
Only time will tell if Twitter can become an effective communication channel with students. However, the best way to find out if it can help you communicate with your peers is to set up your free account and get started.
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college and a consultant on web projects for other institutions.