How Social Networking Affects the Student Life Cycle — From Applicant to Graduate

Technology is reshaping college admissions. Course-management systems are making it possible to detect students in academic trouble before it gets too deep. And development offices are creating social networks that energize alumni giving. But not every high-tech strategy pays off for colleges.

That was the focus of a session at The Chronicle’s Technology Forum last week, and during the panel we invited questions via Twitter, the microblogging service, that were projected at the front of the room. More good questions rolled in than we could handle, so the panelists decided to tackle a few of them via e-mail to keep the discussion going.

Our experts were Stephanie Balmer, dean of admissions and financial aid at Dickinson College; John Campbell, associate vice president for information technology at Purdue University; Cole W. Camplese, director of education-technology services at Pennsylvania State University; and Andrew Shaindlin, executive director of the Caltech Alumni Association.

One big question discussed during the panel was how colleges should react to the widespread use of Facebook (and other social networks) among applicants, students, and alumni.

Q. Colin McFadden, a media specialist for the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (@cmcfadden): Do kids get a kid sandbox anymore? Is it OK that saying stupid things in elementary school could keep you out of college?

A. Stephanie Balmer, of Dickinson College: From a college-admissions perspective, we want to see firsthand evidence that students have been allowed to be kids. Students as early as elementary school should not be plotting with their families about what will take to get admitted to a prestigious university. What we think is going to be highly challenging in this whole period of social media and networking is the idea of, Are kids equipped to handle meta-identities? There’s a disconnect in terms of how someone presents themselves as a candidate for admission and how their online persona may be a contradiction of that in terms of their Facebook account and their Twitter account and their MySpace account. I believe that colleges and universities are going to continue to become more skillful at really being able to sort that out.

At the same time, we’re already hearing firsthand evidence of anonymous calls to the admissions office that maybe prospective students’ character is not compatible with the values of our institution and that we should check out a Facebook site. We’re not equipped nor do we have the time to check out every Facebook page for a prospective applicant. At the same time if there are questions placed, then it’s incumbent upon us to check it out.

So is the student allowed a misstep? Absolutely. Is it going to be an added responsibility for today’s applicant and future applicants to better manage these meta-identities and online identities? Yes, and there will be some that will be better at that than others. It’s the student’s brand, if you will.

Q. Wendy Woodward, director of technology-support services at Northwestern University (@Wwoodwardking): So are we supposed to be engaging the students/alumni within these spaces??? Or let it grow organically?

A. Andrew Shaindlin, of Caltech Alumni Association: We need to find a balance: We should 1) provide a framework that is clearly connected with our institution, but on which people can 2) participate freely without a top-down model of control. We still try to direct people’s participation and to muzzle their contributions.

One example that I saw on the last day of the Technology Forum was this one, involving Ohio State University. The knee-jerk reaction (deleting negative comments and blocking further discussion) shows a lack of awareness about how social sites work. Facebook has a surprisingly robust self-policing dynamic; yet the reasonable expectation by participants that their opinions can be aired is ignored by administrators whose only (or at least, initial) concern is over the school’s image. They do more harm to their self-image by overreacting than by ignoring critics, or by engaging them with authentic responses from individuals who can articulate the school’s position.

Q. Jim Bradley (@paladin3): How do you make sure kids know they are playing in an adult sandbox with adult consequences?

A. Cole Camplese, of Penn State: I think for the most part students are beginning to understand this.

Two years ago nearly three-quarters of the students at Penn State who were active in Facebook were using privacy controls on their accounts. The year before that there were far fewer controlling access. I think they are growing up in a time where social networks are so common that the notion of privacy is changing. While I think they are more likely to share openly than we are, I do think there is a growing awareness of the need to protect pieces of their identities. With that said, I believe it is part of our responsibilities to talk about the notions of identity and privacy to help them continue to navigate the waters.

Q. Jen Mein, academic-technology director for the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts (@Jenmein): What CMS does Purdue use? (This question was posted after a panelist described a system his university has developed to detect poor-performing students and steer them to academic resources.)

A. John Campbell, of Purdue University: We use the Blackboard Vista product. Although there are others looking at our project and hoping to replicate it on different CMS products.

The transition from high school to college can be a challenge for many students, especially those in sciences and engineering. The typical first-year student’s schedule is usually filled with large-enrollment, low-interaction classes. Generally, students in these courses have no indication of how they are doing in a course until after the first exam, by which time chances of success can be greatly limited. Believing that earlier efforts need to be made to identify students at risk of being unsuccessful, a cross-functional group of faculty, student-services, and information-technology professionals came together at Purdue University to actively address this concern. The project identified at-risk students in introductory courses through mining real-time data from the course-management system. Through a period of four years, the project team developed processes and strategies for mining institutional data, implemented various interventions, and created a dashboard for student progress (aka the “Stoplights”). —Compiled by Jeffrey R. Young

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