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Carolina embraces social media for instruction, communication
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It was a traditional assignment in Joe Bob Hester’s copywriting class. When his students arrived for the first class of the semester, Hester said only three would be allowed to stay. Each student was instructed to persuade him, in 25 words or less, why he or she should be on that list.

“Right off the bat, this taught you three things: why you wanted to be here, who your audience was and how to be persuasive,” said Hester, associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

A few semesters later he asked the class to persuade him in 140 characters – the length of one tweet, the mode of messaging on the social media service Twitter. Since many companies use social media as a part of their public relations and advertising plans, Hester said his students should know how to use it, too.

Hester
Hester

Departments, offices and schools at Carolina began entering the social media realm a few years ago, using it to spread news, disseminate emergency information and share the Carolina experience.

Communication with these new tools was, at first, tentative. Now, widespread use makes an online presence no longer the exception, but the rule.

Carolina’s Facebook page has enough fans to fill the Smith Center more than three times over.

With Vimeo and YouTube, people on or off campus can see special interviews, programs and speakers. Carolina fans can add their photos to the UNC Flickr group on the University’s homepage. And prospective students can access specific application information they need.

Even Chancellor Holden Thorp tweets. (Follow him at @chanthorp.)

“If used well, it has the opportunity to enhance the intellectual climate by knocking down the walls of the classroom,” said Ryan Thornburg, assistant professor at the journalism school.

This month, Carolina will post a site off www.unc.edu dedicated to social media at the University, where people can access all the official accounts that exist on campus and select the news and information they want in their feeds and have it delivered directly to them.

“I think for so long we feared social media coming into the classroom, but what’s really happened is that the classroom becomes a more natural part of students’ social life.“

Making connections
Students have traditionally been early adopters of social media platforms. Thornburg, who teaches online journalism, calls them digital natives. He said that connecting with students through social media has only enhanced his ability to teach them.

Hester agrees that social media use has a legitimate place in the classroom.

“I often get feedback from students, via Twitter, that they might not give me in office hours,” he said. “Sometimes they tweet something that clues me in to the fact that there’s something they aren’t understanding in class. I can better address it in the next one.”

Mellanye Lackey, public health liaison librarian at the Health Sciences library, teaches the Emerging Technologies in Public Health class in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Her students learn about the logistics of social media applications and explore the larger implications of social media use and how to leverage those opportunities to advance public health.

“In this class, we’re discussing these issues and what makes for effective health communications,” Lackey said.

For a final project, students will select a public health topic, survey existing social media that support it and use social media to promote it.

“Students will be able to report usage statistics, track conversations and get real experience with the tools,” she said.

Gary Miller, assistant director for social media and innovation at University Career Services, adapts a Wayne Gretzky quote when describing why his department is devoting so much time to social media: “We have to skate to where the puck is going to be.”

With so many students using social media, Miller positions many of UCS’s communications to reach students through social media sites.

“It’s a way to educate students about what our office does,” he said. “Through social media, we can become more approachable to students who aren’t sure if we can help them.”

Miller gives presentations to students each semester to help them understand what their social media profiles might mean to their futures. He reminds students that potential employers may seek out and view their profiles to find out more about them.

“I tell students that they would never let the rest of the world decide what’s on their resumes,” he said. “Don’t let them decide this with a Google search.”

Creating community
Beyond one-way communication, the use of social media creates an opportunity to bring people together while providing key information.

For example, the admissions office at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy uses a Facebook page to answer prospective students’ questions.

“If used well, [social media] has the opportunity to enhance the intellectual climate by knocking down the walls
of the classroom.”  
– Ryan Thornburg

“I think it has the most promise for serving as a model of how the school can interact with a very important audience: potential students,” said David Etchison, the school’s director of communications. “The Facebook page allows us to put a human face on our admissions office while answering questions publicly so that all applicants can benefit from the answers.”

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions reaches out to thousands of prospective applicants to Carolina through blogs and a Facebook page, and admissions officials hold online chat sessions, both to interact with potential students and reinforce key messages about Carolina.

“The benefits of social media for our office are tremendous, ranging from the ability to respond immediately to emerging issues to offering students a more personal connection to Carolina,” said Ashley Memory, senior assistant director.

“Social media must support our larger goals. Having multiple means of communication is always useful, but our first priority will always go to developing quality content.”

Social media also help overcome the barrier of distance.

The School of Information and Library Science draws in alumni and friends who cannot travel to campus for special events by providing access to more than 100 video productions through the SILS YouTube channel, said Wanda Monroe, lecturer and director of communications for the school.

Another social media software tool used for video is Vimeo, which allows larger video files, such as hour-long lectures and special presentations, to be added to the site, she said. “It brings people home to campus to participate virtually.”

Carolina’s Facebook page has enough fans to fill the Smith Center more than three times over.

The Office of University Development uses its Facebook and Twitter accounts to interact with donors and alumni. With individual accounts for different groups, messages can target specific audiences, said Rebecca Bramlett, associate director of annual giving, who leads the office’s social media efforts.

“Our main intent with social media efforts is to have more places to reach out, provide information and to tell stories about all the wonderful things happening at Carolina,” she said.

“Sometimes we also promote how those things are made possible by private support, but these sites aren’t just about giving. Social media gives us a chance to focus more on the engagement side of what we do, build relationships and keep people connected to this place they love.”

Providing safety information
The University’s arsenal of communication tools for sending emergency messages includes social media as part of a strategy anchored by the Alert Carolina website, alertcarolina.unc.edu.

University Relations uses RSS feeds to automatically post messages to the University’s main Twitter and Facebook channels, as well as those of the Department of Public Safety and New Student and Parent Programs, any time the Alert Carolina banner is activated on www.unc.edu and other campus webpages that have adopted the homepage’s design.

“Using Twitter and Facebook spreads the word quickly that new or updated information is available on the Alert Carolina webpage,” said Mike McFarland, director of University Communications. “It’s one more way to extend the reach of a multi-layered approach to communication.”

Defining success
Metrics report how many users visit a page, how long they stay, how often they return and how many interact with the page.

These reports can gauge how well a particular effort is working – what kinds of posts, tweets, photos and videos seem to be connecting with users and which ones aren’t working.

But Miller warns that metrics don’t always provide the whole picture.

“If I respond to a student’s question through a social media outlet, and he is then more likely to come in to the career center, you can’t track that through metrics,” he said.

Sometimes finding out what works best is simply a matter of trial and error.

“Like television, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all medium,” Hester said.

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March 16, 2011

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