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Teaching and Learning Forum 2010 [ Refereed papers ]
Online social networking for outreach, engagement and community: The UWA Students' Facebook page

Lisa Cluett
The University of Western Australia

Student Services at The University of Western Australia is piloting the use of the online social network Facebook to build community around potential, prospective and enrolled students. The UWA Student Services Division focuses considerable attention on the early part of the student journey; from enrolment through to Link Week (week 3) and beyond. However, attention is now being broadened to include the pre-enrolment period which is seen as a particularly key time in building a positive relationship with incoming students. Staff are using the page to provide more comprehensive and consistent communication and to refer students to existing face to face and online programs and services. The intention is not to replicate or replace any existing services, but to create a personal, friendly and welcoming online presence. A Facebook fan page called 'UWA Students' invites fans to join and is open to anyone who feels a connection to the University. It is available at: http://www.facebook.com/UWAstudents


Background and introduction

It is now widely recognised that student learning occurs both inside and outside the classroom, (Krause 2005a, 2005b; Light, 2001) when students engage together in discussion, peer study groups and other co-curricula activities. Whilst content teaching conducted by Faculties may typically be seen to constitute the bulk of the University's 'core business', the contribution made by areas such as Libraries, Student Guilds and societies, transition programs and academic skills advisers is integral to the way students engage with and connect to their institution. Interactive online tools such as social networking offer opportunities to improve communication between students and university staff, supplement learning and facilitate interaction between groups of students in ways that aid their engagement with campus culture.

Context

The University of Western Australia (UWA) has more first year undergraduate students entering University straight from school than any other tertiary institution in Australia, enrolling around 82 per cent of its commencing undergraduates as school leavers most years. UWA is a single campus institution although incorporates the Albany Centre (500 km south of the main campus) and a number of offshore programs in Singapore, China, Hong Kong and the Philippines. The University has had a consistently strong tradition of focusing on the student experience and has an award winning Transition program for incoming students. As UWA heads towards its Centenary in 2011 and the implementation of the new offerings in 2012 under the Future Frameworks course restructure, it will be more important than ever to build effective, positive and long-lasting relationships between the University and students and to facilitate meaningful interactions between student peers on and off-campus.

Student Services is charged with the recruitment, admission, administration, support and engagement of UWA students and as such offers a broad suite of face to face programs and services aimed at scaffolding a well-rounded and fulfilling student experience. Since 2008, the Division has been testing and implementing ways of extending its work with students into the online environment.

Justification

Since 2006, Student Services has administered an annual survey of the access to, experiences with and expectations of Information and Communication Technologies of UWA first year students. Results from this NODE survey (named as part of the Networking Online to Diversify Engagement project) highlight the highly skilled, highly connected nature of the UWA first year cohort (Cluett & Skene, 2010, in press). Our aim, in initiating an online social network presence, was to extend the welcome to UWA to a much earlier stage than was previously possible, to encourage the interaction between incoming, enrolled, offshore and on-campus students, to provide best-practice support during the transition period and to ensure staff are fluent in the techniques and environments that students use to communicate with each other. This paper outlines how the Student Services Division at The University of Western Australia is using the social networking site Facebook to attract and engage potential, prospective and enrolled students.

Online student engagement

It is perhaps in the arena of social networking that universities are creating the most flexible ways to 'virtualise' the nature of the university experience (Crook & Light, 2002) and for students to engage with their institutions. Institutions are increasingly harnessing the power of online environments for creating communities and maintaining links between students and their university via networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter and Bebo (e.g. in the UK, the University of Aberdeen and the University of Bath and in the US, Drake University, the University of Michigan and Yale Science) with other institutions preferring to create their own members-only alumni network with internally hosted software packages (such as University of Adelaide and The University of Western Australia) or encourage the development of communities via environments such as Ning (as have smaller institutions such as Essex International Centre, Norwich University in the UK; Texas Southern University in the US). The use of Facebook fan pages is particularly notable in the US with non profit organisations (e.g. the Red Cross), universities (e.g. Stanford, Texas A&M and Louisiana State) and government agencies (The White House and the US Army) making the most of the news syndication opportunities afforded by fan pages.

Online social networking at UWA

Creating and supporting an engaging student learning experience is the core business of all teams within UWA Student Services. Program activities centre on connecting students with each other and with services and information relevant to student needs. Particular effort is placed over the transition period which for face-to-face events typically starts at Enrolment (and then extends through the early part of the student journey until at least Link Week which occurs in Week 3). The Facebook page will allow Student Services to connect with students at a much earlier time than previously possible by creating an online community that can include students prior to enrolment (including, for example, prospective students, students who have been offered a place or other students who feel a connection to UWA. These students are able to chat to each other, to enrolled students and to staff without having to visit the campus or be issued a UWA student number). It is anticipated that the majority of potential 'fans' will already be familiar and comfortable with Facebook and support will be offered to those that want to know more. Facebook provides a comprehensive set of terms and conditions which provides Student Services with protection against abuse of the page.

Students are able to connect with UWA staff that are available for face-to-face contact (staff typically use their real names on the Facebook page) although much of the value in the project is that students can participate in the page as much or as little as they like so that various levels of student participation and engagement are enabled. The page also meets the 'just-in-time' and 'just-for-me' principles of good service delivery to students, and facilitates quick responses to student inquiries or comments.

In summary, the UWA Students Facebook fan page offers the potential to

Having a single fan page (UWA Students) presents a unified, consistent approach to students while still allowing for groups to be set up by sections of the University with specific interests.

UWA Students' on Facebook - logistics of a fan page

The Facebook page was developed as a sub-project under the LTPF-funded UWA Online Student Journey project which aims to initiate and integrate the use of interactive technologies in the Student Services Division of The University of Western Australia. A Facebook 'fan' page was registered using the name 'UWA Students' in June 2009 for trialing and evaluation in Semester 2 of that year. Fan pages are designed for use by organisations including businesses, public figures and non-profit organisations. 'Fan pages' were upgraded by Facebook in March 2009 to give them similar functionality to personal profiles (it is against the Facebook terms and conditions for organisations to use a personal profile) and the power of publishing news feeds from fan pages make them more useful than Facebook groups. Facebook users become 'fans' of the UWA Students page and are able to post content on the wall and interact with other fans. The page is managed, moderated and administered by the project coordinator on behalf of Student Services and the University and the coordinator has the role of creating community, engaging fans and referring to official University web-pages whenever appropriate.

The page is checked at least daily to answer any fan postings. The status update (which appears on fan home pages) is updated twice a week and the profile photo is updated every 2 weeks with the aim of generating original, relevant and stimulating content whilst also avoiding overburdening fans with 'promotional' content. Student-related content being produced by Student Services using other online tools (such as Flickr, Sitepal, Slideshare and YouTube pages) can be aggregated on the Facebook page meaning that a variety of applications can be used at different times during the University calendar. The page also features a set of links to other Facebook fan pages related to the University including, for example, the UWA Student Guild and Science Union. The relationship between the UWA Students Facebook page and the University's official webpage conforms to two key rules; 1) that there will be minimal provision of advice or information using the Facebook page which will instead promote the official sources and refer students to them where appropriate and 2) that information provided to fans on the Facebook page should also be available via other means for any students who do not access the Facebook page. Content on the Facebook page therefore focuses on community and relationship building and referral to existing sources of information whilst adding a 'layer' to existing programs and web services.

A content matrix was developed in order to create an overall strategy for content generation. This allowed different types of content to be trialed so that the ease of creation, workload required, the effort needed to maintain or follow-up the content and the level of fan response could be evaluated at the end of the pilot-period. The UWA Facebook content matrix (Table 1) is adapted from the work of Lavrusik (2009) whose blog examines aspects of digital and social media.

Table 1: A matrix of 9 content types being trialed on the UWA Facebook fan page (adapted from Lavrusik, 2009)

Content typeDescriptionExample
Gathering and sharing informationWhat's happening on campus, news items, key activities and deadlines (applications, enrolments, orientation, transition and beyond).The countdown is on to Orientation Week at UWA (starting Mon 15 Feb 2010). To find out what activities are happening and what you need to do to get started at UWA visit [insert link].
'water cooler' commentary about campus lifeStatus updates and comments about life on campus including weather, food, parking etc to provide an insight into everyday life at UWA.Another beautiful summer day at the UWA campus! Did anyone watch the cricket match on the James Oval today? The Premier's XI played a visiting team from Pakistan. Photos coming soon...
Connecting fans with UWA people and groupsProfiling key staff, services, Guild clubs etc and promoting ways students can get involved and interact with each other.The UniSkills program kicks off next week with a 'Flying Start'. You can find out about the program here [insert link] as well as the huge range of programs run by Student Services here [insert link].
Broadcasting eventsPromoting events before they occur and posting photos, podcasts, experiences, video and news items afterwards.UWA joins Second Life! The UWA island will be launched next week by the School of Physics and you are invited to join the event in real-life or in the virtual world! Rsvp to [insert generic email address] Photos, animations and podcasts of the speeches will be available here [insert weblink].
Hosting stories and experiencesEmbedding student blogs and making use of the Facebook 'office hours' feature where a staff member or notable student posts a video, fans post comments and the staff/student reply via videoChristopher Steytler talks about his new appointment as Winthrop Professor of Law at UWA in this video [post clip]. Chris is inviting questions and comments from Facebook fans. Chris will reply in a video that will be posted next week. Chris is the first guest staff member to be featured in 'UWA Facebook office hours'.
Showcasing student and staff workPrize winners, Honours projects, visiting academics, etcCongratulations to our students who did so well in the National Indigenous Tertiary Education Games that were held in Canberra last week. Watch an interview with our champion rowing team who blitzed ANU to take the title for the second year running [insert video].
Linking to other social mediaProviding links to content produced by other areas of the University including UWA newsroom on Twitter, other Facebook pages and groups (PIAF, UWA Extension, Guild clubs), YouTube content etc.The Perth International Arts Festival is fast approaching with a huge range of exciting acts coming to our city. PIAF have their own Facebook fan page at [insert link] so sign up for news updates, information about the performers and ticket prices.
Holding competitionsGenerating interest around a particular topic by running polls, quizzes and contests.The Facebook fan page is hosting a Link Week quiz! There will be a new question uploaded to this page every day during Link Week and the first Facebook fan to post 5 correct answers to the page will win a $100 Co-op book voucher. Full guidelines available here [insert link].
Friendly notification about 'must-know' informationReminding and informing fans about (e.g.) travel alerts, swine flu, safety information etc.Make sure you're safe on campus at night. With many students working late on projects and assignments it's good to remember that Campus Security officers are available to escort you to your car at night or can help your order a taxi to get home safely. Go to [for more information and contact details].

Staff involvement

The Facebook fan page project is entirely managed within the Division of Student Services. However, because the focus is a seamless, student-centric online community, staff from other sections of the University are becoming involved with the page. During the pilot phase, the focus is on ensuring staff who work in recruitment, admissions and transition have had the opportunity to participate. Staff are provided with the training document 'A Guide to Facebook for UWA Student Services staff' and are offered group or individual training in general Facebook issues or specifically in topics such as setting up groups, posting links or adding photos. Students who require assistance in getting started on Facebook are initially referred to the Survival Guide entitled 'How to Survive...Networking in Facebook'. Both of these scaffolding documents were written specifically for this project and are aimed at UWA staff and students.

To ensure broad consultation within the University, the SSETAG (Student Service Emerging Technologies Advisory Group) was established to act as a working party to brainstorm any issues relating to the use of Web 2.0 tools by the Student Services Division. The SSETAG brings together staff with an interest in the representation of the University online and includes staff from the Web Office, Information Technology Services, Legal Services, Public Affairs, UniAccess; the University's Disability Office (staff with a background in internet accessibility) and Student Support.

Outcomes from the pilot stage

To kick-start the page whilst also keeping it to a manageable size for the pilot stage, the UWA Students Facebook fan page was promoted during Semester 2 enrolments and at 3 face-to-face Orientation events. This resulted in an almost immediate spike in the number of new fans joining the page immediately prior to week 1 of classes (the page attracted a total of 39 fans prior to Orientation Week with a further 119 fans joining during that week reaching 500+ by the end of Semester). The only other active promotion to fans has been on the University's UniStart webpage (where students accept their offer of a place at UWA). Viral promotion has been key in attracting new fans. When a Facebook user joins a fan page, all of their friends can see that they have joined which means that for each individual new fan that joins the UWA Students page, an average of 100 other Facebook users are informed about it.

Hosting a community

Interaction on the Facebook page follows trends seen in online communities that the vast majority of members do not post content. It is important to reiterate, however, that there is considerable value for members who engage in 'legitimate peripheral participation' by gaining a sense of belonging, observing the interaction of other fans and receiving updates from the page itself. Fans who do post content reaffirm the Facebook page as a place to:

Issues and risks

Launching a university presence on a publicly available social network such as Facebook creates a number of challenges and risks. The most extreme risks (libel, abuse, bullying, spam etc) are, interestingly, the easiest to deal with. Facebook provides page administrators with simple and effective options for blocking or reporting fans who mistreat fan pages or who post offensive content. In addition, the Facebook terms and conditions (to which all fans agree when they create their account) combined with the University's IT policy (which applies to any student or staff member who uses their University identity to create a Facebook account or who uses a University computer to access the page) mean that there is swift recourse to deal with these issues.

Dealing with fans who post content that may place the University in an unappealing light (for example, a personal opinion that is not libellous or offensive) requires greater intervention by page managers. The strategy used with the UWA Students page is to meet any such content head-on and to acknowledge that any online community will include a range of opinions and to remove this type of content would diminish the genuine nature of the page. All content posted to the UWA Students page has so far been positive, although not always worded in language that staff might prefer.

Evaluation

Facebook provides page creators and administrators with an evaluation tool called 'Insights' which offers daily statistics against a number of performance indicators such as how users are interacting, how engaging the content is, a comparison to pages of similar size and age, number of fans over time, home location and language of fans. These results are exportable via MS Excel which simplifies and streamlines the reporting of page activity.

Evaluation data reveals that whilst the majority of UWA Students' fans live in Australia (76%) they are not all in the University's city of Perth with fans spread across the country in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne (Facebook asks users to nominate their closest major city). Internationally, almost 8% of fans are from Singapore where UWA delivers the majority of its offshore programs. Fans have also joined the page from Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia which represents the list of home countries of UWA's international, Study Abroad and Student Exchange students. The overall gender statistics show a 50:50 split between male and female fan numbers with 65% of fans falling into the 18-24 years age bracket which corresponds with the demographics of the UWA cohort (81% of UWA first year students are school-leavers). Whilst there are limited studies of the Facebook pages for individual institutions, Blue Fuego conducts a range of benchmarking studies (e.g. Ward, 2009) and evaluation of the UWA Facebook fan page is being guided by the principles outlined by Joly (2009) of outlining key performance indicators, measuring site traffic regularly and sharing result data. These findings will be released following the 2009 pilot phase of the project.

Conclusion and full project launch

'Virtualisation' of the UWA university experience and broader opportunities for students to engage with their institution and staff prior to and during transition come together on the UWA Students Facebook fan page. The pilot phase of the Facebook sub-project ran from June to December 2009 and was used to test the functionality of the page, develop protocols and training for staff and assess the viability for a full roll-out in semester 1, 2010 (activity statistics from the Facebook page will be combined with a more thorough evaluation). A full-scale launch for incoming students will occur in 2010 due to the unique ability of the page to: The tail end of the pilot phase and any subsequent full launch will in the lead up to Semester 1, 2010, focus on directing fans to UWA's Enquiry Management system iPoint when they have a question and to the applications web pages where appropriate.

References

Cluett, L.J. & Skene, J. (2010). The student-learning student-engagement nexus: How can non-teaching areas of the University use Web 2.0 tools to enhance the student experience? Chapter in Lee, M.J.W. & McLoughlin, C. (Eds), Web 2.0 is here: Applying Social Informatics for Tertiary Teaching. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Cluett, L.J. (2009). Training professional staff in Web 2.0 - a program developed by UWA Student Services via the 'Online Student Journey' project. Paper presented at the Australian Tertiary Education Management - Student Services Centre Conference, held in Fremantle, WA, 23-24 April 2009.

Crook, C.K. & Light, P. (2002). Virtualisation and the cultural practice of study. In S. Woolgar (Ed.) Virtual Society? - technology, cyberbole, reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 153-175.

Joly, K, (2009). 7-step plan to Social Media Measurement for Higher Ed Institutions. College Web Editor blog - content posted 2nd October 2009. [Accessed 23 Oct 2009] http://collegewebeditor.com/blog/index.php/archives/2009/10/02/

Kennedy, G.E., Judd, T.S., Churchward, A., Gray, K. & Krause, K-L (2008). First year students' experiences with technology: Are they really digital natives? Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 24(1), 108-122. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet24/kennedy.html

Krause, K. (2005a). Understanding and promoting student engagement in university learning communities. [Accessed 11 August 2009] http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/pdfs/Stud_eng.pdf

Krause, K. (2005b). Who is the e-generation and how are they faring in higher education? In J. Lockhard & M.Pegrum (Eds), Brave New Classrooms: Educational Democracy and the Internet. New York: Peter Lang.

Lavrusik, V. (2009). 10 ways universities use social media to share information. Vladim Lavrusik's blog - content posted 15th July 2009. [Accessed 21st September 2009] http://lavrusik.com/2009/07/15/10-ways-universities-use-social-media-to-share-information/

Light, R. J. (2001). Making the most of college: Student speak their mind. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Oblinger, D.G. & Oblinger, J.L. (Eds) (2005). Educating the Net Generation. Educause e-book. http://www.educause.edu/educatingthenetgen/

Skene, J. & Cluett, L. (2008). 'If you build it, they will come': The challenges of developing a social networking site in a university context. Paper presented at the First Year in Higher Education Conference, Hobart, Australia, 30th June - 2nd July 2008. Available from: http://www.studentservices.uwa.edu.au/page/85133 or at http://www.fyhe.qut.edu.au/past_papers/papers08/FYHE2008/content/pdfs/1c.pdf

Skene, J., Cluett, L. & Hogan, J. (2007). Engaging Gen Y students at university: What web tools do they have, how do they use them and what do they want? Refereed paper presented at the First Year in Higher Education conference, Brisbane, Australia, 3-6 July 2007. http://www.studentservices.uwa.edu.au/page/85133 or at http://www.fyhe.qut.edu.au/past_papers/papers07/final_papers/pdfs/2b.pdf

Ward, B. (2009). Social Web Callouts: 6 Month Research. Blue Fuego's blog - content posted 3rd August 2009. [Accessed 23rd October 2009] http://bluefuego.com/index.php/2009/08/social-web-callouts-6-month-research/

Author: Dr Lisa Cluett, Learning, Language and Research Skills, The University of Western Australia. Email: lisa.cluett@uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Cluett, L. (2010). Online social networking for outreach, engagement and community: The UWA Students' Facebook page. In Educating for sustainability. Proceedings of the 19th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 28-29 January 2010. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2010/refereed/cluett.html

Copyright 2010 Lisa Cluett. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format, provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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