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This Just Published: Social media usage among colleges and universities

by Brett Ranon Nachman | Jun 28, 2018

This Just Published logo, 480 pixelsBrett Ranon Nachman is a ​doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at ​UW-Madison and a ​project assistant for WISCAPE. His research focuses primarily on the experiences and depictions of college students on the autism spectrum, as well as STEM community college students’ experiences and transfer pathways.

Brett NachmanIt’s inevitable –- ​colleges and universities have no choice but to embrace that ​how they utilize social media platforms ​affects their public image, reputation, and engagement with stakeholders. ​Challenges with social media exist at ​all levels, from the top of the academic food chain to the smallest unit or department on campus with its own Facebook or Twitter page. Recent literature addressing social media usage by colleges and universities ​shows ​its promise for connecting with students and also ​warns about potential pitfalls. These three articles exhibit some recent ​research on this ​topic.

Harrison, A., Burress, R., Velasquez, S., & Schreiner, L. (2017). Social media use in academic libraries: A phenomenological study. 
The Journal of Academic Librarianship43(3), 248-256.

View the journal article.

Libraries, traditionally viewed as fixtures of academia, are adapting to the digital age. ​Sharing examples of previously-published studies, the authors note that a decade ago there were a paucity of libraries possessing or prioritizing social media. More recently, however, libraries have realized how these platforms are pivotal in sharing content and engaging with students. This study examines the social media themes that surfaced across six university libraries in two Midwest states based on status, whether part of the Association of Research Libraries (ARS) network (Type I); a university that has a Ph.D. program, ARL status, and offers an MLS program (Type II); or possessing none of the aforementioned characteristics (Type III).

Drawing on Institutional Theory, the authors explain ​that institutions tend to follow norms and structure, despite their possible lack of utility, and may engage in isomorphism to be viewed as legitimate. In this way, academic libraries have been called on to employ social media. In the literature review, they explain the particulars of primary social media platforms; while some of this information comes across as basic and perhaps somewhat peripheral to meatier matters, it offers ​the foundation ​that social media most often boils down to marketing a cause or product. The​ authors ​begin with a discussion of social media at a broader level before ​narrowing in to social media use in academic libraries. Addressing the breadth of approaches previous scholars have taken in examining this topic, the authors share the primary areas of past inquiry, such as usage and content by library type. At no point, though, do the authors contend that a particular gap exists.

While I am in alignment that employing a phenomenological design is useful ​to some degree, ​the article never ​explicitly demonstrates what makes the study unique. That is, until the tail end of the article, ​when the authors state its uniqueness derives from serving as a review of ​messages. Sadly, this is not a convincing argument. In their methods, the authors fail to explain how they selected these six specific libraries, which may prompt some head scratching. Regarding data collection, the authors examined the 25 most recent submissions, or posts, per social media type, before and including the end of September 2015. While this appears reasonable and consistent, timing of the year may have offered misleading information. I immediately think of how institutions post less content, and different type of content, during ​the summer.

Despite shortcomings in the methods section, which lead me to take findings at more of a surface level, some intriguing results emerge. For one, the authors detail the variety of platforms and which schools used them. Facebook was, naturally, found at all six libraries. Instagram, on the other hand, was ​used by only one institution. Consequently, Facebook accounted for more than one-third of data collected for this study.

​For​ coding purposes, the authors ​identified ten codes ​reflecting the content most commonly found in ​social media posts: archives, collections, events, exhibit, facility, library community, sentiments, services, site management, and university community. ​Of these, event promotion served as a key priority ​across all of the libraries. Facility and site management were addressed the least. From there emerged larger themes centered on community connections, inviting environment, and provision of content. Looking at each library type separately, Type I and Type II libraries were consistent in rather evenly having posts across all three of these domains. Meanwhile, Type III libraries had less than 10 percent of content dedicated to making community connections. Sadly, this is not analyzed whatsoever, yet raises a number of questions of why those particular institutions failed to address this content in their social media posts.

Ultimately, the authors conclude that libraries tend to imitate one another in the content they post, which feels slightly shallow and not reaching the nuances of why certain libraries may feel more of a need or desire to forefront certain content over other material. For instance, how might demographic characteristics of the primary social media users dictate content posted? Additionally, might institutional concerns have direct connections on what libraries, via their social media platforms, feel they must post? I appreciate the practical implications the authors list, such as allocating one sole library staff member toward handling social media content, but again, this comes off as elementary. The authors’ interests in this line of study are noted, but the study lacks well-articulated design and analysis. However, reviewing this study is important for eliciting ideas ​on how scholars may craft scholarship on the pivotal roles libraries have in crafting social media content.

Kimmons, R., Veletsianos, G., & Woodward, S. (2017). Institutional uses of Twitter in US higher education. 
Innovative Higher Education42(2), 97-111.

View the journal article.

Massive in both scale and implications, Royce Kimmons, George Veletsianos, and Scott Woodward have crafted a study to figure out how a majority of United States higher education institutions’ Twitter accounts frame their messaging. Though they note that community colleges were not part of ​their study, the authors very comprehensively explore the power of Twitter in shaping narratives, whether they scratch the surface, distort the picture, or overlook negatives.

First, the authors note how existent literature has largely found Twitter usage among higher education institutions to encompass a one-way dialogue, particularly related to recruitment or public relations purposes, thus representing a missed opportunity for communicating with ​others. They exemplify this by incorporating a number of examples of studies that show how colleges miss the mark in having meaningful conversations with users. On the other hand, they recognize how individual scholars, including university presidents, have used Twitter to have more personal interactions. This guiding knowledge helped shape several research questions, which related to uncovering the types of posts, links, sentiments, and narratives of images found in institutional tweets.

Developing a list of official institutional Twitter accounts –- importantly, the authors state how they only used the primary account in cases of multiples -– they collected 2,411 accounts to analyze. Employing the Twitter API allowed the authors to access the most recent 3,500 tweets per institution. Later they relied on machine methods for coding the 5.7 million tweets gathered -– encompassing more than half of all tweets by these accounts –- and assign​ed each tweet as being positive, negative, or neutral in tone. Human coding also entered the picture when necessary. 

Results explicate the range of tweets posted by institutions. Whereas dialogic tweets –- least prominent, at only 10 percent of tweets -– involved institutions directly communicating with particular users’ accounts, monologic tweets were in abundance and not directed to any account. In the end, it appears that spreading information was the primary purpose of many Twitter accounts. The authors find that ​two-year institutions often had a greater action-oriented tone, whereas ​four-year institutions were more dialogic; again, as community colleges were excluded from the study, we must assume they are referring to technical colleges and other institutions under the ​two-year umbrella. This point embodies a minor pitfall and unintended misrepresentation that cannot be overlooked. However, any differences across institutional typ​e,​ for instance comparing publics and privates​, were relatively minor. Meanwhile, in determining how institutions utilized links, nearly two-thirds of these types of tweets directed users to other social media platforms.

One of the most interesting findings arrives in determining the sentiment of tweets, configured through both an algorithm and human coding a sample of tweets. Sentiment patterns were similar across both methods. A majority of tweets were neutral, more than one-third were positive, and fewer than ten percent of tweets were classified as negative. Neutral tweets often came in the form of announcements and sharing pieces of information. Positive tweets included greeting new students and visitors. Negative tweets, meanwhile, related to sharing unfortunate news, such as bad weather or the death of a student. Finally, regarding imagery, human coders examined factors ​such as how pictures conveyed campus attractiveness, positive experiences, faculty and student successes, text, other material, or if images were missing; these absentee items were omitted. Not surprisingly, most imagery demonstrated positive experiences featured at the institution, often depicting student activities.

The authors make astute observations in their discussion of the findings. For example, they indicate that although college can orchestrate more of a two-way dialogue via Twitter, they too often focus on just sharing positive attributes of their institutions and not enough on engagement ​in scholarship. I would complement this recommendation and feel that institutional social media embodies the ideal vehicle for initiating service efforts, and even encouraging alumni participation for fundraising activities. This is rarely utilized. Similarly, the authors point out how institutional branding via Twitter is pervasive and reflects the marketing angle; whether or not this is a productive use of social media remains an ongoing question. Surely, institutions will continue to use Twitter to serve their own purposes, but the type of information they share and how they elicit worthwhile dialogue, if at all, may change the cycle of communication. 

Peruta, A., & Shields, A. B. (2017). Social media in higher education: Understanding how colleges and universities use Facebook. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education27(1), 131-143.

View the journal article.

One main point at the onset of this article, even if not intentional in constructing the landscape of the study, has major ramifications: ​There is vitality ​in designing social media content that honors and respects the innumerable stakeholders associated with a postsecondary institution. Whereas the previous study centered solely on Twitter, this work by Adam Peruta and Alison B. Shields is exclusively concentrated on Facebook posts at 66 top colleges and universities in the United States. Understanding how this content impacts their social media campaigns and strategies is at the root of their inquiry. More specifically, the authors wanted to discover if differences existed in post frequency and engagement based on institutional type, as well as understand what types of posts were in greatest abundance.

​Instead of a traditional literature review, the authors offer some context on the utility of Facebook “engagement,” which may be contingent on how well posts reach users –- or, often times, how much ​is paid for content to ​get increased visibility. Such groundwork leads up to establishing the first hypothesis: that lower involvement engagement methods, such as a like, will be in higher quantity than a comment. As users start to see other users’ engagement with a post, this may prompt them to participate, thus causing a domino effect. Three other main hypotheses emerge at this point: 1) increased likes lead to greater engagement overall; 2) institutions that post content more frequently will have less engagement with each post than those that are more limited in posting​; and 3) visual posts elicit greater engagement. The authors build up these points in a logical, good rhythm that nicely sets up the study’s purpose.

The 66 institutions ​that comprised the study sample ​were drawn from their placement in U.S. News and World Report's "Best Colleges" rankings. While institutional rankings continue to be ​called into question, the criteria for this study are clear. Furthermore, I appreciate the intentionality of when Facebook posts were reviewed: the beginning of the academic year (September) and during recruitment season (April). The collected data was analyzed in great detail, employing many mechanisms to extract the fine particulars, such as tags with each post, when comments were posted, and if comments prompted replies.

Several interesting results emerged. First, there was a statistically significant difference in posting frequency between liberal arts colleges and private schools and between public schools and private schools. Overall, private institutions submitted the most (121 posts, on average), whereas public institutions (85) and liberal arts colleges (68) ​posted much less. Of all the content formats, photos were most frequently posted, and fans tended to engage with this type of post most frequently. Public and private institutions tended to have greater total engagement, whereas liberal arts colleges have more proportional engagement, which the authors speculate may be based on student demographics and particular institutional ties. Most fascinating is that the higher the number of “likes” an institution’s Facebook page receives, the less engaged individual fans are; this may lead institutions to rethink the value of those numbers.

This study, in both its design and execution, is well done, and this comes across most apparently in its implications section. Absolutely, a point of diminishing returns exists in posting content, particularly if content seems in overabundance or irrelevant. Additionally, they reinforce the vitality of engagement with users and making them feel connected to the content at hand. In their suggestions for future research section, they call for examining other institutional attributes in shaping the type of content posted. While the authors do not explore the role of who certain Facebook content is tailored to serve –- for example, alumni, community members, students, staff members, etc. -– that would be a fantastic subsequent study as well. There is endless potential in examining how institutions share content on their Facebook pages, and this study represents a fine addition to the scholarship in this domain.

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