A few years ago when I was running the Twitter feed for the Sociology department at Warwick, I noticed how readily first year undergraduates tweeted practical questions to the account during their first few weeks of the first term. Students tweeted questions intermittently throughout the year but it was particularly marked at the start of their time within the department. As someone who spent 6 years studying the undergraduate experience, it’s not hard for me to understand why this would be so: the organisation the student has joined tends to seem rather large and they often feel they have only a superficial grasp on how it works.
What I find harder to answer is why universities haven’t seized upon social media as tool for improving the ‘student experience’. As well as the aforementioned questions, I noticed a few instances of forthcoming students tagging the department on Twitter prior to starting their degree. As a part-time PhD student with little practical involvement in the department beyond my role maintaining the twitter feed, I often found myself unable to answer the questions undergraduates had and struggling to welcome forthcoming students to the department in any meaningful way.
I find it easy to imagine how this could be done with social media in an effective way: inviting forthcoming students to engage with the department prior to joining it, encouraging them to address any questions they have to the twitter feed and checking in with the students on a semi-regular basis throughout their first year. It would require an investment though not a particular significant one – perhaps it could be factored into the workload allocation of an existing administrator? The work involved would be regular but fairly unsubstantial, necessitating that someone knowledgeable about the day-to-day life of the department were to prioritize twitter as a communications channel alongside e-mail.
My experience of the ‘back channel’ that Twitter provides at conferences is that it makes large and impersonal events feel friendly and accessible. Could the same effect be achieved with the student engagement project I’m outlining?