I’ve been thinking about this question a lot since starting as programme director for the MA Digital Technologies, Communication and Education at the University of Manchester. We have a Twitter account and a LinkedIn page though neither has been used consistently since they were setup. I suspect this is typical of social media accounts for PGT programmes (though I plan to explore this empirically over the summer) reflecting staffing demands as well as a lack of clarity about how it ought to be used. These are problems which can be seen across institutional uses of social media at a sub-departmental level. The fact that social media activity through a PGT related-account is less likely to be noticed than a research group or departmental account makes it even more difficult to incentivise this activity. It’s neither formally nor informally recognised which raises the obvious question: why do it? There are a number of potential answers to this challenge:
- It can be used to enrich the learning experience of existing PGT students. This can encompass supplementary learning materials for units, online conversations which build on in class discussion and using a programme’s social media channels to ask questions of wider audiences.
- It can provide a venue for sharing digital artefacts created by PGT students in their modules. In my final year at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education I led students in the production of podcasts as part of the PGT programme Knowledge, Power, Politics. This prompted a small project with Haira Gandolfi developing a policy framework to support the public sharing of outputs like this. The increasing popularity of digital artefacts as an adjunct to formal assessment (indeed as the formal assessment in a number of the units we run at DTCE) raises the obvious possibility these should be shared widely. This shouldn’t be done carelessly but the project with Haira left me confident it’s relatively easy to do this in a responsible way.
- It can be used to build community within the the PGT programme by sharing announcements, experiences and opportunities which are relevant to the cohort. This can be led by the teaching team but it can also be used to facilitate self-organised student activity. In this sense I think sharing it through the public channel is as much to do with institutional recognition as it is a matter of helping students promote the events internally. I wonder if student takeovers of the account might also worthwhile i.e. inviting a particular student (or group of students) to use it for a week to share content which is particularly interesting to them. We also have a DTCE podcast which is largely internal but I suspect it would generate external interest as well, including with alumni and potential future students.
- It can be used to build and sustain relationships with alumni by enabling them to retain an ongoing online connection with the programme, as well as to enable the programme to get a sense of what graduates are doing after they have left. Tomorrow we’re running our first careers event with a panel of DTCE alumni and I’m conscious of how valuable social media connections are likely to be in putting together events like this in future. It seems clear that alumni who are keen to engage with the programme and students who are keen to learn from their post-graduation experience could benefit from mutually enriching informal interactions.
- It can be used to promote the programme with potential future students by increasing its visibility vis-a-vis other potential masters as well as conveying a vivid sense of what the programme is like in practice. I suspect the marketing imperative is the main explanation for why PGT programmes have social media accounts but that without the other functions I’ve listed here, it’s unlikely their online engagement will have much purchase.
This obviously involves a mix of internal and external audiences which can sometimes be problematic when it comes to social media. However it strikes me there’s an obvious synergy between them here insofar as that things which will enrich the experience of current PGT students will also be of interest to potential future PGT students and alumni from the programme. Using social media to actively contribute to the life of the programme generates content which will be relevant for the main external audiences, with their ensuing attention providing a most likely supportive audience for student-produced content. It might be going too far to suggest this is a necessarily virtuous circle but it’s something which is trending in that direction.
It’s possible that the internal elements of the programme might seem a bit messy when shared in this way e.g. if resources for teaching are shared in a way which might be obvious to students but lacks context for external audience. However this could be mitigated by simply having standardised formats which make it clear if this relates to a particular unit or if it’s a resource being shared as a consequence of its relevance to the programme as a whole. It would also make sense to have a ‘cleaner’ version of the account on LinkedIn orientated primarily towards alumni and future students, as well as the messier living document found on Twitter. Furthermore, I suspect that any reputational risk here is vastly outweighed by the impact the long tail of content is likely to have on the visibility of the programme. These are just some initial thoughts but if you’re interested please keep track of @MADTCE (as well as the research group @DTCEResearch) over the coming year as we start to put some of these plans and projects into practice.
Is this worthwhile? I’m increasingly convinced we need to ask this question of digital engagement much more than we tend to within higher education. In the case I’m outlining there are multiple potential sources of value: the learning experience of students, their sense of belonging on the programme, building an audience for their work, sustaining connections with alumni and recruiting new students. Each involve distinctive criteria for success but none of these are remotely beyond our capacity to assess.