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How to Develop Campus Community through Social Media

For higher education professionals, many decisions are grounded in building a strong campus community.  How best to offer student services, programming calendars, leadership opportunities, dining hall hours, and the list goes on.  Each segment of campus life leading students to be more integrated and engaged in the campus community.

Because of emerging technologies and innovative methods of communication, the ways in which we build community with each other are changing.  Could it be possible that students can feel a sense of community through online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram?  In this post, I use published research to convey the argument that yes it can, but with only the right strategy for each unique campus.  College campuses have an opportunity to foster a virtual community, one that emulates the traits of the in real life (IRL) experience.

Building a virtual campus community is part of a comprehensive model for College Student Digital Identity Education that I have written about over the last few weeks.  This initiative would begin as soon as a new student is accepted to the university, heightened at new student orientation, and continued throughout the course of the freshman year.

The three components that make up the proposed student success initiative is called Digital Identity Education for First-Year Students which includes: Pre-College Community Development, In Real Life (IRL) Student Digital Orientation, and Campus Engagement  

Defining what composes a sense of community was researched by McMillian and Chavis (1986), finding members experienced a feeling of belonging when there was:

  • Membership
  • Influence
  • Integration and fulfillment of needs
  • A commonplace
  • Shared emotional connection

Because of the dynamic interplay of user-generated social networking sites (SNSs), researchers have found sites may offer enough connection to be considered a community (Gruzd, Takheyev, & Wellman 2011; Reich, 2010).  Reich (2010) found students were able to stay connected with their previous communities through social media, but also quickly integrated and became active within their new environment.

Further, Reich (2010) concluded that SNSs were virtual communities because they provided a psychological sense of community for users through emotional connection and the ability to share important experiences.  This research highlights the importance to cultivate this type of community throughout the entire college student experience.

After the excitement at orientation, events of welcome weekend, and the newness of class slows down, fostering virtual campus community efforts should resurge with activity.  Integration should be considered in all areas of campus, especially in the classroom.  Students are open to using social media as a forum to communicate with instructors and their classmates (Fuller, 2012).  Further, students believe that using technology adds to their learning experiences with such advantages as faculty interaction, support at campus, and social development (Johnson, 2012).

Building a stronger campus community aided with social media technologies, this effort takes on such goals as:

  1. Training students to become digital leaders
  2. Applying technology in the classroom for learning
  3. Empower students leaders that are campus ‘influencers’ to foster and manage virtual platforms for community
  4. Enhancing virtual and IRL community development
  5. Continued digital education programming through first-year seminars, residence hall programming, etc
  6. Providing students ongoing online channels for feedback and connection directly to the university

The specific strategies that a university could use vary.  Creativity and innovation, along with paying attention to the student population interests will be key.

For example, look at all major campus events, student organizations, traditions, campus leaders, popular academic classes, and locations on campus and how these can fuel activity on a virtual community platform.  Collaboration will be crucial across campus offices to make sure the messaging will be consistent and accurate.  If an appropriate office does not exist to take on such virtual campus community development effort, then a campus committee composed of strong digital stewards should lead the yearlong engagement efforts.

To be a digital (technology) steward/leader you need to aware and able to use technology, open to experimenting and explore how to incorporate it into the bigger community (Lewis & Rush, 2013).  The possibilities for online engagement will bring resources directly to students, as well as, the ability to continue building stronger relationships with their peers.
I have included a number of ideas to consider when fostering a dual IRL/online campus community:

Identify key influencers on campus to be consistent virtual voices

  • Designate student leader moderators should be added to online platforms, for consistent engagement and amplification of the peer voice.
  • Allow students to develop original content in blog, YouTube or programmatic form that works toward virtual community building.
  • Administrators, faculty, and campus leaders should also be integrated into this strategy, such as Tweet the Veep, Pic with the President on Instagram, or Q & A with the Dean on Google+.  These types of strategies bridge innovative tools and campus influencers to the targeted student community.

IRL (In Real Life) Interaction Developed Through Online Platforms

In addition to the utilization of technology that builds virtual community, tools can be harnessed to bring online communication into offline relationships.  IRL opportunities are those that begin through virtual communities established on social media, but during some part of the communication process turns into a real-life, in-person experience.

  • A common virtual-to-IRL experience is called a TweetUp.  This is executed by scheduling an in-person gathering through Twitter promotions.  These meetups can be created for a variety of targeted audiences.  For example, a tweet message calling all students from the east coast, biology majors or even the entire freshman class to meet at 7:00 p.m. on east quad.  Upon arrival, a food truck, band and/or some other event could be waiting for them.  This could be marketed in advance if the event is larger and more fiscal resources are dedicated.  However, even a last-minute meet up could be attempted for something simple, like a bio 101 study group meet up with free cookies at the library in one hour.
  • Using social media properly at events can also bring out the goals of IRL engagement.  Using common hashtags, location meetups, and photo sharing bring events to life before during and after.  Student activity organizers need to use these tools early on so attendees are aware of the presence.
  • Finally, in-person education should be incorporated throughout the academic year.  Hopefully, this would build off a session at new student orientation, teaching the skills and know-how to be a digital student leader.  In either case, both fall and spring semesters should have programming that weaves in opportunities to teach students advanced technologies tools and leadership applications of social media.  This topic can be a stand-alone programming series, but would also be beneficially integrated into other curriculums such as, first-year experience courses, student leader trainings, greek life new member orientations, etc.

Proposing a Value Added Approach for Campus Buy-in

Taking on a comprehensive initiative such as this might be a shift in campus culture, one that some faculty, staff, or even students may not initially warm to.  Efforts need to be made to engage openly with these individuals, in addition to educating the entire campus community on the tools, benefits, and usage of social media communication tools.

Digital education and virtual community development efforts are applicable to those in the entire campus community, not just the freshman class.  Student leaders, faculty in all disciplines, and staff from all levels in the organization should have a basic understanding of technologies available.  A value-added approach should be voiced to gain support.  If embraced, each unique area of campus could provide a valuable ingredient to this student leader digital education model.  The message is not of adoption, but awareness.

Examples include:

  • The School of Communications or English faculty can give tips on how to clarify a message to fit into 140 characters on Twitter, or how to create an accurate and professional Twitter profile page description.
  • The Information Technology department would be perfect to provide exciting rollouts of new technology offered at the university or a review of newly released social media application.
  • The Student Leadership Department should develop a series on how to be a leader online, providing discernment tools on what their leadership brand is and how that will impact what they post online.
  • The Career Development Office can be empowered to offer LinkedIn training for all members of the community, offering advanced tools of the resources.   This should include, how to ask a LinkedIn reference and reaching out to second or third-degree potential contacts.

Any strategy should be mirrored to match the university culture, student body interests, as well as, campus resources available.  Tracking results and learning outcomes through assessment measures will be key for future planning and knowing the true impact of efforts.  Armed with this type of data will equip administrators in funding requests.

Through the cultivation of an online virtual community, the entire campus should be pulled into the conversation.  A community of learners are empowered and equipped with knowledge and resources to become digital stewards of technology (Lewis & Rush, 2013).  This process encourages open experimentation and applies it to the bigger community.  By itself, social media provides networking and relationship building for students (Sacks & Graves, 2012).  So, when online communication is fueled by IRL opportunities to connect, the potential for engagement maybe even more profound.

The goal of campus community development is to harness participation from all areas of campus.  As an entire strategy, however, the bigger goal of educating first-year students’ on digital identity is how to be an active contributor to the campus and global community through both online and offline means.  Or what I would hope, growing the digital rock stars of the future.

Fuller, M.  (2012).  Effectively communicating with university students using social media: a study of social media usage patterns.  2012 ASCUE Proceedings, 46-58.
Gruzd, A., Takheyev, Y., & Wellman, B. (2011). Imagining twitter as an imagined community. American Behavioral Scientist, 55(10) 1294-1318.
Johnson, M. L. (2012). Integrating Technology into Peer Leader Responsibilities.  New Directions for Higher Education, 157, 59-71.
Lewis, B. & Rush, D.  (2013).  Experience of developing twitter-based communities of practice in higher education.  Research in Learning Technology, 21, 1-35.
McMillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory.  Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 6-23.
Reich, S. M. (2010). Adolescent’s sense of community on MySpace and Facebook: a mixed-methods approach.  Journal of Community Psychology, 38(6), 688-705).
Sacks, M. A. & Graves N.  (2012).  How many “friends” do you need?  Teaching students how to network using social media.  Business Communication Quarterly, 75(1), 80-88.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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