The Internet has opened up limitless opportunities for education — both for the actual learning process and for the institutions themselves. It has provided colleges new ways to connect with students — both current and prospective. Recent trends have professors promoting their courses online, students creating videos to supplement their applications, and admissions officials using various social-networking and promotional sites to reach out to prospective students.
The result has been greater access to information — both by students and by college professors and officials. Educators can use Facebook, Twitter and MySpace to get to know students beyond their test scores and admissions essays. And students can use the same tools to understand the culture and student life at the colleges and universities where they are interested in attending. Colleges and universities have been able to push much further with marketing into creating a brand for themselves.
But social-networking sites and blogs represent only a small portion of the ways that universities and students can promote and exchange information online.
Far off the beaten path is Second Life, a virtual 3-D world that allows users to create an avatar and interact with one another to socialize and exchange information. It is used by a number of organizations, both in business and in education. But one university recently found out how this new virtual outlet creates yet another obstacle for officials to control the flow of information and the brand image of the institution.
Woodbury University was banned from the virtual world after some online vandals believed to be associated with the university created some problems.
Officials say there is little evidence that the troublemakers were affiliated with the university, or that the university had in any way supported or condoned the behavior.
Though the situation involving Second Life presents a rare and small portion of the kinds of problems that universities face by maintaining an online presence, it does represent a picture into a new virtual world of possibilities as the Internet continues to grow and more and more businesses and consumers interact online — ultimately, in ways that have not yet been imagined.
Educators should take these cues to adopt a proactive position for their online presence. Not only will they then be able to better control the information that is available, they will also strengthen their reputations as innovators and leaders in education.
But with so many new online outlets available, controlling the flow of information presents a new challenge for educators.
Recently, Facebook made changes to its privacy settings and the way it links information from various pages — including linking personal interests to official Facebook or fan-created pages. Included in those changes was the implementation of “community pages,” which compile information from various sources including Wikipedia and Facebook posts.
The result is that uncontrolled information is making its way onto the page — including criticism from current or former students. Officials also worry that students will be unable to distinguish between the community page and the official page of the university. The community pages are even appearing higher up in Google searches — even before the university’s official Web site in some cases.
Some bloggers have already outlined how the changes will affect colleges and have suggested ways that educators can circumvent the potential negative impact of the community pages, including embracing the additional free publicity, maintaining social-networking sites, providing more authoritative information, and using the information as an opportunity to make improvements.