THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

May 31, 2012

Facebook's propulsion back into the headlines - be it for its stock market flotation or founder Mark Zuckerberg tying the knot - has twitched the fingers of the academic blogosphere.

Brian Kelly, an expert in online technology at UKOLN, a research organisation based at the University of Bath, has explored its presence in the academy - and how widely it is used - on his UK Web Focus blog.

Mr Kelly took Facebook usage by Russell Group universities as his starting point for research to "gather evidence to support discussions on the relevance of use of Facebook in the higher education sector". By tallying the number of "likes" a university's Facebook page had attracted at different points in the past year, he found there had been a "significant growth" for Russell Group institutions.

"In brief," he writes, "in a period of eight months we have seen an increase in the number of 'likes' for the 20 UK Russell Group universities of over 432,300 users with the largest increase, of almost 248,000, occurring at the University of Oxford."

Although "likes" could have come from staff and other interested parties, the data seem to suggest a huge growth in student use.

Such data could aid social media consultants advising the higher education sector, Mr Kelly suggests, but he points out that there are a number of qualifications that accompany the results.

"The 'liking' of a university may provide a bookmark which is not an indication of engagement with the institution," he warns.

For instance, students who have left may not have "unliked" their institution despite graduating, so the figures could include those no longer using the university's services.

Taking these factors into account, Mr Kelly believes that universities' use of Facebook and other social media could be as limited as pre-existing methods of communicating with the public - although he thinks it could be a profitable tool if used properly.

"It may be that Facebook can be regarded in a similar way to mailing lists: people use them and gain some value from them but development work is likely to take place using other technologies," he writes.

"Alternatively the popularity of Facebook may mean that it has a role to play as a platform for development of new services."

One such application may be to allow "researchers to share peer-reviewed papers using Facebook and Twitter, so perhaps Facebook could have a role to play as a sharing tool which is embedded within institutional tools".

He concludes that the future of Facebook use by universities is difficult to predict, but argues that they will surely look to harness value from having that kind of online presence.

"With over half a million 'likes' will Oxford University be thinking about benefits which can be gained from such a large network?

"Alternatively, will institutions such as Newcastle University with small Facebook networks shrug their metaphorical shoulders at such suggestions and argue that Facebook has no value to their teaching and learning and research activities?

"Or might the popularity of Facebook at Oxford and Cambridge universities, which has a significant effect on the overall totals for Russell Group universities, simply reflect the brand awareness for these two institutions?"

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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