On Campus

A Question of Medium

If you want to use the Internet to reach students, go with what you know.

Here’s some mail I recently received. It came from a university staff member:

I really enjoyed your article, ‘Mature Students Often Misunderstood’ in MACLEANS Oncampus. Given the increasing use of Facebook by mature students, what do you think of the possibilities of using this medium for mature students to support one another?

Whenever you’re trying to create more cohesion among a group of students (no matter what that group may be) there’s always the initial question of how to get people together in the first place, and encourage them to interact. Should you host events? Organize social meetings around food? Of course the Internet offers a whole new world of possibilities. Everything else is done on-line these days. Why not get people interacting there?

The Internet can be a great place to create communities among tech-savvy students, and there is definitely a growing range of mature students who are tech savvy. Anyone up into the mid-late 30’s is likely to be reasonably comfortable with computers these days, and beyond that it’s still fairly common. So my answer to this question regarding mature students is a qualified “yes.” But that leaves the question of Facebook itself.

I think it’s a mistake to get on board something just because it’s popular or new and imagine that it’s a uniquely powerful way to reach people. There’s such a range of ways to build community on-line that even listing a few only reveals my own preferences and areas of comfort. Internet forums are an old school but still popular option. A good Blogging platform can create community too, if your group is a manageable size. The more tech-oriented types might like mucking around with their own community wiki. It takes a bit to get used to that, but once you’re comfortable it can be a great tool. I could list a half dozen other options without even thinking about it.

It isn’t just university staff that wonder how best to encourage community among students. Student unions confront the same question. Clubs and other organizations are interested in it too. Student media often try to expand their activities by moving on-line. Innovative professors want to try something different. And then sometimes individual students just want to reach out. The Internet is a great resource, when you haven’t got any money to work with.

The best advice I can offer, in any and all of these case examples, is to work with whatever medium you already know and are comfortable with. By “you” I mean whoever is going to actually be in charge of the effort, and deal with it on a daily basis. Comfort and enthusiasm are infectious. If you make it easy for students it’s more likely they’ll climb on board. But the very people you are trying to reach may also be turned off by an effort that seems amateurish and under-supported.

If you want to harness the Internet to better connect people that’s great. Pick something you’re good at already, or else recruit help and go with whatever they’re good at. Inevitably you won’t get everyone on board, but you’ll get some of them at least, and you can grow that over time, just the same as you would any other community.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.