Christine Comrie is information officer at Jisc

Social media has taken a bit of a hammering in recent weeks. The controversy surrounding and their sites safety may well have put learning providers off officially sanctioning social media as a communication channel for their learners. The headaches over safeguarding, time wasting, privacy and control may be just too much to address for colleges and many actually see social media as a threat to heavily-invested-in virtual learning environments (VLEs).

But, my fear is that by adopting these attitudes, providers may be missing a trick.

One of our Jisc Regional Support Centre(RSC) blog post recently highlighted a survey of further education providers in Scotland that found around half of respondents indicated their department now uses social media tools for learning and teaching and 70% of those surveyed felt the use of social media enhances the quality of the learning experience. This still leaves a significant number who feel social media may be a distraction to learning. Equally, a recent Jisc Inform article highlights a school survey that found senior managers had serious concerns on the possibility of cyber bullying and the potential invasion of their student's personal space, as well as worries over staff having the technical ability to manage social media appropriately.

So who's right?

Whilst attending LearnPod13 at Doncaster College this summer, I heard techno-converts publicly denouncing the fact they are being forced to use VLEs when they want to use Twitter, blogs and other social media to connect with learners. Which leaves providers grappling with issues of organisational consistency, continuity, ownership and control of resources.

I also spoke to Simon England, web and social media designer at the college, who highlighted successes in student recruitment following contact with potential learners on the college's Facebook page. A quick look through the timeline of Doncaster College's main Facebook page sees regular contact with potential students - "Is there anyone I could come in and speak to about returning to college?", "Is there a way to speak to a course adviser on facebook?". Alongside this there is great publicity - "3 more days.. & ill be saying goodbye to Doncaster College after 3 long years.. Definitely worth it after the people I've met and the grades I'm walking out with. Definitely worth the experience and the early mornings have paid off". There is also a complaint from a potential student unable to speak to the department she needed, though the college is able to demonstrate a quick response within the hour, according to comment times.

Similarly, in teaching and learning, the college is using Facebook alongside other tools. There are 21 closed Facebook groups catering for various courses, with differing levels of learner engagement. Tutors use Facebook to:

? Allow for reflection and facilitate discussions

? Share resources and link back to the college VLE (thereby using both channels together)

? Provide a platform for additional help and support

? Post reminders of course deadlines

Chris Wardle-Cousins, e-learning content developer at Doncaster, describes how learners are engaging with each other online where they may not in class, answering each others' questions and fully opening up learning opportunities.

Another example is a pilot with the sports department at Shrewsbury College of Art and Technology which reported 75% of their learners engaging with their Facebook group and 93% stating that using Facebook made it easier to communicate with staff.

And this engagement with staff seems to be one of the keys to social media success. Since Doncaster College began using Facebook and Twitter in 2010, Simon has been surprised by the amount of potential learners who turn to social media first when wanting to get in touch with the college, rather than checking websites or writing emails. Communication has moved on and if learning providers want to attract and engage the next generation of learners, they need to be speaking to them using the channels they want to use. Did we have worries when the phone or email was first introduced as a mass communications tool, I wonder? The evidence above tells me that it doesn't matter whether you think using social media is useful or not - it's whether your learners do. So try it out! If you're concerned, put structures and measures in place to help ensure the safety and security of your students and staff.

Simon and Chris's top tips for using social media to your advantage are:

1. Listen - Don't jump in, look at what others are doing and see what works

2. Know why you're using it - Establish how social media use fits in with wider organisational goals and policies

3. Educate and moderate - Make sure you teach both staff and students how to be safe and responsible online.

And then reap the results...

Christine Comrie is information officer at Jisc Regional Support Centre, Yorkshire & Humber

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