Building a presence on social media extends far beyond creating a Facebook page these days.
Tools have grown increasingly complex and varied and 2011 is widely seen as marking a tipping-point in the evolution of social media.
Business schools are endeavouring to keep up. But how effective are these tools for online learning? Can they really assist education or are they yet another distraction?
Jessica Rogers, an adjunct marketing instructor at Texas A&M University and Southern New Hampshire University is a strong advocate.
“Social media create a whole new world,” she says. “Schools embracing these tools deserve a lot of kudos.”
Students can log on whenever they want, for example, and read whatever they are interested in.
“If I watch the news, I can get my phone, open my laptop and immediately get more information. When I was at high school, I could only go to the library and read a book written five years ago!”
Social media can also make students feel more connected to their school by helping them feel they can build a rapport with professors.
“As an online student, you don’t just want to be a number; you want the professor to take a personal interest. These platforms help that,” says Ms Rogers.
“Each student has a different story, different goals. I can tweak things a bit, make case studies a bit more relevant – if they are relevant, they will learn.”
Similarly, students become more connected to one another – something that is harder to achieve in traditional online courses, according to Eric Johnson, director of the Glassmeyer/McNamee Center for Digital Strategies for Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in the US.
One tool used on a large scale by Tuck is Chatter. This is an application that is very similar to Facebook, but offers users more privacy and the facility to create numerous subgroups.
As well as engaging with the whole online group, MBA students can go off into separate chat rooms to share slides and videos.
Students are introduced into Chatter as soon as their places at Tuck are confirmed, so they can start to get to know each other and the school.
These tools can also help adapt lessons to the different ways in which people think.
Ms Rogers says: “There are so many good info-graphics out there, you might as well make use of them, especially as some students like to see information, others like to read it and others are more hands on.”
At the very least, knowledge of social media should help students when it comes to applying for jobs: they can develop their own social media marketing strategy for self-promotion.
At the University of Nevada, for example, the online EMBA programme includes a course on personal branding. All students create a Google+ profile, LinkedIn page, Twitter account, professional Facebook page and blog, which they update throughout the course.
Such is the abundance of information now provided by social media, students can feel overwhelmed.
“Every semester, I get a couple of students stressing about it” says Ms Rogers. So much information can make it hard for them to focus on their goals.
However, social media can also be used to help organise the reams of data. “You can consolidate feeds into the right channel, which students can access when they want. This reduces the overload,” says Prof Johnson.
Google’s blog reader, for example, sends posts from blogs you have chosen, in one email, so you do not have to visit each individual site. Twitter can organise your feeds into lists of topics.
Simon Learmount, director of the Executive MBA programme at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK, prepares his students by talking about “co-creating a learning resource”.
In one of his classes, for example, there are 47 students, representing 26 nationalities, so they have many experiences – a “collective intelligence” – to share.
Social media can help them do this. It also allows them to analyse their own experiences, in addition to case studies.
Fundamentally, the most important thing is that social media tools are used well and widely, not just by the students but by the faculty also.
“I think resistance only comes if social media tools are used poorly or incompletely implemented,” says Prof Johnson.
If a professor is using social media but also still using other methods to send information, such as email, the student could feel overwhelmed and less likely to see the benefits of social media.
“You have to go in wholeheartedly,” he says.
Prof Learmount agrees, emphasising the importance of faculty putting all the information in one place and then using social media to direct everyone there.
“The more information we get the better, but the way it is organised is critical.”