How Should Universities Utilize Social Networking Tools to Promote Civic Engagement?

Students should leave college prepared not only well trained for jobs but also for being good citizens. This has been the mantra of university presidents around the country over the past few years as the shocking events of the outside world helped them recall that higher education should not just be about job training, but also about preparing students to contribute to a great good.

With a Senior Scholar at the University of Maryland, I'm helping to design a website that will be the center of a major campus wide initiative (starting in fall '07) to help students be more informed about the civic engagement options available at this dynamic and massive public research institution. However, the project goes beyond a database; its about utilizing social tools to target the majority of university students, whom we believe would like to be more active citizens but simply don't know that they can engage in appealing and non-traditional ways.

Our message is that civic engagement is more than Student Government Associations and Habitat for Humanity; the concept goes beyond volunteering. We want to portray the varied opportunities for citizenship through a medium that students already recognize as activities that make their lives richer. Some examples are travel, music or their major.

To do this, we are utilizing another medium that they already connect with: social networking tools. None of these tools are cutting edge by themselves, but I argue that just as companies and non-profits are beginning to recognize the power of these tools, universities have yet to do so. I have yet to find a university that has utilized social networking tools to reach out to students on any major initiatives. On the website itself and the marketing campaign surrounding the launch, we are considering several tools to reach students.

the blog
I've never seen a blog interface on any university website. The proposal calls for a university student who speaks to several broad campus sub-cultures to write informal reflections on everything from opportunities that are available, programs and events that took place, and untraditional perspectives on serving the community. It will take careful searching to find the correct student for this job. To help illustrate this concept for the steering committee in charge of this effort, I illustrated a few possible post titles:
Graduates Report Civic Engagement Helps Them Get Jobs
Prominent Hip Hop Artists Search for Fraternities to Host Fundraiser Performances
Students Spend Winter Break in Zanzibar Serving Communities in Need
Engineering Class Applies Skills to Real World Community Challenge

Happily, the committee of academics steering this project welcomed this idea with open arms.

facebook identity to target campus groups
I've always believed that one way students would be more willing to get out in the community is if there was an opportunity based around their major or another established interest. Facebook is a tool that has presorted student interests, allows targeting of specific groups with links to the website with opportunities they may find appealing.

you tube video
I predict that all the big student movements in the next few years will succeed with viral videos like this. They are short, pithy and cool. We are considering taking on some other students to create a video promoting our website.

Utilizing social tools for promoting big university goals is going to be a huge issue in the next few years. There will be many big questions to answer. Recognizing this, the MacAurthur Foundation has already pledged $50 million over the next five years to create the Center for Digital Learning and Media. There are some snappy PhD candidates down at UNC working in this field as well. Finally, I've proposed the title of this post as a discussion topic at Harvard's Conference on Internet and Society, whose theme this year is 'What is the Role of the University in Cyberspace?"



  • This is an excellent idea, Joshua. I have been working a similar concept for all Africans/Afrophiles worldwide. The platform will showcase writings from authors as well as enable social networking between individuals and groups. There are definite ways our projects can be complementary, I think, so if you don’t mind please keep me in the loop.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:04 PM  

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