A Hero For Our Sector

Hero home page (from Internet Archive)One of the real strengths of the UK higher education sector is the way in which we can work together as a sector, meaning that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. This is undoubtedly true of JISC (which is envied in the higher education and research sectors around the world) but also applies elsewhere. One example of this is Hero:  “the official gateway to universities, colleges and research organisations in the UK“:  a gateway funded by the various funding bodies (HEFCE, SHEFC, HEFCW and DENI) and supported by other higher educational agencies and by the high educational institutions themselves (and note that I was involved in the technical advisory group for the “HE Mall” as it was originally called.

Indeed will a service such as Hero, why would higher educational institutions wish to use other channels for online marketing, particularly social networking service such as Facebook which, despite its popularity are, in some circles, regarded with suspicion in not hostility?

Our Hero Is Dead …

Alas for those who believe that the sector should own its marketing channels, the Hero.ac.uk service was closed on 4th June 2009 (and the image shown above was taken from Hero’s most recent entry in the Internet Archive, from 10th February 2008) I should disclose that last year I was interviewed by a consultant who had been appointed in order to identify future directions for the service, including whether the service was viable. I pointed out the flaws in the Hero service: it did not have the community aspects which potential new students might expect and it was a ‘walled garden’ – information could be uploaded to the service but there were no easy ways of getting the data out again. “Make ‘Hero 2.0’ a trusted service which could host structured institutional data“, I suggested “and provide APIs to allow developers elsewhere to add value to the service“. But this did not happen.

… Long Live a New Hero?

If the managed service to promote UK higher educational institutions is too costly to provide,  why don’t we appropriate popular social networking services to fulfil this role? This is an idea inspired by a Tony Hirst’s post on “Appropriating technology” which he described as “appropriating technologies that might have been designed for other purposes in order to use them in an educational context” but I would replace ‘educational context‘ by ‘marketing context‘.

And, if we’re honest, isn’t Facebook the new Hero? It can provide the popular service for hosting institutional marketing materials. And it can provide the community aspects which Hero failed to provide. Admittedly it may be a ‘walled garden’ – but then so was Hero, so nothing is being lost.

But if we wish to use Facebook in this way, don’t we as a sector need to  identify the best practices for making use of Facebook, including minimising the risks associated with the service? And shouldn’t we be exploring the benefits which might be gained by working collaboratively?

Some initial thoughts on  this:

Institutional URL: As mentioned in my recent post on “Have You Claimed Your Personal And Institutional Facebook Vanity URL?” we are seeing Facebook URLs being minted as a single string (edgehilluniversity) and words separated  by dots (aberystwyth.university). We might wish to consider whether there are advantages in seeking agreement on the form of the name – perhaps even using an institutional domain name in the URL (e.g. www.facebook.com/www.bath.ac.uk). However it is probably too late to do anything about this (which arguably demonstrates the failure in having not had such discussions previously).

Trademark disputes: We’ll want to avoid the possibility of trademark disputes. Might we see one between Leeds Metropolitan University and say, Loyola Marymount University over www.facebook.com/lmu?

Ownership of Facebook resource: Who has access to the institutional Facebook account in your institution? And what if they’ve left or you can’t find the owner? The information should be regarded as a valuable institutional resource and ownership should be managed appropriately.

Workflow processes: There’s a need to establish effective workflow processes for information provide on the institutional Facebook page. Ideally information would be hosted elsewhere and automatically updated in Facebook though use of, for example, an  RSS application in your Facebook page.

Will Facebook pages enhance or diminish Google Juice: Might not institutional content which is replicated on Facebook pages diminish institutional ‘Google juice’ as my colleague Paul Walk has suggested? Or, alternatively, might content held in popular services such as Facebook and Wikipedia (and previously, to a lesser extent, Hero) held to increase traffic to the institutional Web site? Indeed if such replication of content is felt to be counter-productive, shouldn’t institutions try to prevent Web sites having links to their content rather than seeking to maximise such links?

Facebook Terms and Conditions: It would be useful to gain a better understanding of the Faceboom terms and conditions and the implications for an organisation’s pages in order to inform appropriate risk management approach. If the concern is that Facebook will claim ownership of marking material provides, is that really of concern?

Explore Possibilities for Facebook Applications: Might there be benefits in developing Facebook applications to make the UK HEI pages more appealling?

But have we, in the UK, missed the boat? Looking at the timetable for the forthcoming Eduweb 2009 conference I notice sessions on topics such as “Facebook — a case study of building virtual relationships“, “Cheap, Fast, & Out of Control: Brand management & recruitment..” and “Recruiting and Marketing in the Web 2.0 World“.  We’ve nothing along these lines planned for IWMW 2009 – but as the bar camp sessions can be submitted at the workshop itself, perhaps there’s an opportunity to build on these ideas?

Oh, and if you think it is inappro[oriate for an organisation to make use of a social network in this way, look at what companies such as Starbucks and McDonalds are doing on Facebook.