Further Evidence of Use of Social Networks in the UK Higher Education Sector

A series of recent posts on the UK Web Focus blog have summarised use of social networking service such as Facebook and Twitter by the 20 Russell Group universities. In today’s guest post Craig Russell, a Web Systems Developer at the University of Leicester, provides a picture across the UK higher education sector. Craig’s work is particularly timely as it has been carried out shortly before UKOLN’s IWMW 2012 event. Craig will be attending the event and will welcome feedback and comments from fellow participants on the survey and, perhaps more importantly, the implications of the findings and how they should inform policy decisions.

These are lean times for UK universities. The second half of this year is going to be a challenging one for all of us. Purse strings are being pulled tight in response to post-September uncertainty and we are all finding ourselves spread thinner than before, having to find new ways to do more-for-less. Universities have a strong history of academic collaboration, a practice that we in the corporate and support services should seek to emulate. By way of an example, I’d like to share my experiences of sharing a project of my own with the university community and the great benefit that this has returned.

In recent weeks I’ve set out to compile a dataset of all UK university social media (SM) accounts. Initially I was working alone in compiling the data set, and I got a fair way with it, but it wasn’t until sharing my work with the university web community that it grew in to the comprehensive resource that it has become.

I began with a list of institutions taken from the Guardian League Tables, which turned out not to be the best source as it didn’t use the correct names for institutions nor did it list all HEIs in the UK. When I shared the dataset with members of the WEB-INFO-MGT mailing list I received a few responses from institutions who were disappointed to find they weren’t included in it. Wanting to make this resource as inclusive as possible, I later adapted it to use the institution list provided by HESA in their “2010/11 Students by Institution” dataset. In addition to being more complete and accurate, this allowed me to include the HESA Institution ID and UK Provider Reference Number, which will make it easier to join this dataset with others in the future.

Figure 1: Number of social media services used

Initially I only collected data for Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and iTunesU accounts. My thinking at the time was that that the first four were the most popular (and therefore the only interesting ones – herp) and I had a general interest in iTunesU. While collecting the data I noticed that other networks were also fairly common among universities. This revelation was reinforced by the emails I received from web maintainers, which listed a variety of services. So in the revised version I included every service that universities identified themselves as using. The dataset now lists 16 different services that are currently being used by UK universities. A surprisingly broad spread.

Expanding the dataset in this dimension allows an important questions to be asked; what are the social network that UK universities are currently using, and how popular are they? The chart below answers this question. The data shows that my initial hunch about the top four was correct (but all the better with evidence), though I expected Flickr to be more popular than it is. In contrast, LinkedIn is better represented than I had thought. Also of note is the low position of Google+, echoing the general attitude towards the much-hyped service.

Figure 2: Distribution of accounts across institutions

Another question worth asking is; how many social networks are universities using? The histogram shown in Figure 2 the distribution of accounts across institutions. Most universities have a presence in 3 or 4 networks, with a significant minority above and below this range. The peak at 0 suggests missing data, therefore it’s likely that university presence in social media is in truth greater than this chart would suggest.

Though this is only a fairly superficial analysis of the data, these results raise many more questions than they answer. Why do most institutions have only 3/4 social media accounts? I suspect that the availability of resources in the university to manage an on-line social presence is the primary limiting factor, though the response to the popularity of these services in our target markets should also be considered. The combination of popular services is interesting too. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and to a lesser extent Flickr, seem to provide a complimentary suite of tools – why?

I’m also interested to understand the strategy guiding the use of these services. Having glanced over a few accounts I see that some institutions use twitter primarily as a broadcast medium to share information about themselves, whereas others use it as a two-way channel to communicate and converse with their audience. On a related point, while most universities linked to their SM accounts from their homepage, those that did not, commonly linked to it from their news and events pages. This implies a ‘broadcast’ view of social media, though it may simply reflect where responsibility for managing these accounts lays within the organisation.

I originally compiled this dataset to answer a few questions of my own. But thanks to the involvement of the university web community it has grown and developed in to a resource that has been useful for me and (I hope) you too. If you use this dataset as a basis for your own work, or if you have data of your own that others may find useful, I’d encourage you to share it. Post a few links to the WEB-INFO-MGT mailing list or better yet attend an event such as IWMW12 to meet and discuss your work. The chances of you being the only person who finds your work interesting or useful is vanishingly small, find those other people and help one another.

The UK University Social Media Accounts dataset is up on Google Docs. Please do email me with any updates, corrections, comments or criticisms. I will be attending IWMW next month, so do come say hi if you’d like to chat about this – or anything else for that matter. Finally I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to the dataset and sent messages of encouragement, I am very grateful.

Twitter conversation from Topsy: [View]

We may well have found ourselves shoe-horned in to the free-market, but I strongly believe that it is through our cooperation, not our competition, that UK universities will continue to thrive in a challenging future.