Universities have always been the first to embrace new kinds of information technology. (After all, it was a collaboration between Stanford University and UCLA that led to the creation of the internet.) More recently, universities have embraced new digital technologies as a way to communicate with their audience, using social media such as Facebook, Youtube, blogs, and Itunes University. A few years ago, universities didn't use these types of communication as they were either too new, or didn't exist in the first place; nowadays just about every university uses some sort of new technology to communicate with their students and the larger global audience.
Blogs have truly enhanced the post-secondary experience…no longer do you have to actually attend school to find out what's going on, now you can just log onto your school's news blog to find out the latest information. Bad weather, could classes be cancelled? Instead of waiting for the local radio to make the announcement, you can find out directly and with less hassle. What movie is the film society going to show next week? Just look at their blog. And taking a course is easier than ever. All the traditional media of a course (lecture notes, tests, contact information, etc.) is now available in blogs, and when signing up for a course you have the choice of taking either the in-person version or the distance-ed version. Also, missing a lecture has fewer consequences when you can go on-line to obtain the missed material. Of course the flip side is that skipping lectures is now easier than ever, and increased personal willpower is necessary. Other pitfalls of blogs include the controversies surrounding the suitability of blogging vs. face-to-face communication, the debate over moderating comments vs. not, and blogger liability concerns.
Blog Prevalence in Post-Secondary Schools in Canada
In Canada, most post-secondary schools have embraced blogs to some degree within the past few years. When you compare school size to the number of official blogs they contain (blogs that are viewable by the general public that contain official content), the general trend is for the larger schools to have more blogs associated with them. Small schools (<10,000 students) have around 1 blog on average. Medium schools (10,000-30,000 students) have just over an average of 5 blogs. Large schools (>30,000 students) have an average of just over 8 blogs. However, within each category are schools with an exceptional number of blogs. For example, the University of Winnipeg (a small school) has 9 blogs, the University of Victoria (a medium school) has 20 blogs (14 of them relating to the various libraries at UVic), and the University of Toronto (a large school) has 21 blogs spanning the 3 main campuses. UBC (also a large school), with about ½ the population of U of T, still manages to have 15 blogs, which is, per-capita, more than U of T.
Types of Blogs in Canadian Post-Secondary Schools
As for the content of these blogs, common blog types are:
- Course-blogs: These blogs are meant to communicate information about a specific course being offered. Aspects like course assignments, lecture notes, or general Q and A's are most often seen. These blogs can be hidden from the general public unless you are registered for that course. Blogs are becoming more popular with distance education courses since these types of courses are online to begin with so the mentality of using on-line tools is already in place. Note that most of these blogs are hidden unless you are registered for that course, which artificially decreases their perceived prevalence.
- Alumni blogs: These are meant to communicate with former members of that school, and supplement the traditional alumni newsletter that you get in your mailbox. Upcoming events and where-are-you-now are often present. However I've found that when attempting to keep in touch with alumni, the most popular method of social media is via Facebook and NOT with blogs, as can be seen by the low occurrence of this type of blog.
- Internal blogs: These are a means of communication amongst an internal group such as a research group, department, or certain faculty members. This can supplement the traditional means of communication via memos, newsletters, and bulletin board announcements. This represents the vast majority of school blogs, with just under half of all blogs falling into this category. Academic departments represent 2/3 of these types of blogs; the other 1/3 are non-academic departmental blogs such as various student or staff resources. These types of blogs can be very useful for students shopping for a suitable post-secondary school, as they can give a unique insight to the faculty or department of interest, in addition to the usual promotional materials.
- Administrative communications blogs: Often used for news releases, these types of blogs are written by senior administrative officials to the general university audience, or by the Public Relations Office for the wider community. Before blogging this type of communication was often covered by the local school newspaper or mailouts. They are the 3rd most common type of school blog. Pretty much every post-secondary school that employs blogs will have at least one News blog and is often the primary means of communicating with the student body in between editions of the local school newspaper.
- Society/Student group blogs: Written by various student groups like fraternities, clubs, etc, to communicate events related to that specific group. Prior to blogging, communication was limited to in-person events, emails, or via the Student Union. 11% of school blogs fall into this category, although there is some possible overlap between a student group blog and an internal blog. These blogs are particularly useful for students interested in choosing a school based on extracurricular activities (eg. playing varsity sports, have a special hobby you would like to pursue while in school, etc.).
- Library blogs: A combination of an internal and admin blog, I include these as a separate category since so many schools have them; fully ¼ of the blogs available on school websites relate in some way to their libraries. Before library blogs became prevalent, you would have to make an appointment with a librarian to get help. The larger schools will often have multiple library blogs to cover the various library branches, and have blogs specific to research. These are of particular interest to students who are academically inclined and envision themselves using the libraries constantly.
- Personal blogs: Not really 'official' school-sanctioned blogs, these refer to personal student or staff blogs which happen to be linked to from the school's website. Many professors have their own blog site, will like to it on their faculty webpage, and put content on it that may relate to their professional life. These blogs are also useful for graduate students shopping for a supervisor as they can get a sense of what that prospective supervisor's opinions are, which is often useful for determining the 'fit' of potential collaborations.
Breakdown of Internal Blogs
While blogs are new to the post-secondary scene, they are by no means the best type of social media for all situations. Because not all blogs are updated on a regular basis, and can quickly become obsolete (for example, specific course blogs which may not be offered every academic year), other types of social media are quickly gaining ground when it comes to getting information out quickly (eg. Facebook). But for regular updates of information that are not necessarily time-sensitive, blogs are a very good way to supplement the traditional means of information dispersal at post-secondary institutions.
Social Media Articles
Our ongoing series on social media in post-secondary schools in Canada will cover how colleges and universities are employing these new online tools to help promote their schools and related activities. Our first three articles reveal the extent of these rapidly growing social media tools. These include:
- Blogs: Blogs have truly enhanced the post-secondary experience...no longer do you have to actually attend school to find out what's going on, now you can just log onto your school's news blog to find out the latest information.
- Facebook: Since its inception, Facebook has grown to become the primary social media tool for written communication amongst large groups, outdoing blogs and sometimes even email.
- Videos: Whereas Facebook and blogs are very new and represent 2-way communication in real time, videos represent a more 'traditional' method of communication.