Universities are social organizations, but there’s little proof of it in how their technology is thought of, planned or deployed. Sure, everyone now has a set of icons that will whisk people to Facebook, Twitter and beyond, but precious few are really embracing what social really is and how to bake it into their core experience.
College campuses are inherently social environments. Classmates are friends, roommates, drinking buddies, dates, teammates, maybe all of the above. At a minimum, a typical undergraduate’s social world is inextricably interwoven with the college experience- they’re one and the same. And yet, so many edu websites are socially barren landscapes. Publishing a Twitter RSS feed or showing a Facebook widget is not what I’m talking about here. Those are a step in the right direction, but we can do better.
Higher ed could take a cue from a fantastic service put forth by Vail Resorts, a ski industry company. Their EpicMix service marries skiing/snowboarding’s social nature with technology (check out the video for an overview). It embraces, supports and extends what people already do in the social context of a ski resort without trying to take it over or mandate use. Instead, it uses a set of tools and services to evolve and augment what’s already being done and does so in an easy, unobtrusive way. Either use it or don’t, it doesn’t force anything behavior on people who don’t want to participate, but for those who do, they get additional benefits. And if you’re not a participant, you still get some benefits too (scanning your pass makes the lift line experience quicker and easier).
The same concepts from EpicMix can effectively be applied to higher ed to gain the same basic benefits- augmenting what students are already doing on campus like communicating, sharing advice and information, planning meetings on the fly, etc. Students are a captive audience for a university so deploying the service is an easy matter and students have an inherent incentive to join and participate- everyone else would be using it.
This sort of service runs parallel to the creation of a university centric social network, another great idea university’s should pursue (but one that’s best left to its own post to discuss). EpicMix is itself a niche social network that works with the Facebooks and Twitters of the world to extend and leverage those services for a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.
There’s a lot of hard work underlying EpicMix and what it represents to higher ed, but social networks aren’t going away so the time is now to get on board and take the first steps.