Despite Facebook having its roots in universities, the education sector has an uneasy relationship with social media.

We’ve been spending some time recently looking at how universities and colleges use social media, the result of conducting an audit of social spaces on behalf of Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) to help it grow its social presence and audience, and what the education sector does to attract applicants or stand out from the crowd.

The answer is surprisingly little. Social learning is the latest buzzword in education, most universities include some kind of collaborative learning technology, and all have a presence online.

When you think that the notoriously hard-to-reach 16-24 year olds hang out on Facebook more than anywhere else, it seems blindingly obvious that social media would be the place to reach them.

However, despite the fact that Facebook’s base was in universities, the education sector has long had an uneasy relationship with the social network, mostly as a result of security, privacy and control issues. They’re been fairly reluctant to open the doors to a more social world.

It is changing, but slowly. We have a few interesting clients in this sector which show how attitudes are shifting. As well as GCU, we work with the London Business School and the Scottish Qualifications Agency, which is developing an avatar help service, and using social media to measure its reputation.

A cursory look around Facebook shows that the major universities all have a presence here, and on the face of it that’s a good thing. Look more closely though, and the sites are often badly maintained, spammy, and lacking in any kind of real engagement with students. It’s a tick-box exercise.

Again, there are exceptions. For example, Cardiff University’s Facebook page states that this is a place where students and other fans can interact with the university, and gives a window onto the university world (with photos, discussions, videos etc) that you couldn’t get from a campus prospectus.

And that’s the lesson. For any university, or brand for that matter, the social experience has to be more than just a brochure, or a static page, it must be engaging. I mean that in the proper sense of the word, not just as a ‘new meedja’ buzzword.

People must actually want to interact with the brand. Stanford University’s Facebook page is interesting, its ‘Office Hours’ initiative encourages interaction between students and professors, offering direct access to staff and exclusive content.

Stanford professors post a two-part video of themselves on the community: part one discusses their work, after which students can ask questions (via comments on the post); and part two answers the students’ questions.

It’s likely to become more important as funding gets tougher to find. The competitive (and lucrative) overseas student will be easier to attract if he or she has a way of getting a real feel for the university before arriving at its gates.

Social communities will provide a way to keep in touch with alumni (and raise funds from happy ex-students). And for second or third-tier universities, social media could be a really interesting way of creating a reputation in a specific area that will increase its visibility to new markets.

Students are driving the social media agenda for universities, too, with initiatives like the viral ‘Lipdub University’ (started by Furtwangen University in Germany)  where students film a showcase of their own university while lip-synching to a soundtrack (this one, filmed by L’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) has had more than 8m hits on YouTube). 

Universities and colleges will take their lessons on social behaviour from the big consumer brands, and their own students. They’ll have to, or risk alienating a new and young audience.