September 25, 2007

Colleges Mimic Networking Sites to Entice Students

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How do colleges, traditionally grounded in books and papers, make the virtual leap to attract the online generation? Clicking on a website to read information may no longer be enough. The real trick to attracting digital natives, those who have grown up using computers and the Internet, is through networking and the creation of virtual communities.
In an online world that is increasingly dominated by Facebook, MySpace and similar social networking sites, colleges across the country are attempting to model their websites as similar forums to attract prospective students.
Cornell is leading the trend to fully utilize the Internet as a marketing tool. The Office of Web Communications, a division of Cornell University Communications, was created in September 2003. Its purpose is to maintain the University’s website and to “move large web innovations forward for the entire campus,” said Mark Lawrence, program manager of the office of web communications.
In trying to meet the needs of several different types of visitors, Lawrence identifies prospective students as a highly important category.
“We are definitely considering issues of social networking and initiatives of iGoogle and myYahoo where individuals can tailor their own space,” Lawrence said. The interfaces currently in place at Cornell, such as uPortal and CUinfo, “are more inwardly facing for existing faculty and students,” he said.
Stephen Lewis, secretary and treas­urer of Higher Edu­ca­tion Web Prof­essionals, corroborated the importance of self-created profiles for prospective students.
“Once we identify students, it’s our responsibility to get to them information that is most relevant to their interests and experiences.”
Getting students to create their own profiles on a university’s website, which has not yet been launched at Cornell, would encourage them to come back — hopefully again and again.
To facilitate further interaction, Cornell created student blogs, the brainchild of Lisa Cameron-Norfleet of the Office of Web Communications. The project began last year and currently features eight students who post twice a week. The blogs are uncensored, with only one rule.
“If you wouldn’t say it in front of your mom, don’t say it on your blog,” said Jennifer Lin ’09, one of the original student bloggers.
Lin describes the project as targeting “prospective students who want to know more about what life is like here” on the Hill. Bloggers can post pictures, link to YouTube videos and include music. Prospective students are encouraged to post comments and questions, although Lin says she has not received any recently. One goal for this year is to increase communication between bloggers and prospective students.
Craig Dimbleby ’11 and Lucy Liu ’11 were among the first batch of applicants who could have benefited from Cornell’s student blogs. Although Liu considered university websites “pretty important” in her application process, neither she nor Dimbleby even knew the blogs existed.
On the other hand, Ali Arata ’10 thinks the student blogs are a great idea, for “websites aren’t often true representations of student life.”
Other ways to reach out and form an online community have been tested in the past.
“The redesign blog is one of our biggest bragging points of the last couple of years,” said Lawrence. The redesign blog accompanied the recent revamping of Cornell’s main webpage. This allowed feedback on the changes from the community, not just at Cornell but also everywhere with Internet access.
According to Lawrence, in the future the Office of Web Communications wants to “reinitiate the redesign blog … for ongoing concerns, ideas and recommendations for the Cornell webspace. We miss that input.”
Through online networking, colleges try to create a “relationship that is real for these digital natives,” Lewis said. “[We] understand that the relationship we build with our students is critically important to our success as an organization.”
Although online social networking sites are commonplace to most current college students, universities are still jumping on the bandwagon and just beginning to recognize the importance of networking on the Internet.
Lewis said, as a marketing medium for universities, the web is “something that has yet to fully mature. It’s there, but how we manage it is still evolving in a lot of places.”