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Campus increases use of social media, online platforms for discussion

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MARCH 19, 2012

Due to the inflexibility of current UC Berkeley online discussion forums, campus instructors and administrators are increasingly turning to social media and other online platforms to better communicate with students.

Most recently marked by the launch of a campus Facebook application, social media and other nontraditional platforms for discussion are playing a larger role in the campus academic experience.

Sproul Plaza, the campus’s first Facebook application, was introduced Feb. 24 after administrators noticed a surge of traffic on the UC Berkeley Facebook page. In a matter of months, the page received 30,000 more “likes,” according to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof.

“There is hunger and desire from students to have more information, and we launched this app as another venue for discourse,” Mogulof said. He said the campus chose Facebook because no other platform elicits the same level of participation.

The application was launched with a YouTube video of John Wilton, vice chancellor for administration and finance, outlining the campus’s major revenues and expenditures. Students posed questions through the application. Wilton then replied the following week with subsequent videos.

The release of the YouTube video — which had been viewed about 940 times as of Sunday — and the application were met with varying reactions.

“I think they can reach more students if they provide a better platform and a different incentive other than gift cards,” said fifth-year student Cina Sheikani, who received a $100 gift card to the Cal Student Store for asking the second most popular question.

The application was successful in encouraging thoughtful discourse “in a large school where bureaucracy often makes it difficult to directly engage with the administrators,” said sophomore Hayley Golub, who asked the top-voted question.

Students and instructors are also turning to social media for class discussion.

“Using Facebook, to me, is a big advantage … It’s something that students like and use a lot,” said journalism professor William Drummond, who uses Facebook regularly to initiate discussion.

The online discussion platform Piazza is also becoming a popular tool, where professors answer questions, edit content and track participation.

Electrical engineering and computer sciences lecturer Dan Garcia said Piazza is “an incredible tool,” because it centralizes multiple discussion tools in one platform.

“I’ve had a couple of features I’ve asked for, and a month later, they put the feature in,” Garcia said.

Piazza is easy to use, because it is designed around a Facebook-like interface that students are used to working with, said first-year business and computer science student Paul Deardorff.

bSpace features are more limited, because it is an open source product that multiple campuses collaborate on. The downside to an open source product is the difficulty of adding new features unless the entire community decides to do so, according to Bobby White, instructional designer in Educational Technology Services.

“Progress is constantly happening, but it happens at a slow pace,” White said.

Despite bSpace’s restrictions, the administration is hesitant to adopt Facebook as a discussion platform, because its privacy protection does not meet campus standards, according to  Shelton Waggener, associate vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer.

As a long-term solution to issues with third party websites, last fall the campus started a project to restructure and combine sites like bSpace and Bear Facts in a single platform to enhance the academic experience online. As part of that project, the campus may integrate third party forums like Piazza into the platform, according to Oliver Heyer, manager of Learning Systems Group in Educational Technology Services.

The project is currently in its pilot stages and is scheduled to be launched in fall 2013.

Afsana Afzal covers academics and administration.

MARCH 19, 2012

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