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Everyone Keeps Building Tools for Higher Ed… or Maybe I’m Just Optimistic

Stephen Biernacki

When a new product is announced or my attention is finally drawn to it, I’m always excited to see if it has a potential use in higher ed. More often than not, I find a way to see (or, admittedly, sometimes convince myself of) those higher ed possibilities. There are so many new tools that seem especially tailored for use by higher education professionals. Because I often write about services that recently caught my attention, this sentiment probably comes off easily in my blogs. I want to openly question why institutions might use them. When I create these posts, my goal is pretty simple: offer a few ideas and inspire thinking.

However, and this won’t surprise you, there are barriers to adopting new technologies. While this is true for most companies, it’s especially true for higher education, where the path to implementation traditionally moves… slowly. But with a better understanding of the barriers, that implementation can move faster and possibly attract plenty of positive attention. Here are a few barriers to consider:

Lack of An Audience
When your audience is spending time on Facebook, YouTube, and to a lesser extent Twitter, it’s hard to justify moving to other, riskier platforms. You want to be where the eyeballs are, and building a community from scratch is anything but easy. If you’re on Facebook and craving more capability (not that you’d ever leave Facebook, of course), you might want to put more of your efforts and resources into another service. I’d say you shouldn’t do that so fast and would really recommend heavily exploring the multitude of non-traditional ways to do some uncommon things within Facebook. EMG is actually diving into this subject headfirst in our December 8th Facebook KnowledgeBuilder.

Regarding building a community from scratch, it needs to be stated that depending on the service, your audience doesn’t necessarily need to be a member of a platform for it to be useful. Not everything is a ‘social network’ in the Facebook sense where you ‘Like’ and ‘Friend’ people. You should identify particular tools to accomplish particular goals. For example, if we ask ourselves what is the recently introduced video conversation tool VYou best used for (found via Seth Odell)? Well, I’d say the Q/A, customer service arenas are perfect for it. Or maybe even some student personalities? I like how you can interact without an account.

New Platforms Come With Risk

Since they’re popping up and disappearing constantly, a lot of mystery surrounds new online services. Not only are there so many, but there are many services similar to one another. It’s not always easy to pick a direction and move forward confidently. Here are a few areas to give thought to:

  • Will they stick around?: Sometimes you just don’t know if a company will be around in 6 months. It doesn’t hurt to do 5-10 minutes of research to see what type of people are backing and investing in the company, and to take a deeper look into the company’s future goals and roadmap.
  • Community: You may have to build a community from scratch. However, this is becoming less of an issue as more sites allow you to easily ‘connect’ your login information from Facebook, Twitter, OpenID, and several other websites. And as mentioned above, sometimes you simply don’t need a networked community within the website, depending on what you’re goal is.
  • Learning curve: It’s a new service, so you’ll have to learn your way around it. Secondly, if it is a fairly new service, there won’t be much out there on how to best use it successfully, so you’ll be venturing where few folks have gone before.
  • Support uncertainty: Some companies are wonderful at this, and others aren’t. What happens when something doesn’t go as planned is a huge deal. Startups traditionally excel in this area but I can tell you from experience that always isn’t the case.

Conclusion and Overall Point: Being Optimistic is OK
This will no doubt sound obvious and silly, but optimism is not only better for everyone around you, it’s better for your college/university. While sad and extreme, the point of the fantastic ‘Optimistic Duck’ graphic is to see light in any and every situation. Today, everyone experiments and most fail. That shouldn’t upset you, it simply means you’re trying. After initial research and discussion, universities should not be afraid to try their hand in different areas and encourage everyone to think of and present new ideas from time to time. But never forget to always keep the institution’s brand and messaging in mind and respected throughout the process. I get excited about the possibility of a new service being useful to higher education. After some more thought I realize it’d actually be terrible, it’s not a big deal. At least I know it now and can feel good about having given it some hard thought. While institutions obviously don’t have as much leeway as I do, if all the people in your department have that type of mindset and are given an opportunity, someone is bound to be brilliant.

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