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West Michigan colleges not interested in social media degree

But that doesn’t mean social media is absent from classrooms.

October 18, 2013
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West Michigan colleges not interested in social media degree
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Getting a master’s degree in social media is now a possibility at some universities and colleges in the U.S. For example, Southern New Hampshire University and Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., both have added MBAs in social media.

As use of social media continues to spread into professional cultures, it should be no surprise that colleges and universities are beginning to offer training in it. Facebook alone has more than 1 billion users, and according to a Harvard Business Review survey on businesses and social media, 58 percent of the companies surveyed now use social media and 79 percent plan to do so.

While the East Coast might be ready for social media degrees, West Michigan higher education platforms are not as interested. Although the feedback from local colleges and universities has been supportive of offering social media training and implementing it in class work, many faculty members feel a full degree is unnecessary. The Business Journal checked in with Cornerstone University, Calvin College, Hope College, Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University, Ferris State University, Kendall College of Art and Design, Western Michigan University and Davenport University, and none of those West Michigan colleges or universities offers degrees in social media.

“The tools of today are probably not the tools of tomorrow. But basic, tried-and-true communication theories can assist and inform us as communicators and can provide us especially with solid, ethical foundations on which to base our communication strategies,” said Phil de Haan, who teaches a public relations and advertising course at Calvin.

“Knowing what tools are out there and how they work is essential. Keeping up with the new vehicles is essential. But the most essential things go back, I think, well beyond today's current techniques.”

While de Haan may not think social media merits a degree, he’s certainly not against using it in the classroom. In fact, he runs much of his class off the Facebook page he created for it, he said, and posts PR-related materials to the page on a regular basis. He also allows past students on the page, forming a connection between the students.

In addition, de Haanoften spends 10 to 15 minutes each class period using the Facebook page as a jumping-off place for classroom discussions, he said.

“I have the syllabus on the page. I also add other documents like review sheets when appropriate. But the biggest use for the page is as an out-of-the-classroom educational supplement,” he said. “My students post items on a regular basis. … We create a nice little online community in which we can consider current things related to PR and advertising.”

Sam Smartt teaches CAS 180 — Communicating with Digital Media — at Calvin, and echoed de Haan’s sentiments. Social media, something he teaches students how to use, matters, but he believes it just doesn’t have enough supporting coursework material for a full degree, he said.

“If you ever make a major in social media, you would have to allow a lot of different courses to add to that major. I don’t think you could have an entire class just devoted to social media. It might be in other classes but not a major,” he said. “Maybe it’s not around because the faculty know the students know this stuff better than they do.”

Davenport University also is expanding how much social media faculty use and discuss in courses, said Brian Miller, vice president of information technology services and CIO, adding the focus is more about utilizing social media in existing courses than actually creating social media courses.

Miller, who was recently named to the Grand Rapids Business Journal’s 2013 40 Under Forty class, said Davenport’s colleges of technology and business both are integrating social media into their classes, but there is no social media course, per se, because it is included in practically every class already being taught.

“It’s so important, it should be in every class. There’s no such thing as advertising without bringing in social media anymore. There’s no such thing as international business without knowing the reach of social business,” he said.

“We’re fairly certain some of the best places it can come from is social media. It ends up being a data source of tremendous value.”

Miller added that one social media topic that perhaps should be advanced is the role of net citizenship: the professional and ethical standards for using social media.

“Nobody is teaching kids how to effectively exist in social media. Maybe we need to,” he said. “From a higher education (standpoint), in general, the place social media can have the biggest impact is in teaching students how to behave appropriately on social media.”

If West Michigan higher education platforms begin to offer degrees in social media, it may not be for a while, said Randall Bytwerk, co-chair of Calvin’s department of communication arts and sciences.

Bytwerk was the man who co-taught the first Calvin course on the Internet back in 1996. At that point, he only knew 80 percent of what there was to know about the Internet, he said, and professors dealing with social media today are in a similar situation.

“We’re where the Internet was in 1996. We’re still adjusting and finding out what we can do,” he said. “Colleges are developing programs in social media, but it’s kind of the Wild West still.”

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