A New Perspective

Social Media, Digital Identity, and Student Learning Outcomes

Topics: Social Media, Student Experience, Student Affairs, Student Retention and Success, Career Services, Academic Support Programs, Academic Integrity and Student Conduct, Student Health and Wellness, Academic Planning, Academic Affairs

Engaging Students Around Digital Identity

Taking a Unit-Based Approach

Encouraging Individual Departments to Tackle Student Digital Identity

Student social media use affects how all units within student affairs achieve their learning outcomes and deliver programming. As a result, some institutions employ a unit-based approach to digital identity education.

In particular, integrating social media programming into career services, orientation, residence life, and student conduct can have a significant impact on student learning outcomes.

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Forced to Act First

Unit Learning Outcomes and Employer Demands Illustrate Need for Career Services Intervention

Forum research reveals that career services has been forced to act first when it comes to social media and digital identity education. Ninety-four percent of employers review candidates’ social media accounts as part of the recruitment process. Forty-three percent of those employers have found content that led them to reject a candidate.

Without a concerted effort to build social media and digital identity programming, career services units will miss significant opportunities to achieve their learning outcomes and to help students find meaningful employment.

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LinkedIn Recruiting Is Growing Rapidly…

…But Online Networking Skills and Career Services Programming Lag Behind

Despite the meteoric rise of LinkedIn use among employers, college students have been slow to adopt the platform. Less than half of college students use LinkedIn in the job search process. Additionally, more 55- to 64-year-olds have profiles than 18 to 24 year olds. In light of the challenging job market for recent graduates, these statistics merit concern especially as employers expand their efforts on LinkedIn. Students and alumni need every tool at their disposal to succeed in the job search.

LinkedIn programming at some institutions consists of large, generic workshops. This approach does not match the more customized, intensive sessions that career services units offer for resume reviews and mock interviews.

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Optimizing Student LinkedIn Profiles

Peer Advising Sessions Tailor LinkedIn Guidance to Individual Needs

To address the growing importance of LinkedIn in students’ job searches, Ryerson University created the LinkedIn Profile Advising program in October 2012. The initiative empowers work-study students to serve as peer LinkedIn advisers and offer personalized guidance on how to improve online student profiles.

Before each session, peer advisers compare students’ LinkedIn profiles and resume. During the sessions, peer advisers and students discuss the elements of a complete profile and ideas for profile enhancement. Students leave the session with a feedback form they received from their adviser listing suggestions discussed in the meeting. They can then sign up for a free professional headshot appointment. The Career Development and Employment Centre (CDEC) offers the free headshot service because LinkedIn statistics reveal that profiles with professional pictures receive more positive reviews compared to other profiles.

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Peer Advisers Play Crucial Role in Ryerson’s Program

Group Sessions and Shadowing Prepare Student Workers

Staff at Ryerson University attribute much of the program’s success to the training of the peer advisers. Training sessions cover LinkedIn profile requirements, enhancements recommended by LinkedIn, and expectations for advising other students. As part of their training, peer advisers must learn how different professions use LinkedIn for recruiting so that they understand how to optimize LinkedIn profiles for a variety of students.

Peer advisers are also taught how to ask open-ended questions of their student clients. Peer advisers explain the main elements of a complete profile as well as the profile enhancements recommended by LinkedIn, but they do not complete any part of a student’s profile or give them specific scripting. Instead, they ask probing questions that lead the student to highlight key skills and accomplishments on their LinkedIn profile.

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Realizing a Quick Impact Across Constituencies

Impressive Results During the Program’s First Year

Ryerson’s LinkedIn Profile Advising Program brought more than 340 appointments in its first year and over 160 students have received headshots. The program has served undergraduates, master’s students, PhD students, and even a small number of recent graduates.

To assess the program, advisers administer a post-session survey with questions about students’ knowledge of LinkedIn before and after the session. In the program’s first year, 100% of respondents indicated that they received helpful feedback from peer advisers. Additionally, over 90% of respondents said that they would recommend the program to friends.

Employers have also expressed their enthusiasm for the program. Interviewees at Ryerson report that several employers have indicated they would like to see more institutions helping students with their LinkedIn profiles.

Staff at Ryerson’s CDEC plan to expand program marketing, conduct more outreach to student leaders, and offer more afternoon and evening appointment times to accommodate student schedules.

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Delaying Digital Identity Education Poses Risks

Social Media Use Throughout Early Years Shapes Online Reputation

Although addressing social media use and digital identity during the career process yields many benefits, earlier interventions are necessary. Students begin building their online reputations as soon as they set foot on campus, and a lack of guidance around proper usage leads many to make worrisome mistakes.

Poorly thought-out posts can prove difficult to erase once they go viral, and unfortunate search results can tarnish students’ reputations for years to come. The frequency of headline-grabbing social media gaffes by students raises concerns about long-term online reputation management.

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An Emerging Market for Online Reputation Management

Vendors Capitalize on Demand from Individuals and Institutions

Online reputation problems have led a number of entrepreneurs to embrace the demand for help in cleaning up profiles. Companies such as Brand Yourself, Reputation.com, and Social Assurity offer a range of services for individuals, companies, and institutions, including keyword alerts, reputation analysis, and search result reprioritization.

Many institutions have invested in reputation management services primarily for student-athletes, and some have even purchased them for the general student population. Costs range from ten dollars per month for basic search engine optimization to several hundred dollars per hour for individualized consultations about online reputation management.

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Critical to Address Digital Identity Early

Introduction Across the First Year Builds a Strong Foundation for the Future

The first year provides several opportunities for student affairs staff to engage students. Moments such as orientation, move-in, welcome week, and the first-year experience can help student affairs practitioners start meaningful conversations with new students.

Interviewees indicate that the first year serves as a long introduction to campus expectations, outcomes, and standards. By introducing digital identity to students in their first year, student affairs staff will build a strong foundation for more positive social media use among the campus population.

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Integrating Digital Identity into Orientation

Despite Busy Schedules, Orientation Offers Unique Educational Opportunities

New student orientation offers one of the best opportunities to introduce students to digital identity education. Student affairs professionals can use this time to reach large, captive audiences.

Progressive institutions have begun addressing digital identity during orientation. Students may come to campus with misconceptions about services based on incorrect information shared on social media, or they may have built unhealthy social media habits that interfere with their wellbeing on campus.

Interviewees stressed how institutions have a valuable opportunity at orientation to set expectations and influence student behavior.

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Building a Solid Foundation for Positive Online Habits

Introducing Digital Identity Early Sends Strong Message About Expectations

However, despite the many issues arising from online conduct, few institutions address student social media use and digital identity during new student orientation.

Institutions that wish to remedy this situation can adopt one of three approaches. The first approach incorporates digital identity into an existing orientation presentation. The second method involves a dedicated digital identity session. Finally, some interviewees explored the possibility of creating an online digital identity module similar to those offered on civility and alcohol use.

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Linking Civility and Digital Identity

College of Staten Island (CUNY) Addresses Both Issues in One Session

Several years ago, staff at the College of Staten Island identified civility as a key learning outcome for its orientation programming and the entire student affairs division. As a result, they created a dedicated orientation session to raise student awareness about civility. To ensure relevance, staff dedicate a quarter of the session to online etiquette and conduct.

Student orientation leaders perform skits about web-based conflicts that occurred on campus. One skit recreates a grade dispute between a faculty member and a student that played out on social networks and email. After the skit, the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs and the orientation leaders engage the audience in discussion about what could have happened differently and questions students should ask themselves before posting on social media.

The session serves as a starting point for establishing expectations about student conduct and civility online. This approach is particularly suited to institutions with existing orientation sessions on civility, community standards, or conduct.

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Drilling Down into Digital Identity

Ryerson University’s Session Focuses on Key Themes

Some institutions have chosen to dedicate entire sessions to digital identity and social media use. The Student Affairs staff at Ryerson University created a session that covers online resources, privacy, cyberbullying, online civility, and virtual wellness. Instead of focusing on specific platforms or technologies, the session covers broad themes and content areas.

Virtual wellness serves as a particularly important focus due to the growing risk of internet addiction and perceptions of excessive use among students.

Currently, the session is offered in the week following orientation and throughout the year. The Forum believes that this session would be a valuable addition to mandatory orientation programming.

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Implementing an Online Digital Identity Module

Could AlcoholEdu Be a Model for Social Media Education?

Because orientation programs typically involve extensive logistical efforts, some Forum interviews explained that they have considered creating an online module on digital identity. This approach was inspired by EverFi’s AlcoholEdu product, an online module focusing on student alcohol use.

A digital identity module would help students think critically about their own social media use, and it would explain an institution’s community standards regarding conduct on social media and other digital communication platforms. Students would also receive some guidance on building a positive digital reputation.

While this is an interesting idea, implementation concerns include overloading students with another required module, assessing long-term program impact, identifying topics, and building IT capacity.

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Blending Virtual and Residential Lives

Challenges and Opportunities to Achieve Learning Outcomes Abound

Residence life is fraught with occasions for students to misuse online communication channels. Cyberbullying remains rampant, despite the concerted efforts of student affairs professionals to rein it in. Additionally, social media can exacerbate and prolong miscommunication between roommates. The interactions students have in residence halls carry over onto digital platforms, and staff can use these moments to intervene and illustrate appropriate conduct.

Yet despite its problems, social networks can help residence life staff in a variety of ways. For example, they can share information rapidly with students in case of incidents like theft. Social media also helps students build and maintain long-term connections with each other.

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Conduits for Social Media Education

RAs Can Serve as Peer Advisers for Student Digital Identity Development

At some institutions, staff-driven social media education may be met with resistance from students. In these cases, a student-to-student approach will better achieve institutional goals.

Because students tend to view social media as their own territory, resident advisers (RAs) can serve as effective conduits for digital identity education. RAs typically manage conflicts, recognize bullying, encourage healthy behaviors, and help students understand the impact of their behavior on the community. These competencies translate well to digital channels.

RAs can reach students through a variety of programs, such as mandatory hall meetings, roommate mediation sessions, and community events. In fact, simply modeling good behavior may be the most effective form of digital identity education that RAs can provide.

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Too Many Headlines to Count

Potential Code of Conduct Violations Multiply and Draw Media Attention

Despite its positive elements, social media presents many potential pitfalls. Institutions struggle to respond when students post harassing, threatening, or otherwise harmful comments on social networks. Some of these posts lead to significant media attention and student arrests, while others simply expose students to cruel and unsupportive environments.

Unfortunately, cruel online behavior is growing ubiquitous. Research suggests that nearly all teens have witnessed some form of cruelty online. Additionally, almost a fifth of teens report having participated in cruel or offensive behavior online. Anonymity, real or perceived, contributes to social network users’ willingness to post harmful content without fear of reprisal.

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Promoting Accountability and Awareness Online

Social Media Creates New Challenges for Student Affairs

The challenges around online misconduct may be disheartening, but they are not insurmountable. Student conduct professionals have historically helped students understand the impact of their actions on the community as well as on themselves. Social media provides a new opportunity for students to make mistakes, and student affairs staff must work with students to mitigate the impact of their missteps and ensure that they learn from their actions.

In taking on these responsibilities, practitioners face a host of new obstacles. These include questions regarding social media monitoring, the First Amendment implications, and documentation requirements for online student conduct violations.

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Documenting Community Standards for Social Media Conduct

Four Approaches Emerging in the Field

Institutions have adopted a range of policies and guidelines to govern student social media conduct and document community standards for that conduct.

Most institutions include social networking and online communications in their acceptable use policies. Some institutions supplement this with social media guidelines that describe expectations for behavior and suggest strategies for positive use. Others explicitly mention how the student code of conduct applies to online communications. Finally, some institutions combine all of the above approaches into comprehensive efforts to support constructive online behavior.

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Evaluating the Unit-Based Approach

Considerations for Adoption

The unit-based approach to digital identity education is efficient and cost-effective, but its reach may be limited at some institutions.

Individual units already offer programs that can be leveraged to educate students about digital identity. Additionally, student affairs leaders can focus on getting buy-in from a small handful of units rather than every area of campus.

Nevertheless, units within student affairs remain limited in their ability to reach a critical mass of the campus population. Decentralizing digital identity education may also create inconsistent messaging that dilutes the lessons students learn. Finally, some student affairs units may feel overburdened by a new terrain in which they are expected to work.

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Developing a Campus-Wide Student Initiative

Bringing Student Affairs and Academic Affairs Together Around Digital Identity

Some student affairs divisions go beyond a unit-based approach by partnering with academic units to teach students about digital identity.

Due to the ubiquity of social network use among students of all ages, social media education does not just fit within student affairs unit learning outcome strategies. Digital identity education can also reinforce institutional strategic goals and institution-wide learning outcomes such as communication, critical thinking, diversity, and teamwork.

Enlisting academic partners in educational efforts can broaden and multiply the impact of these initiatives.

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Creating a Central Resource for Digital Identity Education

Frostburg State University Creates Tumblr Page to House Information

To promote positive uses of social media across campus, Frostburg State University created Frostburg SAID (Students Assessing Identity Development). Frostburg SAID is a blog built on the social media platform Tumblr that collects resources and articles on digital identity development. These resources are grouped into four categories: unplugging, social media and privacy, personal branding, and digital literacy.

Frostburg SAID aims to help the campus community incorporate digital identity education into their work with students. Faculty and staff members can turn to Frostburg SAID for easily accessible information that facilitates conversations about social media use.

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Many Campus Touch-Points

Frostburg SAID Engages Faculty, Staff, and Students

A comprehensive marketing and outreach plan supports Frostburg SAID’s utilization on campus. The publicity effort includes class presentations, campus-wide news briefings, and social media marketing.

Administrators also hold dedicated trainings with instructors of Frostburg State’s first-year introductory course, Intro to Higher Education. These instructors are in a unique position to help build a foundation for positive social media use because they teach students the core behaviors and skills necessary to succeed in college.

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Uniting Stakeholders to Create Digital Identity Themes

Colleagues from Across the University of British Columbia Launch Digital Tattoo

While Frostburg State opted for an easy-to-use Tumblr page, the University of British Columbia (UBC) created a more extensive project called Digital Tattoo.

In 2007, staff at UBC discovered questionable content that students had posted online. To address the broader issue of digital citizenship, they convened a campus Advisory committee. Members included representatives from the student body, Student Development, the Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, and the UBC Library, among others.

The Advisory committee identified five key themes around which they organized resources: protect, connect, learn, publish, and work.

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"Think Before You Ink”

University of British Columbia’s Digital Tattoo Project Informs Student Decision-Making

The Digital Tattoo website, the project’s most visible feature, organizes resources under each of the five key themes for easy access and navigation. Users can read articles, take quizzes, browse teaching resources, and play games that relate to social media and digital identity.

Instead of focusing on social media do’s and don’t’s, Digital Tattoo provides users with information and resources to understand their rights and responsibilities as digital citizens.

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Supporting Students to Take the Lead on Digital Tattoo

Team of Work-Study Students Keeps Content Timely and Relevant

Digital Tattoo features extensive student involvement, which dates back to the project’s earliest planning stages. Students contributed platform expertise to the launch phase, while professional staff provided management, training, and oversight.

Currently, work-study students serve as the primary content creators and workforce for Digital Tattoo. Each year, administrators hire one to three students who dedicate 10 to 20 hours per week to the project, which keeps content relevant and timely.

These students also receive extensive training in professional writing, social media research, and website maintenance. They are then tasked with writing blogs, identifying new resources for the website, and conducting training presentations across campus. Their responsibilities lead them to achieve key learning outcomes such as developing effective presentation skills, which interviewees cite as some of Digital Tattoo’s primary benefits.

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Broad Reach Among Students

Digital Tattoo Targets Populations at All Knowledge Levels

Digital Tattoo has succeeded in reaching a diverse cross-section of the student body. Each year, 500 Faculty of Education students undergo training from Digital Tattoo staff. The website receives 20,000 unique visitors annually, and the project’s creators have been asked to present to audiences across Canada. Throughout its six-year history, the project has also introduced new users to social media. Target audiences for introduction to social media tools include first nation students, low-income students, and international students.

Since Digital Tattoo’s launch, website traffic patterns have indicated a growing desire to use social media for professional development. In the project’s early stages, most visitors clicked on the “Connect” theme to learn platform basics. Now, more visitors click on the “Work” theme for professional development resources.

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Giving Students a Piece of the Web

University of Mary Washington’s A Domain of One’s Own

Although Digital Tattoo and Frostburg SAID provide central resources and training, they do not offer structured opportunities for students to actively shape their digital identities.

In 2012, the University of Mary Washington’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technology launched A Domain of One’s Own for a pilot group of first-year students. The initiative provides each student with a domain name for their own website. The domain is based on the student’s first and last name (e.g., www.janesmith.com) and allows them to begin establishing a positive digital identity.

Based on early successes, administrators expanded the initiative to all incoming students in Fall 2013. Students register for domain names through an online form that checks availability and helps the student begin using the domain. The University of Mary Washington internally hosts all of the domains on its own servers to reduce costs.

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Fostering Experiential Learning Online

A Domain of One’s Own Supports Student Experimentation Online

A Domain of One’s Own provides active learning opportunities for students and faculty members who participate in the program. The program helps students use digital tools to learn communication skills and build a positive online identity.

Students can employ the domain name to launch their own website, add applications (e.g., commenting features, blogs, social media accounts, etc.), and create email accounts. If a student does not wish to build their own site, they can redirect the domain name to another service like Facebook or LinkedIn. Initial student users added study abroad blogs, collected class projects, and created online portfolios of their work.

To support users, staff in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technology created tutorials on how to customize websites. They also conduct classroom visits to share tested practices in using the program. Staff meet with faculty members regularly to ensure that the program’s technical backend runs smoothly and to discuss ideas for incorporating A Domain of One’s Own into students’ academic work.

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A Lesson in Digital Identity on Campus and After Graduation

A Domain of One’s Own Builds Student Skills and Keeps Alumni Connected to UMW

A Domain of One’s Own helps students establish a central hub for showcasing their work. It also gives them more control over their digital identity. Additionally, A Domain of One’s Own overcomes the translation challenge faced by e-portfolios. Students sometimes struggle to communicate the value of their e-portfolio to employers or graduate schools, but their personal websites are easy to understand and access.

The university also uses A Domain of One’s Own to maintain long-term relationships with students. For a small fee paid by alumni, the institution will continue to host the domain, which can create opportunities for engagement and fundraising.

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Creating a Campus-Wide Student Initiative

Considerations for Adoption

A campus-wide student initiative increases the reach of digital identity education by creating more touch points with students. Collaboration between academic affairs and student affairs can further expand programming possibilities.

Yet some staff may resist having to conduct additional programming on top of their busy schedules. Without support from senior leaders, a large-scale initiative may not generate the buy-in required to succeed. Finally, any digital identity initiative will require regular practitioners to devote time and energy to updating information and resources as technology evolves.

Despite the challenges, campus-wide student initiatives are the most effective ways to reach a broad range of students and connect their use of social media to institutional learning outcomes.

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Preparing Staff for Digital Identity Education