Open season on the web

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The Independent Online

From blogging to keeping in touch with alumni, social networking sites can be useful tools – but they’re not without risk.

No longer the sole domain of the student procrastinator, Facebook is falling into the hands of business professionals who want to get ahead. Over-35s now outnumber every other age group on the social networking site – even the student cohort of 18-24 year olds –and downloads of the Facebook application for Blackberry phones passed the one million mark this month. The proliferation of Facebook has coincided with the growth of LinkedIn, a dedicated business networking tool. But what does this Web 2.0 revolution – which also includes the growing use of blogs and online telecommunications software, Skype – mean for business schools and MBAstudents?



Facebook or LinkedIn?



Most business schools have their own network, in the form of a virtual learning environment. These have “blackboard” functions, which allow course materials to be posted online. But Facebook and MBAs should be a match made in heaven. One of the main reasons MBA students do MBAs is to network, and what could be easier than collecting your contacts on a site such as Facebook and LinkedIn? Still, staff seem divided as to whether Facebook – a site developed for college friends to keep in touch, and post party pictures – has any real relevance in business. Most educators agree that, though LinkedIn is a relatively safe forum, the Facebook phenomenon throws up as many obstacles as it does opportunities.



“This is a big challenge for universities and business schools in general,” says Dr Gareth Griffiths, MBA Director at Aston Business School. “We’re all looking to exploit it to the best of our advantages.” One of theways in which social networking sites can be used by business schools is to keep track of alumni. Aston has an alumni network on LinkedIn – “just because LinkedIn seems to offer more of a professional forum,” says Griffiths. This enables former MBA students to keep in touch, discuss work matters and maintain the base of contacts they built up whilst studying. Griffiths says the network can also be useful for current, and even prospective, MBAs. Former students can be called upon for assistance on student projects, case studies and future employment opportunities. They can even assist with recruitment. “If we have a prospective student in, say, Saudi Arabia, and we know an alumnus is in Saudi, we would put them together on LinkedIn,” he says. The prospective student can then ask about the alum’s experiences at Aston: “questions they perhaps wouldn’t ask us,” adds Griffiths. Social networking sites can be particularly useful for distance learners, who have previously struggled to recreate the networking possibilities on campus.



“You really need these tools for a distance learning MBA to work effectively,” says Gabriel Mesquida, 35, from Barcelona, who is studying for an MBA by distance learning at Henley Management College. Some tutors, like Dr Caroline Wiertz at Cass Business School use Facebook as an easy way of getting in touch with students. She uses the site to give instant feedback to dissertation with students, and also uses Skype for video-conferencing with MBAs. She says she has experimented with the Courses on Facebook application that allows the tutor and students to set up private study groups, upload and share files and create class discussions. But she is not convinced that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. “The question is really, where do you draw the line between privacy and your social life and our school?” she says.



“Do students want their teachers to be on Facebook or do they want it to be their own personal space. It’s a very difficult trade off to make.” LinkedIn seems to be the option that most tutors prefer. “You almost can’t afford not to be on LinkedIn,” says Wiertz. Chris Dalton, director of studies for the distance learning MBA at Henley, praises LinkedIn for the fact that it’s retained its insularity. “It remains dedicated to one thing,” he says, “an opt-in, career-building network service.” He says that LinkedIn is particularly good because you’re entering professional data about yourself, rather than personal data.



Blogging



But for others, like Professor Peter Kawalek of Manchester Business School, Facebook has the advantage of personality. “As human beings, we want to know who we’re talking to,” says Kawalek. “The way Facebook is structured is more akin to a watercooler culture at work. It’s more than just a formal presentation of a CV.” Kawalek’s students on the Executive MBA in management information systems put together multimedia reports, increasingly using photos and video. These kinds of resources can be easily shared on Facebook, and Kawalek encourages students to contribute also to the course group blog. And it seems that it is blogging which represents the best Web 2.0 forum for business schools. Mesquida blogs feverishly, which has led many others on the course to contact him, whilst encouraging him to consolidate his learning. “When you’re quite busy you tend to focus a lot on information and data and you don’t have time to reflect,” he says. “With the blog, the idea is to take some perspective of what has happened to you in the day and apply something you have read and make some new ideas and conclusions. That’s an integral part of learning.”



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