Feb 07 2011

The Latent Power of the Academic Network

The product development team at University of Phoenix offers five best practices for building a sustainable, engaging, academically focused social network.

The product development team at University of Phoenix offers five best practices for building a sustainable, engaging, academically focused social network.

University of Phoenix prides itself on its small class sizes — the average size of both physical and online classes is 15 students. But in an era in which connectivity and networking are crucial to access and success, the large scale of the university — which has more than 470,000 students, 32,000 faculty and 580,000 alumni — is a significant differentiator and a major advantage for students that helps them grow their personal, academic and professional networks.

To capitalize on this extraordinary resource — its community — the University of Phoenix developed the PhoenixConnect network, a private, academically focused social network that provides students and faculty with tools for greater connectivity, collaboration, discourse and learning support. The PhoenixConnect network focuses on creating opportunities for academic, professional and social interactions, with the goal of improving student and faculty engagement, support, learning and professional development by leveraging the collective power and diversity of our community, both in and out of the classroom.

Launched to the School of Business students and faculty in late September 2010, the PhoenixConnect network saw an adoption rate of almost 95 percent during its first week, making it one of the largest global business school networks in the world. With adoption and activity rates remaining high, the PhoenixConnect team continues to fine-tune and enhance the product.

Here are five best practices and lessons we’ve learned for creating and implementing a social networking tool in a university setting.

Focus to Innovate

Online social networking is not new; this space is already robust and has grown significantly over the past five years. However, our research showed that our students, who are largely working learners with personal and professional commitments outside of the university, lacked a place where they could openly discuss the challenges of balancing these personal, professional and academic commitments. They wanted a venue to discuss the materials that they were learning in their programs, share their personal stories and experiences, get advice and support, network with faculty and peers working in their desired industry, and forge connections with peers and faculty that they have not met in person.

While the PhoenixConnect experience does have some traditional social networking features (such as a recent activity feed and discovery tools to help members find and connect with others), our consistent focus on the academic and professional networking and collaboration needs of our students has made the PhoenixConnect experience unique.

Listen to Your Audience

As in all product development, it is vital to understand your target audience. Students at the University of Phoenix have busy lives outside of their educational responsibilities, such as full-time jobs and other personal commitments. Our students do not have a lot of free time to play around with new technology unless they see an immediate benefit. They also bring to the table a much more robust set of experiences and applied knowledge than does a traditional student.

Based on this knowledge of our audience, we made three decisions. First, we made the PhoenixConnect first-time-user experience highly intuitive. We guide students through three easy steps needed to get started: establishing their profile, connecting with friends and classmates, and finding academic and professional networks of interest. We invested a lot in lowering the barrier to entry by conducting in-depth usability studies to ensure that the product is intuitive to use. We also automatically surface content to students that is relevant to them based on their program of study.

Second, we provided a directory of all active PhoenixConnect communities (university networks centered around specific areas of interest) allow­ing students to gravitate toward conversations that are applicable to their experiences and goals. The dialogue within the 24 PhoenixConnect communities has been the most valued and successful aspect of the entire launch to date. Discussions range from starting a business and the job outlook for accountants to a networking community for alumni.

Third, we educate and guide our students toward preferred behavior and usage patterns, rather than giving them a blank slate. We invested a significant effort in seeding communities and content around academic and professional topics of interest — based on research — so that upon entering the PhoenixConnect community, students and faculty would have plenty of content to choose from, thus avoiding a “cold start.”

Take an Institutional Leap of Faith

Giving our students and faculty freedom to control their participation and the amount of information they share and consume was a necessary part of the PhoenixConnect approach. Students opt in to the community and have complete control over the amount of personal information available in their profiles.

Like all social media, the PhoenixConnect network is covered by a strict privacy policy and terms of service. However, a large part of the effort that went into launching this product was spent preparing our internal stakeholders to set proper expectations, defining and communicating desired usage patterns, defining abuse and processes for addressing it, articulating the value of the product and setting internal success metrics. This gave the institution the comfort of knowing that control mechanisms were in place within the community, which allowed us to hand the reins over to our students and faculty to make the PhoenixConnect experience their own.

You’re Only as Good as Your Best Users

Successful social networks all share one key attribute: They create a sense of total freedom rather than of institutional control. We wanted to leverage the trusted peer-to-peer relationships within the community to guide and manage the direction and personality of the PhoenixConnect network.

To achieve this, we identified, incentivized and leveraged our early adopters and main connectors as community leaders, the majority of whom are trained student and faculty volunteers. This allowed the university to efficiently scale the PhoenixConnect community. Our volunteer leaders seed content; answer questions; and tag, moderate and report on activity within the community.

Listen, Learn, Iterate

As the largest private university in North America, we chose to roll out the PhoenixConnect community in stages, providing access first to students and faculty from the School of Business. This was done for several reasons: to build excitement about the community, collect user feedback and data, and allow ourselves the time to iterate and refine the product before continuing the rollout to the rest of the university.

We learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t through the School of Business launch. We studied activity levels, trending topics and usage patterns every step of the way to identify what needed to be changed.

In the coming months, the PhoenixConnect network will be extended to the College of Education, applying the lessons we learned and using a customized strategy appropriate for the distinct attributes and interests of this particular community. By September 2011, the network will be available to the entire University of Phoenix — more than 1 million students, faculty and alumni. We are confident that our approach, fine-tuned and adjusted for the varying demographics and needs of our highly diverse user base, will continue to yield high adoption, increased engagement and improved outcomes for our community.

<p>David Malan/Getty Images</p>

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