Online classes and social networking seem to go hand in hand. Class discussion forums, when written well, are a lot like blog posts. Sites like OnCourse, when designed well, mimic a lot of the functionality of Facebook, with user profiles and smooth integration between chat and messaging. Engaging class discussions can continue smoothly via Twitter, which can even encourage outsiders to join in and enrich the discussion.

With all the opportunities for social media in online education, why is there such resistance to their adoption? I believe it may have to do with the way that companies have misused social media and, in many cases, given the practice a bad name.

Over-Branding in Social Media

I’ve been working as a technology consultant for a couple of years in Seattle, and I’ve noticed that a lot of the companies I work with think they can treat social media just like another advertising medium. They use it to drop one-way communications of the party line and then wait to see how people respond. This attitude is often a barrier towards creating any real connections with clients. Social media users want to connect with real people, not with faceless corporate mouthpieces.

The companies that are using social media well are the ones that are developing the most human, approachable brands on their social media pages and the ones that are operating in frank and personable ways through their human employees. Employees shouldn’t be Stormtrooper-esque minions of the company, but people with their own personalities and freedom of expression. Bad social media practice takes the form of a nearly-inactive company page populated only by the occasional official-sounding missive. Good social media practice is a lot more multi-faceted, with lots of content being posted and lots of discussion going on, occurring freely between company employees and customers.

With social media the company itself is no longer the face; the people become the face. So a smart business doesn’t push corporate branding on their social media sites, but rather they develop personal brands for their employees. CEOs, community managers, and other social media networkers should have real pages where they post real pictures of themselves and express their thoughts and opinions openly with customers. When individuals are real and express their style, they can develop a genuine brand—an image of who they are that customers can grow to trust and appreciate.

The Genuine Brand

Developing a genuine brand for yourself is a flexible process, and you can do it however works best for you and using whichever mediums you find most appropriate. On Twitter your brand might emphasize how quickly you can respond to issues, how witty you are, or what sports team you like to talk about the most. On Facebook your brand might emphasize your family life or how approachable you are. On Google Plus your brand might emphasize that you are a member of exclusive clubs and that you have excellent taste in things.

In academia, you develop your personal brand through building up your curriculum vitae; in industries like theatre, your portfolio of work is your brand, and in business, you can fine-tune your brand with a resume service. On social media sites, your brand is tied to all the content you have posted in the past and continue to post.

Classes with Faces

A good online teacher shares a lot of the characteristics of a well-branded social media networker. Both are affiliated with an online company, but both are also frank and accessible people who have their own personal strengths and their own personal style.

Being a good teacher requires you to follow your school’s regulations and represent it well, but it also gives you a lot of room (hopefully) to tailor your class to the ways you are best-suited to teach and the things your students are most excited to learn. An online teacher’s goal shouldn’t be to simply push the school’s corporate brand; it should be to add their own personal (genuine) brand to the school’s reputation. A teacher’s focus should be developing their own personal brand and becoming known for their humanity, their teaching style, the quality of their posts, and the depth of their knowledge.