Top 12 Ways Facebook’s “Groups for Schools” Will Change Higher Ed

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From group communication to file sharing, Facebook's new "Groups for Schools" will change how prospect, student, and alumni use social media.

On Wednesday, April 11, 2012 Facebook officially rolled out its new “Groups for Schools” product, a new Groups function that automatically creates Groups based on communities that already exist at colleges and universities. And while it’s going to take a while to roll out to all schools (it’s been in testing at Brown and Vanderbilt since December…you can go here to check for your school or sign up to be notified when your school’s on board), it’s got a bunch of features that are going to have a huge impact on how higher education uses the Web.

And while details are still sketchy, here’s a breakdown of the highlights:

  • It’s only going to be accessible to people who’ve logged in using their school email address.
  • It’s going to allow file sharing between Group members. Shared files get posted to users’ Facebook News Feeds. Files are limited to 25MB and can’t include .exe files.
  • It allows messaging between Group members.
  • It auto-creates groups based on campus communities such as dorms, majors, and clubs.
  • Stuff posted to a Schools Group will only be visible to others from that school.
  • It’s got all the same stuff you’ve become used to on Facebook.

OK. So it’s a specialized form of Group targeted towards colleges and universities, right? What’s the big deal?

A whole lot. Here are 12 ways Facebook’s Groups For Schools could have a huge impact on everyone:

1. While it’s limited to schools for now, we’re betting that it won’t be too long until Facebook “Groups for Businesses” and/or “Groups for Organizations” rolls out. When that happens it’s going to be a hugely disruptive force for intranet, business collaboration, and third-party file sharing “cloud” industries. Why spend loads of money creating and maintaining an intranet when Facebook’s done it for you? After all, most of your employees are probably on Facebook already. Why use applications like DropBox or Apple’s iCloud when you can just go to Facebook to share files from anywhere? And if you have to collaborate on a project at work, communicate with other members of your Board, or share information with your members, why use some third-party application with its own costs, hosting requirements, logins, etc.? Considering that Facebook currently has around 100 million US users, there’s a good chance anyone you want to communicate with is already on it. Why go anywhere else?

2. If new “Groups” become a ubiquitous platform for sharing files and communicating within schools, organizations, and businesses, many Web-based apps used for group communication and/or collaboration might have to become Facebook apps. Imagine “WebEx for Groups, “ for example: embedding live Webinar functionality into Facebook’s other features and things start to get really interesting. And once you add the ability to collaborate on documents…Google Docs better watch out!

3. For colleges and universities, Groups for Schools means an entirely new way to bring together various campus constituencies, communicate with students, network with alumni, and organize clubs, events, etc.. While schools have been experimenting with various platforms to share information online (from learning platforms like Sakai to homegrown solutions), nothing’s risen to the front of the pack yet. Having a standard platform might really kick off a whole new way of thinking about what constitutes a “campus” in a way that hasn’t been possible before. We’re particularly interested in the possibilities for using Groups for Schools with commuters who typically feel left out of campus life. As for what it will do for bringing faculty closer together…we’re a little afraid to speculate about the consequences right now!

4. If Groups for Schools becomes the standard for campus-wide communication and networking, it might finally be the force that incentivizes students to use their university-supplied email accounts, greatly simplifying school-related communication. While a few schools have strict mandatory-use-of-campus-email policies, most don’t. And even if the school thinks it can force their students to use a campus email address it isn’t long before the intrepid students figure out how to link their campus email with their personal email accounts (usually sporting potentially embarrassing monikers!). The result has been that many institutions report that it’s virtually impossible to find a standard channel for communicating with students, faculty, and staff. Since Groups requires a university email address and will provide what many students will feel to be a crucial link to their classmates and teachers, using a university email account finally might become the norm.

5. Once Groups for Schools gets established, it may also prove to be the “Holy Grail” that alumni and development offices have been looking for. Currently there are a number of competing alumni networking platforms on the marketing that schools have used with varying success. Usually the biggest issue is that they’re competing with alumni-created Facebook groups, creating a wild hodge-podge of “official” and myriad “unofficial” Facebook groups and pages. Having a standard platform that goes from enrollment to graduation and beyond might revolutionize alumni communications. Oh, and did we mention that it’s free?

6. Groups for Schools might also force colleges and universities to re-think how they use the Web. While most communications to the “outside” (especially recruitment communications) take place through a .edu Web site, institutions that use Groups for Schools might just find it faster and easier to create their public “face” on Facebook in order to integrate with their Groups pages. The Web may (eventually) end up going back to being a simple “brochure” with all the action happening on Facebook.

7. Ongoing acquisitions of mobile companies (such as the recent $1 billion purchase of Instagram) combined with the capabilities of Groups (of all sorts) and the near-ubiquity of Facebook may have a profound impact on the mobile device market. In the future, if you’re not “on” Facebook you may not have access to a huge amount of information, services, and data. And if Facebook doesn’t bother developing for devices such as the Blackberry and Windows 8, who’s going to buy those devices?

8. Groups for Schools may end up blurring the lines between online and offline education ever farther. If Facebook can provide enough of a feeling of “community” and interaction through its offerings, why bother coming to campus at all? Sure, you may have to come to use specialized facilities (labs, shops, etc.), but if most of your interaction with the school happens online and your classes happen online, too (note to Facebook: think about buying an online learning platform!), “the campus” and “the virtual campus” may become indistinguishable. It wouldn’t be the first time “going digital” completely disrupted an industry…just ask the entertainment, real estate, travel, and automobile industries.

9. Groups for Schools could touch off a huge explosion of innovation as developers begin to understand the opportunity of having so many people using a common platform represents. Whether through desktop computers or mobile devices, students, faculty, and staff who get used to using Facebook Groups for Schools are certainly going to want to do more and more of their work there…without having to switch over to separate web sites or mobile apps. Collaboration tools, presentation tools, document creation tools, collaborative media creation tools…it’s not hard to imagine them as Facebook apps integrated into the Groups for Schools platform.

10. We can expect some epic battles over privacy and intellectual property if Facebook Groups for Schools takes off. Think about the information that Facebook already has about us now…now think about how much more they’ll have if they start owning our school and work lives as well. Will people resist? What happens if they do? And who owns what gets posted? It’s one thing if you’re talking about sharing vacation pictures…it’s quite another if you’re sharing proprietary information, original works, etc. We don’t see the adoption of Facebook Groups for Schools going down without a lot of pitched battles over issues like these.

11. But that same information that’s going to touch off Privacy Wars is the very same information that’s going to cause huge changes in the world of digital marketing. The information that Groups for Schools can gather (and the targeting it can provide to advertisers) may be just what Facebook has needed to push it ahead of Google in the race for advertising dollars, especially if Facebook starts to become the “gateway” through which people use the Internet.

12. Finally, Groups for Schools (especially if other “Groups for…” platforms come online as well) may just end up moving Facebook ever closer to their goal of being the gateway through which users experience the Internet. This is probably the most profoundly paradigm-shifting consequence of Facebook’s new initiative (if it takes off). Once you can do everything you want online through Facebook, what happens to the rest of the Internet?

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Pete Meacham
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