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Academia in Digital Space: How Columbia U. Is Evolving Online

NewsCred launched its series of content-marketing forums this week with Columbia University’s Chief Digital Officer Sree Sreenivasan on hand to talk about emerging content and social-media opportunities for academia.

Sree Sreenivasan talks with NewsCred’s Shafqat Islam at Thursday’s forum.

Sreenivasan started the newly created post with the venerable uptown instition just six weeks ago, coming to it after making his mark at the Columbia School of Journalism for 20 years. During that time, he focused in part on digital media as part of reporters’ and editors’ toolkits.

The challenge Sreenivasan faces is not only to understand the ways that online tools intersect with media professionals but also to create a template for how the social-media/online world impacts professors, students, and school administrators.

Online education: money on the digital table

“Education is being revolutionized,” Sreenivasan said at the Sept. 13 forum in New York. “You’ve heard of everything from Codecademy to Khan Academy, to Coursera, to courses at Stanford where there are 150,000 people who are taking courses” by laptop, he said.

“MIT and Harvard put in $30 million each to implement this new thing called edX,” he continued. “It’s really my focus right now: How do we do online learning? Not necessarily distance learning, but online learning. And even since I’ve come on this job, there have been new vendors … companies that have never even heard of online education have decided they’re going to do online education.”

Why all this interest? Sreenivasan said, “Because there seems to be potentially so much money.”

He knows that, in the case of Columbia University, he is prompting what amounts a shift in accessibility at a 250-year-old brand.

“My principal ambition has been to be thoughtful, strategic — in keeping with Columbia’s brand and interests,” Sreenivasan said. “But also, sustainability. If there are all these courses and we give them away, and 150,000 people take the course, how do we make money?”

Classrooms and the tweet: protecting the university experience

There are challenges that come with an increasingly online academic milieu. For professors, lecturers, and students, new pitfalls can open underfoot.

“What should the policy be in the classroom?” Sreenivasan asked. “One of the best things about being in a classroom is the ability to ask dumb questions of your professor. But if you’re in a space where anytime you ask a question, is somebody going to tweet that?”

At Columbia, the rule is now that no social media is allowed in class without professorial approval. And even if that approval is granted, the professor is quotable but the students are not.

The university brand: what goes out

Policies like Columbia’s in-classroom social-media restrictions are about not only preserving a kind of safe space at the seminar table, but also a university’s increasing focus upon what amounts to an online brand.

From tweets to Facebook updates, from articles to blogs, academia’s emergent content strategy is a reality, right now, Sreenivasan said.

What goes out to the world shapes impressions formed by outsiders who are looking in.

“Universities, all of them, big and small places, are really conscious of their branding in this space,” Sreenivasan said. “This is something that has been evolving at universities for a long time. But I think we’re also being much more professional about how we get the word out. At Columbia, our YouTube channel, our Facebook, all of that is now part of Communcation’s job.”

The future may be wide open. But higher-ed’s journey into the digital space is only just getting underway. Sreenivasan posits that universities are at about the same stage — in terms of developing tools that will later become givens — that other sectors experienced circa 1996.

“I think it’s only going to grow,” Sreenivasan added. “And I think it’s going to be more and more important for universities to be in the online space.”

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