As colleges have worked over the years to solidify their Web 2.0 presence and reach out to students where they're most likely to congregate online, there's often a glaring omission from their overall Internet strategies: social networks. That's not so much an oversight as a hesitation, with many institutions still debating whether to adopt social networking capabilities of their own or grit their teeth and take the plunge into Facebook, with all the messiness and potential privacy concerns that would imply.
A new start-up company believes colleges' wariness about joining the Facebook fray -- despite the advantages they could theoretically reap from keeping tabs on alumni, soliciting donations and marketing to would-be applicants -- leaves an opening in the market for an application that would combine the ubiquity of the social networking site with the privacy and authentication sought by institutions.
The result, Schools, upends the traditional application framework. Rather than make it available to anyone with a Facebook account, the service is based on partnerships with individual colleges that pay to allow their students access. The colleges then provide the company, Inigral, with constantly updated data feeds that allow the application to stay current with courses, clubs and other activities that students can join.
The application eases colleges' privacy worries by adding an extra layer of authentication, usually using official student IDs or e-mail addresses, and adhering to any federal privacy restrictions.
The model, what the blog TechCrunch called "one of the first enterprise apps on Facebook," attempts to avoid the pitfalls of other attempts to bring community features for colleges students back to Facebook, which last year abandoned a popular feature allowing users to display courses they're enrolled in after the site broadened beyond its initial campus-only focus. Since then, several applications built on the social network's developer platform (such as Courses 2.0) have sought to restore the functionality, but none has achieved a significantly wide user base among many campuses.
Inigral initially began its foray into educational social networking by developing a Courses application, which it has mainly shelved to focus on Schools. Beyond the basic functionality of allowing students to display to their classmates what courses they're taking, they can join dorms or student groups -- synced with colleges' official data -- and say which sports teams they play on. They can decide who can see what (for example, only true Facebook friends can see many details), including comments on how they're doing in various classes, but stay assured that all classmates within the application have been verified as real.
In contrast to other applications that try to bring college classroom functionality to the social network, said Michael Staton, Inigral's co-founder and a former high school teacher, Schools builds on the original campus success of Facebook, which replicated students' real-life relationships. Facebook, he said, has shown itself as a place "where you can predict, accelerate and solidify your personal relationships.” Without that connection, he said, it was difficult to achieve a "critical mass" of users on each campus to make using such an application worthwhile for students.
“We think there is a lot of value, and universities are starting to realize this, in having students feel more connected to each other and to campus life," Staton said. Rather than compete with course management systems, some of which are also migrating onto Facebook or inspiring independently designed applications, Inigral is attempting to encompass the college experience as a whole.
Some high-powered investors -- including the Founders Fund, one of the original backers of Facebook -- are betting that he's onto something. But it will take a handful of campuses signing on before others resign themselves to the idea of branching out onto the site, if they do at all.
“We wanted to find a school that was ready for Facebook,” said Staton, who predicted with "90 percent" certainty that three institutions would sign on to the service for this fall. One of those, which is already in a private beta testing phase and is set to deploy the application over the fall semester, is Abilene Christian University, which has already gained publicity by handing out free iPhones to its incoming freshman class and being one of the earlier adopters of Google's Apps for Education program.
"It’s something that we’ve been looking at for a long time," said Kevin Christian, the university's director of strategic partnerships, of Facebook. "The higher ed community broadly has been trying to understand how best to utilize social networking as a tool to affect [our] campuses in a positive way."
The university, he said, is finding it can have the benefits of “living within the Facebook world” without ignoring "prudent concern to retain Facebook as a true social networking site." Much as the university is planning to do with its new army of iPhones, Christian said some faculty members were planning on making use of the newly adopted technology in their classrooms.
What those uses will be is unclear. With the applications, students will be able to play a "name game" to learn classmates' names, Staton said -- an idea that he suggested would also be useful to faculty members at the beginning of the semester. There would also be a campus news feed, and features that current Facebook users would find familiar, such as the ability to give gifts (like a cup of coffee) to frazzled classmates.
Time will tell whether universities warm up to the idea of social network connectivity, managed remotely by an enterprise service, much as many have now signed on to outsourced Web-based e-mail applications run by Google and Microsoft.
Next spring, the company plans on rolling out a "bigger beta" of its application, Staton said, before doing a major launch in fall 2009. Beyond a core set of “really, really affordable” features, the company is planning on adding on extra functionality at a premium cost. (Staton wouldn't elaborate on the company's plans.)
Campuses might ask, “'How much time and resources is this going take from us?' Our answer is, none,” Staton said.