Online engagement and learning in practice at Harvard and MIT

For the  next part of my journey I visited the beautiful Harvard campus. I met with a number of scientists that use social media and a number of social media managers.
Harvard is really easy to get to on the T line and is a beautiful campus to explore. The graduations had taken place the day before. There were lots of tents and food-trucks set up around the campus and a really vibrant atmosphere. It helped that the sun came out too!

Here's a video round-up of my visit - no hair in my face this time!

Between meetings I took a quick tour of the Harvard Museum of Natural History which has some incredible collections.

My favourite exhibit in the museum is the glass flower collection, which I stumbled upon by accident. I thought these were persevered flowers but they they were all made from glass for the teaching of botany.

Yep, not a real flower...

Cabinets of glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History
The museum is really active on Facebook and they host a number of interesting talks and events throughout the year. All the staff were really helpful and knew a lot about the collections. I didn't have long to spend in the museum but it was great to chat with those that I met.

Other than the glass flowers I loved their displays of beetles and insects. So beautiful.

So shiny! Beetles at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

There was also an exhibition on cockroaches and their importance and 'life in a rotting log'.  It's great to see the creepy crawlies getting some well deserved attention.

I met with a number of academic staff at Harvard and spoke to them about their online engagement. I also learnt about Harvard's online courses which are a diverse set of free online courses taught by Harvard staff available for everyone to access.

Many of the courses also support their own Facebook, Twitter and social media pages. These exist not to promote the course but to engage with the students. The pages create their own communities between students and academic staff. The visibility of the questions and discussion stimulates more input in a way that one-to-one conversations via email never could.

I headed back to MIT later in the day and I met with Stephanie Hatch Leishman, Social Media Strategist at MIT, in her fantastically decorated office (she made the icons herself -AMAZING).

We spoke for quite a while about how MIT as in institution approaches social media engagement. I discovered MIT connect , a fantastic example of how a diverse organisation can bring together it's online engagement and output.

There's also #askMIT an outreach initiative led by MIT's engineering school that encourages and promotes online science engagement through video, Facebook and Twitter. Ask the researchers a question and they will answer. This kind of idea isn't new, but I haven't seen an example of it being led at an institutional level before. Formal Social media chats tend to last for a set period of time (1 hr or so) and then vanish so it's great to see a project that keeps building and continues over time.

These are a few perspectives and views from those that I have met so far that I thought were interesting to share:
  • No Professor or research group lead (or PhD student..) should be managing a group social media output. Write it into a grant and employ someone to do this - it's a full time job to do it properly and get the most from it.
  • Freedom online is important to make mistakes, learn and develop new areas
  • MOOCs can create their own social media networks with public audiences and become an engagement platform 
  • Exploit the support networks you can find on social media to help you in your career 

This June I am undertaking a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship to look at the communication of science via social media. I will be traveling to North America and I am looking to connect with people as I go. You can read more about it here.


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