{learning} How to Build a Digital University Community: Case SJU


This is a collaboratively constructed essay by the students of ICM820 – Building Digital Communities Course (2014) of St. John’s University.

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Introduction: The Complex Design for Participation

During the mass media era of the 20th century, the communicative mode taught to us by technologies was that of (passive, mass) consumption. Mediated communication created ‘imaginary communities’ (Anderson, 1991). Today, we have unleashed the ‘Cognitive Surplus’ and human generosity (Shirky, 2010) by making participation online easy and desirable. As Wang and Yu (2012) note referring to a multiplicity of studies, online communities have changed people’s everyday lives. Accordingly, many organizations, such as universities, have woken up to this reality and have begun to develop more and more sophisticated platforms and services to support participation in their physical learning and campus communities.

However, there are several issues that influence, and challenge, designs of online communities and their participatory functions. First, in almost every community, there are different participatory roles. Millington, in his practical book Buzzing Communities (2010) classifies different levels of participation in the order of ‘intensity’ (op cit., 63): Visitors, Registered members, Participants, Regulars, and Volunteers. Hyde et al. (2010) address the same issues from another angle and discuss participation as a scale from (more passive) sharing to aggregation to (active) collaboration.

Second, Millington (2010, 275) also posits that different types of communities will create very different kind of participation, and require different kinds of measures to enhance it):

  1. Communities of interest — focus is to discuss a specific topic;
  2. Communities of place — focus on locality;
  3. Communities of practice — help members become better at what they do;
  4. Communities of action — devoted to change;
  5. Communities of circumstance — focus on experience and bonding.

Given their complex mission and functions, universities may need to create multiple and/or multipurpose communities.

Finally, there are basic questions of access, skills, privacy, copyrights, and even (self) censorship that influence participation. As Jenkins et al. (2012, 194) argue:

[T]he nature of participation in the digital age is a complicated matter. For even those groups who have greater access to digital technologies and have mastered the skills to deploy them effectively…[O]ur capacity to participate can be complicated by issues of who owns the platforms through which communication occurs and how their agendas shape how those tools can be deployed. And, even if we get our messages through, there is often the question of whether anyone is listening.

It is no wonder that designing communities and participation poses a great dilemma to any organization trying to create and enhance its online presence. Based on previous studies as well as on their own reach on participatory modalities, Brandzaeg and Heim (2009) note that there are ‘basic needs’ any technological solution or other design choice of an online community should address: communication, entertainment, information, control and usability, learning and education, efficacy, and creativity.

This essay addresses the case of the newly redesigned online presence of St. John’s University (SJU). St. John’s unveiled a new institutional website in January 2014. As the virtual window to the university, this new website offers a clear and intuitive navigation that makes prospective and current students easier to find the information they are seeking. This new website is built not only for desktops users, but also for the users of tablets and mobile phones. Based on the participatory research of our collaborative research team, we describe the complex nature of our case, assess its successes and challenges in terms of participation and the ‘basic needs’ of community members, as well as give recommendations for future action and development

The Case: SJU as a Digital Community

In today’s day and age every organization, business, and education system has an online presence. There are over 4,495 colleges in the United States (NCES). With a click of a button prospective students, as well as enrolled, now have the access to communicate with faculty, students, and professors alike. Online brand representation is becoming one of the most compelling factors to attend a specific university and students want to see a website that is engaging, creative, and efficient.  Prospective students want to see themselves as part of the University before they even apply, and once accepted they want to be aware of the community that surrounds them.

Centrality of Online Presence

The St John’s community, as any university community, has a mutual dependency. On the one side you will need to integrate yourself in the community for your own benefit, as it is a hub of information ranging from a social to an academic nature, that you are dependent on having in order to successfully integrate yourself on campus. On the other side the community is also highly dependent on you, the member of the community. In order for any community to work, it is dependent on the users to generate content. Within the frames that are set by both users and the institution, you will be able to influence all levels of university life by participation. Looking at the society with macro glasses; in todays network society (Castells 1996, 2004a) we organize our public sphere through media communication networks (Lull 2007; Cardoso 2006; Chester 2007), and similarly on a micro level you organize your university life through the SJU communities.

In order to measure students’ satisfaction with a wide range of college experiences, programs, and services, a survey – The Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI) was conducted by St. John’s University in 1997, 1999, 2004, 2007, and 2014. SSI is a standardized survey instrument from Noel-Levitz and allow institution to pinpoint institutional strengths, and identify challenges in need of improvement. There were 83 items in the survey of 2007, and only four items were identified as St. John’s strengths, including “The University has a good reputation within the community” and “St. John’s Central is easy and convenient to use.[1]

SJU’s Multiple Communities and Interconnections

Enter the relatively new online communities of St. John’s University: person-oriented, media-oriented, and mobile communities such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter (Brandtzaeg & Heim 2009). By maintaining an active presence on some of the most popular social networking sites, prospective and current students are able to connect and engage with others in their community or other sub-communities. The newly re-designed, responsive website (added bonus for mobile users) includes a page directing users to each social networking page. Students can only connect with St. John’s University’s main business/brand page – as well as with the page dedicated to Employment Opportunities or the Career Center.

Additionally, by utilizing student talents and creativity, St. John’s ensures their community presence is maintained both on campus and online. For instance, STJnow, an interactive and creative presence across multiple social platforms, uses content created by students to market the St. John’s brand while maintaining strong relationships between current students and their university. On this one site you can link to all of the university’s social media sites: http://www.stjohns.edu/student-life/social-media Also on this site, you can see many of the groups and divisions that contribute to the university.  The university frequently updates its social media sites in a clear and concise manner. And even when not on this specific website St. John’s University makes it easy to follow its posting on social media through the student Central portal. This portal has a live feed of St. John’s Twitter postings, called SJUNow. In addition to being able to follow live feeds through the Central portal, students can also tweet to SJUNow directly from their portal.

Another important aspect that St. John’s University has utilized to its advantage is how they interconnect all the different groups within its community (digital or otherwise). Using groups to make interactions with each other is how you develop relationship, and developing relationships keeps students engaged and interactive within the larger community. Like Brandtzaeg and Heim (2009) state, the social requirement of the level of sociability as well as the entertainment factors seem to be the most important needs driving people to participate in communities. It is that need to connect that immerse and keeps the SJU students invested in the communities presented to them.

What works: SJU’s Successful Strategies in Enhancing Participation

Community Feedback: Innovation is the Key

The feedback from the SJU community itself has largely been positive. Dr. Conrado Gempesaw, the president of St. John’s University, was just quoted in Crain’s New York Business as saying, ” The question for us at St. John’s is how to keep pace with technological innovation and adopt new methods that advance learning. (Messina, 2014)”

The idea that St. John’s is working to improve its technological innovations and with that digital communities is coming from the university’s top leadership.  According to the Director of Media Relations at St. John’s University, Elizabeth Reilly, the re-inventing of the university’s social media presence and brand has streamlined the university’s site.  She says the site is approximately a quarter of the size that it was before the re-brand making it much easier to navigate (Reilly, 2014).

Media Relations Assistant Diane Blascovich says the re-brand has “a much cleaner and sharper look (Blascovich, 2014)” Graduate student Kelly Thompson says the university has taken many steps to enhance participation.  She says not only does it “favorite most tweets that it is mentioned in,” members of the university’s staff have, “given out gift cards to students who re-tweet them.”  Thompson goes on to say, “it actually does a very good job with updating (Thompson, 2014).” The university has also made a concerted effort to improve access from all mobile devices. According to the website Acquia, “With the massive growth of users accessing higher ed websites using tablets and mobile devices, it was important to create a site that provides an optimized mobile experience. (Sherman, 2014)”

Strategic Solutions That Work

The core strategies of SJU are clearly working relatively well. By utilizing the various social outlets as well as St. John’s Central, SJU effectively communicates with its community by providing important information, entertainment, and education. SJU successfully shares relevant, timely content across all channels that thus encourage community members to contribute as well. Other successful strategies include:

  • St. John’s University’s social media is easily accessible and does a great job in laying out all of its social media platforms in one place.
  • In engaging student participation in online community, St. John’s maintains a constant stream of content production and offers incentives for more participation in addition to providing relevant information to its’ user base. One of the most important aspects to maintaining an online presence is ensuring that your brand is being seen. By constantly providing updates on the events going on and around St. John’s, social communications from the university are constantly streaming in and out of people’s consciousness.
  • Very frequently these updates on social media or St. John’s central also include incentives for participation–free food, MVP points, ‘your design on a t-shirt!’–which is a proven effective method of sending a message (you scratch our back and we’ll scratch yours). Relevancy and timeliness are essential to branding, but enticing your users to involve themselves more is a difficult minefield to navigate. One effective method that SJU has utilized in terms of social media reaching their students is with social media contests where they give away SJU attire.  “Take a picture with Johnny Thunderbird, post it and tag us/use our hashtag to get entered into our contest”, something as simple as this can keep the students constantly engaged and interacting so that in turn they can reap the benefits that come along with being a part of the digital community.  Its a brilliant way to use small items like a free t-shirt or a beach blanket to grab the attention and interest of the students without having to make it completely obvious that you need them to interact.
  • The Groups page on Central is a brilliant way for people to participate. By finding groups and organizations in the extensive index you will get the opportunity to contribute in groups/discussions you are passionate about. I believe this gives the members an internal motivation to participate as they actively choose the groups themselves. It all boils down to motivation and prizes is an effective way of motivating participation.
  • Given that we are pushing forward towards a digital age in which everything is being converted to be at our finger tips, it is only natural that St. John’s University has partnered with the app developer, Straxis Technology,  in order to allow students to remain active participants in their online communities when they are not in front of their computers. This app allows for students to be able to watch YouTube videos, view Twitter updates, participate in interactive university polls, and much more!

SJU’s Challenges: Communities Lost?

Communities that Could Do Better

About 16,900 users clicked “like” button at St. John’s Facebook as compared with about 120,900 users did in NYU Facebook. The total enrollment of student body and new freshmen students at St. John’s in 2013 is 220,729. Therefore, while SJU might be doing well, it also needs to do more to promote the participation of online communities. According to Brandtzaeg and Heim (2009), on a general level, online communities can be divided into five different categories: person-oriented, professional, media-oriented, virtual world, and mobile. While St. John’s does a great job of laying out its media platforms there are some communities that get lost in the process. There are several reasons for that, ranging from the lack of awareness and training in terms of social media presence, to philosophical and issue policies of an organization that may ignore or even censor some communities.

  • While student affairs and marketing do a great job of advertising their events over social media there are some groups and clubs that do not.  For example, the Vincentian Center’s events are not always as well attended because that organization do always tag St. John’s in its tweets. That may be because when the university re-branded it did not distribute a user manual to all groups and employees on policies and protocol.  So people who are interested in attending Vincentian events may be a community lost.
  • Similarly, the ALS (Academic Lecture Series) community is often forgotten.  This community posts occasionally on St. John’s Central to notify the student body of a famous lecturer coming to campus, but there are no bells or whistles.  Student rarely pay attention to plain text anymore; this community needs to step up and make some noise.  In the past few years they’ve had people as famous as Common, Mitch Albom, and even Wyclef Jean come to campus, but what does it matter if no one knows?  They could make great use of a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, and an Instagram profile where students could go to the event and have their pictures taken with the speakers and then post them and share them with others.
  • John’s University is not fully utilizing its professional community: LinkedIn. While SJU has created a University, Company, and Group page on this channel- they are primarily stagnant. Considering the amount of current students, graduate students, and alumni, all either in or looking to enter the “real world” of employment, LinkedIn is where one would find that audience. SJU has become more of a sporadic/lurker if you will, to that community of people instead of an active contributor.
  • Similarly, the graduate programs are typically lost when encouraging participation in St. John’s University’s digital platforms. These platforms typically post and encourage feedback from undergraduate students. This causes members of the graduate community to become lurkers rather than contributors.
  • Another community that has been ignored for a long time has been the LGBTQ community at St. John’s University. While there is a new group called Spectrum on campus, it is not an official group of Student Government, Inc. This group is currently in political turmoil at this university, as they are an LGBTQ community, and our University being Catholic, has worked to keep it off campus for years.  They were finally able to establish a Facebook page with St. John’s name attached to it.  The page was established on Sept 11th and has already reached 138 likes by the end of the month.

Design is the Key 

Besides the visibility and presence of specific communities, a very important general aspect in regard to maintaining and evolving a community such as SJU, is the technological aspects e.g. design, interface. For example, while the Central was ‘refurnished’ last year, its design appears greatly outdated and the interface does not appeal to today’s user.

Having a page that is up to date is a prerequisite for participation. The website itself needs a complete remake because not only does the website look extremely outdated but its also very hard to navigate and find things.   Looking for a professor’s contact information on the directory, looking up program requirements, going on to search for a keyword even is a chore in itself because the website is scattered and difficult to navigate causing frustration to anyone using it.  A little time making things simpler to find can go a long way for them.

The Little Updates that Matter

Finally, just basic, routine updating is central in building trust and enforcing participatory practices. SJU, as well as other organizations need to be vigilant in terms of  For example, there is a link posted on the date of Sep.22, 2014, which is a news about St. John’s new president Dr. Gempesaw. The result of clicking this link is this page cannot be found. The official online community should provide audience with accurate and clear information, or at least a working link.


Conclusion: Recommendations for SJU

Based on the analysis of the core characteristics, as well as the strategic strengths and weaknesses of SJU’s digital community (and sub-communities) the following general recommendations and specific suggestions are made:

  1. A Fundamental Challenge: Basic Interactivity. The St. John’s community is parallel to the statistic posed by (Brandtzaeg & Heim 2009) more than 85 percent visit their community daily or several times a week. But the site does not act as a hub for interaction, its main function is to feed you information, not necessarily receive it.

One core solution would be a mobile-based site, something that sends you alerts anytime a particular sub-community that you’re interested posts new information.  It would serve as a organization fair or pages you like on Facebook, you’d always be connected to that particular club, or group. In addition, a news app could continuously give new stories from all over while on the site. Another idea could be a radio app to listen to music or listen to streaming news without interrupting the information that is already on the site that is important to the school and students.

  1. Invest in the Next Generation. The group with the most potential to intensively interact with the St. John’s digital community is the future generation, because they are an unknown entity. Brandtzaeg and Heim (2009) predict that “In the future, the freedom to choose new media applications that directly apply to users’ interest and lifestyles will be much greater than today, so future community applications must be more attractive than the other options,” meaning that university community engagement today must be evaluated and improved upon in order to craft the most effective community of the future. Individual participation at its’ core is needs driven, so finding the perfect formulaic combination of communication, information, entertainment, and creativity is essential to enticing new and active consumers.
  1. Be Cosmopolitan also Digitally: Connect the Campuses. Collectively looking at all that SJU has been doing, what they’ve accomplished in terms of digital community interaction is impressive. However, SJU has not utilized all neighboring campuses to further expand their digital community.  All of the social media outlets touch upon the topic of each others events on other campuses occasionally but they lack having the students from other campuses engaging and creating build-up not to what is just happening on one campus but within the larger community that is all of SJU, all of its campuses.  Wang and Yu (2012) define build-up as beginning to build up the relationship with online communities and having them participate regularly.  The campuses would be able to talk, plan, organize with everyone in France, Italy, Manhattan and Queens. Imagine the turn out in events or the support of current issues.  This would be the epitome of what an actual online community is about. Imagine all SJU campuses building up each others events, imagine all that interaction.
  1. Take Advantage of Popular Platforms, such as Google+ and YouTube. As Brandtzag and Heim (2009) note, ” the social requirements or the level of sociability, as well as entertainment factors, seem to be the most important needs driving people to participate in communities.”

In order to address the needs of the community members, St. John’s University must first reach them properly. Re-designing and launching a user friendly website is one of the first steps, establishing a solid presence on social networking sites is another – this includes taking advantage of Google+ as a platform for information, creativity, education, and communication. When prospective students type in the Google search bar: St. John’s University, the website appears as well as stars showing Google Reviews, and a link to the Google+ page. Once this page is clicked, the user is brought to a blank, verified page. Now repeat this process, typing in Adelphi University, Pace University, or Columbia. These three Universities have taken advantage of the Google+ platform. Why is this important? On one end, Google’s search algorithm favors content that originates in Google+. With fresh content being posted on the Google+ page, the better SJU appears in search results, thus the more appealing the brand becomes. However search results aside, Google+ is a huge tool in academia. As Google states, “Google+ makes connecting on the web more like connecting in the real world, providing new ways for students and faculty to find, share and connect online — both inside and outside the classroom.”

While SJU has greatly improved it could stand to increase its online video content.  Under the YouTube Section of the social media page there is only one video clip (St. John’s University, 2014).  Also, the main Facebook and Twitter pages of St. John’s University focus heavily on enrollment dates and announcements. If St. John’s University had a separate division to handle the university’s social media, rather than enrollment or student affairs, the information that is distributed could be more evenly distributed.

  1. Active Users Are the Most Important Users = Know How They Act on Social Media. Therefore, in order to maximize our reach and engagement on social media platforms developed by SJU departments, research like that of Wang and Yu (2012) and Brandtzæg and Heim (2009) is critical.  As Wang and Yu allude to, it is important not only to know your audience (prospective and current college students), but to know what kind of participants you have (what post type are they?).  Once the University does a better job of understanding who they are reaching the messages put out will better suit those who are reading, contributing, or “lurking.”
  1. Few to Few = Engage Interaction between Sub-groups. As Heim and Brandtzæg (2009) put it, SJU should focus on few-to-few content sharing instead of one-to-many. Central’s groups and organizations have this intrinsic value. Developing a participation culture within few-to-few groups (sub-communities) for the lurkers will strengthen the community as a whole.


  1. Online Forum to Serve the Students in Daily Issues. John’s has done a great job in honing in on the fact that convenience allows for people to remain active members not only on campus, but online as well. Student utilize their Central profiles almost on a daily basis. This platform is one of the most convenient that St. John’s incorporates into its online presence. With that being said, St. John’s should opt to create an online forum within Central this way students could converse among each other about events, courses, housing, etc. By doing this St. John’s not only promotes online participation, but it also encourages the building of “real” communities. Shared information with the ability to give feedback, will generate more interaction and create word of mouth.

One feature in this could be some type of dialog box, where student, whom might not know each other can help other students if there is a question in the dialog box. I think this would be interactive for student and create conversation. Interaction between the student and the site will generate more responses from students and faculty. Maybe also some type of clip board section could be useful to post pictures and show SJU Pride!

  1. Stay Current with the Design. The big question is how we can get the lurkers in the different levels of the SJU communities to participate. The first crucial step is updating the frames. In order for the users to generate content, the frame needs to look appealing as well as being practical. Central should undergo a major facelift with a subsequent re-launch of the page.

One aspect of the webpage design that would attract more attention from potentially new students would be showcasing creativity that St John’s Students are capable of.

  1. Internal Marketing – Use Carrots! While we do offer MVP points for certain SJU events, this involvement is very rarely media related.  In order to build a more successful online presence we need to do more by way of offering rewards for online posts.  Perhaps an online blog for current SJU students to post experiences or advice and interact with prospective students – prospective students want to see themselves as part of the University before they even apply.  The Student Engagement Department has run photo contests that earned a reward.  For instance over the summer they ran a contest with rules along the lines of “post a picture of you in your favorite SJU attire somewhere in the world and whichever one gets the most likes wins an awesome prize.” People like being involved, however, it comes with a cost free attire, MVP points, and some tangible proof of a win.

10. External Marketing – Search Engine Marketing, including Search Engine Optimization.   This strategy is used by flower companies during big holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc.  The better your placement, the more likely people are to engage with your site.  If flower companies can make use of this, why could not SJU?


Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Revised and extended. ed.). London: Verso.

Blascovich, D. (2014, September 25). Media Realtions Assistant. (B. Driscoll, Interviewer)

Brandtzæg, P. B., & Heim, J. (2009). Explaining participation in online communities. Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 167-182.

Hyde, A. et al. (2010). What is Collaboration? In Madiberg (ed.). Social Media Reader. New York: NYU Press.

Jenkins, H. et al (2012). Spreadable Media. Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: NYU Press.

Messina, J. (2014, September 22-28). People to Watch in Higher Education. Crain’s New York Business , p. 15.

Millington, R. (2010). Buzzing Communities: How to Build Bigger, Better, and More Active Online Communities

Reilly, E. (2014, September 24th). Director of Media Reactions for St. John’s University. (B. Driscoll, Interviewer)

Sherman, R. (2014, February 5th). Responsive Website Launch: St. John’s University Rolls Out New Drupal Site. Retrieved September 25th, 2014, from Acquia:http://www.acquia.com/blog/responsive-website-launch-st-johns-university-rolls-out-new-drupal-site

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin.

St. John’s University. (2014). Social Media. Retrieved September 23, 2014, from St. John’s University: http://www.stjohns.edu/student-life/social-media

Thompson, K. (2014, September 25th). Graduate Student. (B. Driscoll, Interviewer)

Tirella, T. (2014, September 24th). Across the Spectrum. The Torch , pp. 1,3.

Wang, X. and Yanjun Y, (2012) “Classify Participants In Online Communities.” International Journal of Managing Information Tecnology (JJMIT) Vol.4, No.1, February 2012. Print.

[1] Note: These two items were deleted from the survey of 2014, so the related information could not be reached from the newest one.

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