Universities are failing at teaching social media

September 26, 2012, 11:26 AM UTC

By Ryan Holmes, contributor

FORTUNE — “Overall, the higher education system is failing to prepare students with the needed digital and social skill set in any meaningful way,” says Dr. William Ward of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.  “Higher education, like business, needs a culture shift.”

Ward teaches COM 400, Social Media U Need 2 Know, and COM 600, Social Media Theory and Practice at Syracuse.  His offerings are among only a handful of credit-bearing social media courses offered at leading universities today.  For Ward, who goes by the handle @DR4WARD on Twitter and has nearly 10,000 followers, the imperative for more courses is clear.  “Students with social media certification are getting better jobs and internships,” he says.  “Those who harness social communications are in high demand and have an advantage.”

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The numbers back him up.  While U.S. unemployment hovers around 8%, job postings requiring social media skills rose 87% from 2011 to 2012, topping 13,000 in one month alone earlier this year.  Among Fortune 500 companies, 73% now have company Twitter accounts and 66% have Facebook Pages (FB).  Corporate America is racing to apply social tools to everything from building customer relationships to connecting teams of employees around the world.  Analysts estimate that $1.3 trillion in value stands to be unlocked by new social technologies.

But while businesses are hungry to tap social media, they lack the expertise to do so.  Among 2,100 companies surveyed by Harvard Business Review, a meagre 12% of those using social media feel they use it effectively.  The result is an exceptional demand for social media professionals who can boost the bottom line.  “Social communication done well increases productivity, saves money and time, and improves engagement and satisfaction,” Ward says.  “[It’s] a part of a larger culture shift changing how work gets done.”

Higher ed, however, has been painfully slow to step up and fill the knowledge gap.  While many universities use social media to recruit students — Harvard alone has 1.6 million fans on Facebook — few have brought it into the classroom itself.  When courses on social media are offered, they tend to be stand-alones or electives rather than integrated into a larger curriculum.  “Digital and social skills can be applied across majors and discipline, not just in a social media class,” Ward says.  “Faculty must change how they research, learn, communicate, and collaborate and model this behavior in all their classes and for their students.”

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At Syracuse, Ward’s students are already “social natives,” having grown up with Twitter and Facebook.  But his courses like COM 400, Social Media U Need 2 Know, elevate social networking to cold, hard science, with an emphasis on practical business applications and measuring return on investment.  Assignments include 20 weekly tweets and posts, tracked with a dedicated class hashtag.  Influence meters like Klout measure reach and effectiveness of messages.  Meanwhile, class lectures and online seminars and videos dissect how to cultivate a following on Twitter, LinkedIn (LNKD) and Google+ (GOOG).

Other elite universities have started to follow this lead.  NYU, Columbia and the University of Washington, among others, have introduced extensive undergraduate coursework on social networking, marketing and learning.  Columbia Business School and Harvard Business School offer social media marketing courses.  New England College even offers a comprehensive social media MBA.  “I think because it’s such a specialized field, you couldn’t just give two courses and say, ‘Here you go,’” explains New England College dean of admissions Diane Raymond, defending social media education in a recent U.S. News report.  “There [are] just too many trends, too many elements.”

(Full disclosure: HootSuite is my company. We provide video-based courseware called HootSuite University composed of webinars from industry leaders and online testing. It is currently used at 20 colleges and universities.)

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His COM 400 grads have already seen the benefits of social media education in the job market.  “I was at a huge advantage in a job interview bc i was @HootSuite_U certified! #NewhouseSM4 @DR4WARD,” tweeted Emily Maher last spring, whose social media skills helped earn a TV reporting internship with NBC News affiliate WETM-TV in New York and a paid position as social media director of a retail jewelry outlet.  “Learning how to use social media smartly gives employers a reason to hire,” Ward says.  “Helping individuals and organizations harness digital and social communication to their advantage will become one of the fastest growth segments.”

Ryan Holmes (@invoker) is the CEO of HootSuite, a social media management system with nearly five million users, including 79 of the Fortune 100 companies.  In the trenches everyday with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the world’s largest social networks, Holmes has a unique view on the intersection of social media and big business.