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Necessity Mothers McDowell Tech's Move To Facebook

In a discourse from The Republic, Book II, Plato reflected, “Then, I said, let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.” Over the years, his words were rearranged and became the classic idiom, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Earlier this year, administrators at McDowell Technical Community College found themselves foursquare in the midst of “necessity” as state budget constraints left the college almost scrounging through the couch seats to find nickels for…necessities. It was one of the toughest budget years the college has ever faced, with mid-year and late-year reversions to the state treasury whisking away money the college sorely needed to cope with double-digit enrollment increases. In its November 30, 2009 issue, Community College Week, a national professional magazine for community colleges, ranked McDowell Tech 44th in the nation among colleges with less than 2500 students for percentage increase in enrollment from fall 2007 to fall 2008.

Over a two year period, McDowell Tech has grown more than a third as local manufacturers closed or laid off employees, mostly in the last year, leaving hundreds of McDowell County residents scrambling for new jobs and the skills it takes to secure them. Unfortunately, community college enrollment nationwide often finds itself in a linear relationship with unemployment; when unemployment is high, community college enrollment is high.

“Consequently, we found ourselves in a troublesome predicament,” said Dr. Bryan W. Wilson, McDowell Tech’s President. “With so many new students needing our services, we had to look creatively at ways to maximize our resources, and we did it—barely. Moving forward, we recognize that finding new, creative and inexpensive ways to accomplish old and new tasks has to become a way of life for us.”

That necessity has led McDowell Tech to a not-so-recent invention, but one that has only recently emerged as a marketing tool for higher education: Facebook. Just a few days ago, McDowell Tech joined an increasing number of colleges and universities who are using, with greater and lesser degrees of success, Facebook fan and group pages as a no-cost way to market not only their services, but events, academic success stories and other ideas they previously communicated through paid advertising.

Through Facebook, the social networking phenomenon of the internet, individuals can create “profiles” of themselves and communicate with their Facebook friends; groups of individuals can create “group pages” to communicate with group members or those affiliated with the group; and organizations or businesses can create “fan pages” to network with fans and anyone who wants to keep updated on the organization.

“We were a little slow to embrace the idea,” said Wilson, “but once we joined Facebook and saw how many people in this area are logging on weekly, daily—or hourly—basis, we knew that we should have signed on a long time ago.” Without any advertising or announcement to students, in less than 2 weeks the site has garnered more than 75 “fans,” who will receive messages from the college several days per week. Wilson hopes to have 500 or more fans in a few weeks and at least a couple of thousand within a year or so.

Soon, the college will add group pages for college departments or groups of departments, such as health programs or business programs, and will liven posts to fans with informational quizzes about the college or faculty and staff, presentation of student photography and graphic artwork, and sharing of other items of interest to McDowell Tech and the community. Periodic contests, games and challenges are also expected in coming months to maintain and build excitement among fans.

It is also the place where staff will share photos of campus events, such as honor society inductions, drama productions, and feature stories about unique people and programs. The college is making a small, one-time investment in new camera equipment to help create better photographs and take advantage of newer online capabilities, such as posting of online mpeg videos.

Finally, the college will utilize Facebook as an additional tool in communicating weather related announcements or notification of emergencies and related information.

Of all things, the college will resort to old-fashioned print media to market the Facebook page to current students. For just a few dollars, the college’s print shop will create a single-page flyer announcing the new fan page and how to join, both for existing Facebook users and new ones. The flyer will be distributed later this week and in the first weeks of the new semester in January.

College faculty and staff will also participate in brief staff development training to familiarize them with social networking and things they can do to help make it a successful communication tool.

Besides being a new communication tool with unique challenges in presentation of information, college staffers are learning some of the subtle differences between “fan pages” and the profiles and wall posts (comments and messages between Facebook friends) they learned when they joined Facebook individually. For example, Facebook fan page administrators don’t see posts by their fans unless the fan goes to the fan page wall to leave a message. Likewise, fan page administrators can’t “tag” (identify) people in photos who aren’t also Facebook friends of the page administrator, where the page is maintained through a personal account. In time, these nuances will become second-nature, said Wilson.

“We found Facebook while we were looking for cheap marketing ideas,” he said, “but I think we are going to find it as meaningful as our campus newspaper in marketing the college over the coming years—but at little to no cost.”

And while it certainly takes ample resources to operate a college, in certain circumstances, poverty of resources is partly a state of mind. “What I think Facebook will teach us is that McDowell Tech is rich in fans, friends and opportunity,” Wilson concluded.

To join McDowell Tech’s fan page, existing Facebook users can logon to their profile and go to www.facebook.com/mcdowelltech or use the search feature on the top toolbar to find McDowell Technical Community College. New users can go to www.facebook .com and follow the online prompts to become a member. Users are reminded that they will have to click “Become a fan” upon entering the site to receive updates from the page.





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