12/19/2012 01:22 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

Social Studies: How Online Communities are Bridging the Ivory Tower and Main Street

Over the last few years the world's leading universities and colleges increased access to high quality educational content at a remarkable rate. The ubiquity of broadband Internet and free video platforms like iTunes U and YouTube enabled institutions to stream full courses to students of all ages from India to Indiana. This year, online education moved from lean-back consumption to lean-forward interaction, with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from edtech trailblazers like Coursera, EdX and Udacity adding quizzes, projects and more to the now-standard YouTube lecture, picking up millions of users (and a lot of press) along the way.

Given that students can now learn from world-leading instructors online for free, are they any less likely to compete for admission to colleges and universities (and pay the requisite $40,000 per year for it)? Is the fact that one can take Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behavior from famed Duke behavioral economics Professor Dan Ariely online for free, thereby potentially helping to decrease the number of people headed down Tobacco Road?

As MOOCs work to resolve issues of accreditation and job placement, students are still clamoring to get on campus. This past year Duke applications were up 55 percent from four years ago (there's still no way to eCamp at Krzyzewskiville). And it's not just Duke that's experiencing a boom -- despite demographic trends peaking in 2009, college applications are still surging, with 73 percent of schools receiving more applications than the year before, fueled by students applying to more schools than ever (25 percent of students apply to seven or more schools).

Despite the many technological advances in online education, college admissions remains a long, stressful and mostly offline process. Advice can be hard to find -- the average public high school has only one college counselor for every 450 students, and the costs of flying cross-country (or around the world) makes visiting prospective schools prohibitive for most.

To help students get high-quality college admissions advice as they prepare applications this month, Google has partnered with The Princeton Review to launch College Admissions Week on Google+, a week-long series of Hangouts on Air (a group video chat which allows up to 10 people to chat face-to-face, for free, that can be broadcast live on Google+ and YouTube) about admissions, academics and student life.

The program kicked off this week with Robert Franek, SVP of publishing at The Princeton Review and author of The Best 377 Colleges and The Best Value Colleges, hosting a conversation with admissions officers from participating universities Dartmouth, Duke, Penn State, Binghamton University, Temple, University of Southern California and Washington University in St. Louis. The Princeton Review's Google+ page features a full calendar of events, and students who want to join via video can sign-up here.

This program is just one of many ways that universities are embracing social media to both extend the educational experience beyond their campus walls and improve the experience for students within them. MIT and Harvard are both quickly approaching 100,000 followers on Google+, sharing their faculty's latest research for a global audience to read and discuss. Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University with over 650,000 followers, uses Google+ video chat technology (called Hangouts) to host live conversations with fellow professors and budding academics around the world.

It's not all about reaching a larger audience, though -- Buck Goldstein, University entrepreneur-in-residence at UNC, created a Google+ page for his course, Econ 125: Intro to Entrepreneurship, using Hangouts to host office hours with students and as a way to bring guest lecturers into the class, improving the on-campus learning experience.

As Mark Edmundson, a Professor of Literature at University of Virginia wrote, one difficulty of online learning is that it's a monologue, while the learning process requires a dialogue, a back-and-forth exchange in real-time that allows students to ask questions and discuss new ideas. Just as iTunes U and YouTube enabled universities to build a digital bridge between the Ivory tower and main street, social media can help facilitate the two-way conversations critical to learning. It is our hope that this use of technology to increase access to world-leading institutions and individuals will help all students realize their potential, regardless of whether it's on-campus or off.