Social Networks, the Next Educational Tool?

A study looks at freshman social networking habits and investigates whether the ubiquitous online tools could promote retention and recruitment goals, too.
October 30, 2008

ORLANDO -- At last year's Educause conference, in Seattle, educators pondered what to do about students' technology habits. Should they try to change them? Accept that they're here to stay? Try to co-opt them?

A lot can change in a year. Many colleges seem to have moved on from the question of whether to follow students' lead on technologies they prefer, from Web-based e-mail to Facebook to text messaging. Now, the dilemma they face is whether to adapt students' existing habits -- of messaging each other, checking each other's profiles and browsing upcoming parties -- to the educational realm.

A study conducted this year at Arizona State University sought to take a closer look at first-year students' use of social networks, mainly Facebook and MySpace. While many of its findings aren't surprising on the whole, the survey suggests potentially useful conclusions for educators thinking about how to use social networks to reach out to students -- both as college applicants and as enrolled pupils.

The study was presented at this year's Educause conference here in Orlando, to which information technology specialists, higher education officials and technology companies have flocked for the annual ritual of sizing up each other's capabilities, taking stock of the industry and meeting colleagues new and old. The study's main research questions: How do today's undergraduates use social networking in their daily existence on campus? And does that use affect retention and recruitment?

It's still unclear how well students' technology habits translate directly to teaching and learning, said Laura C. Brewer, director of research and evaluation at Arizona State University's Applied Learning Technologies Institute. Even so, colleges struggle to keep up with students' high expectations for campuses' networking capabilities.

And some research has shown that Web-based tools can improve retention, continued Chong Ho Yu, a researcher at the institute. For example, persistence in college -- the likelihood of staying through to graduation -- has been shown to have a clear relationship to how well integrated students feel within their social and academic environments. At the same time, social networking can boost social engagement. So is there a connection?

Already some online universities have adopted tools that mimic certain social networking functions, said Yu, like being able to track at-risk students to improve retention. (That's also the focus of a major startup company this year, and resembles features in Datatel's new "strategic academic enterprise" software suite.)

But does some online colleges' embrace of social networking capabilities for certain goals translate to students on Facebook and MySpace? Do they see the value of those sites for academic uses, or for non-academic on-campus uses? Yu pointed out that some students chafe at the idea of their professors friending them on Facebook.

The Arizona State survey was administered in September over the Web to all freshmen in the university's campus residence halls; about 21 percent responded. Asked whether they use a social networking site, 93.2 percent said they do actively, 4 percent had in the past and 2.8 said never. For Facebook, the percentage of active users is 88.6, compared to 3.4 former users and 8.1 percent who said they have never used it.

A majority (62.5 percent) still say they actively use MySpace, but a significant proportion (27 percent) seem to have left it behind for the safer, cleaner, less cluttered and (they suggested) all around more mature Facebook.

When probed for more college-sanctioned uses of Facebook, the researchers found that 68.3 percent of respondents had joined a group for their residence halls on Facebook (35.3 percent did so on MySpace). Furthermore, 37.4 percent said Facebook enriches academic life -- perhaps heartening, but non-academic life still won out at 70.3 percent.

The survey unearthed relatively few instances of social networking sites being used to interact with faculty members, such as for communication purposes or to post assignments. More popular was using them to stay in touch with classmates or work in groups. (These uses are already inspiring attempts in the private sector to create Facebook applications with powerful capabilities for student learners.)

Yet students also recognized social networks' potential to distract them and possibly even encourage cheating among classmates.

At last year's conference, it took participants at a session on students' technology habits a while to come up with a way to improve how students find roommates (such as a Facebook app that pairs students together before they arrive on campus). This year, the presentation highlighted that and other potential uses -- such as reaching out to prospective students and mentoring -- that developers are already working to make a reality.

Whether those technologies catch on with students is another question.


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