ACPA/NASPA Joint Meeting: Facebook & Student Involvement

The first session I attended on Tuesday morning was entitled “Have You Facebooked Astin Lately? Facebook’s Impact on Student Involvement” and it was presented by Ruth Harper and Greg Heiberger of South Dakota State University (SDSU). Greg actually did all of the presenting and I’m not sure why Ruth was included in the program (Give it more credibility since she has a doctorate? Change of plans since the program proposals are due many months before the conference itself?). Given the title and the implied connection between student development theory and Facebook, I was very excited to attend this session. It met expectations and was a great session.

Heiberger is a Student Activities administrator and Master’s student who has conducted original research at SDSU about students’ use of Facebook in relation to their involvement in student activities. Given his role in Student Activities, Heiberger focused on student involvement and related his Facebook research to Astin’s Involvement Theory and Tinto’s Departure Theory. In short, his concentration seems to be on questions like: “Is involvement increasing or decreasing? Or just changing form?”

His survey had 375 unique respondents and asked 20 questions with the eventual goal of longitudinal research. Some results of the survey include:

  • 98% of respondents log in daily (contrast with 31% who use the SDSU MyStateonline portal each day)
  • Respondents spend an average of 1-2 hours each day on Facebook
  • Respondents log in to Facebook an average of 5 times each day, personal e-mail 3 times per day, and institutional e-mail 1 time per day
  • The number of logins positively correlates with the number of student organizations in which respondents reported they are active

This survey included some demographic data such as GPA but did not find a correlation between GPA and time spent on Facebook. However, Vanden Boogart did find a negative correlation between these factors in his research. Why did these two research efforts reach different conclusions? The major differences between them are (a) Vanden Boogart surveyed students at multiple campuses whereas Heiberger focused on one campus and (b) Heiberger performed his research more recently than Vanden Boogart. Therefore it’s possible that the difference is simply the difference between students at different campuses. More interestingly, however, is that we may be seeing an effect similar to that observed in the classic Internet Paradox and Internet Paradox Revisited papers: some negative effects of technology dissipate with time as users become more familiar with it. Like most things, this all requires more research and investigation.

There was a brief digression into a discussion of the role that Facebook and related education may play in the larger area of information literacy. Although the term “information literacy” was not used, it was the topic of conversation and another example of the language barriers between professions (in this case, student affairs and information science). The observation that there is a tie between the focused education in the area of Facebook (which is sometimes too narrowly focused, IMHO) and the larger topic of information literacy is an excellent observation and one deserving of further exploration.

In many discussions about Facebook, the students’ perception that “Facebook is our space” and staff are not welcome was noted. However, one attendee pointed out that this perception may change as new students enter our institutions who have grown up with increased parental and institutional awareness of and presence in Facebook and similar tools.

Other excellent quotes, questions, and examples (all quotes are from Heiberger unless otherwise noted):

  • “As responsible administrators, we are obligated to assess and evaluate technology and its effects on student development.”
  • “We must either assist in making it a positive developmental experience or risk its effects on our recruitment and retention rates and ultimately higher education’s value.” While I understand the point of this statement, it seems a bit extreme to me. There are many things that students do that we do not and should not “assist” or become involved with for ethical, practical, or legal reasons. Let’s not allow our zeal to care for and assist students to draw us into a parental, controlling, or protective role.
  • A student contacted Heiberger via Facebook, and only via Facebook, to inquire about starting a new student organization. This a curious mixture of contexts and crossing of boundaries (explicit student use of a “student-only” medium for performing an administrative function/process).
  • Students who “friend” staff members (including student staff members) may find themselves in unique and potentially uncomfortable situations as much of what they do is visible or even broadcast to their friends. One potential benefit, however, is the opportunity for the staff person to model proper behavior. The potential conflict of interest caused by students and staff “friending” one another was raised in multiple sessions throughout the conference, particularly in the context of student staff, graduate students, and new staff.
  • Do students (or users in general) use the number of friends, groups, messages, photos, etc. as a measure of status or self-worth? I think there may be some relevant research out there, particularly in the teen/MySpace arena and the placement of one’s Top 8 friends, but I can’t seem to recall the exact article(s)…
  • Does any institution use Facebook as a reflective tool? (Attendees at this session did not answer this question but in a different session a psychologist explained how she uses Facebook in group therapy sessions.)
  • Are there a significant number of students who belong to Facebook groups but have low participation rates in the physical group (don’t attend meetings, participate in activities, etc.)? Attendees claimed to know such students but no one (including myself) knew of any relevant research.
  • If we assume that our efforts to use Facebook to advertise events are successful, are participation rates increasing, too?

It seems to me that there were two dominant themes throughout this presentation and the subsequent discussion:

  1. The role of Facebook in student involvement and the changing nature of involvement itself. For example, Heiberger said that Facebook’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Pool was an example of “engaging across the country versus across the room.” Although many university and college administrators and student employees are using Facebook and similar tools to advertise campus events and communicate with students and student groups, the larger questions of the changing nature of involvement and engagement must be asked and Heiberger and others performing research in that area are doing very interesting and necessary work.
  2. Despite the negative media attention (much of it generated by student affairs and higher education, IMHO), there are many positive uses for Facebook and similar tools. In this session and in others, there was a pushback not just from the presenter but from attendees against the negative stereotypes and a call to recognize the potential for healthy, good, and productive uses of these tools.

Update: Ruth contacted me a few weeks ago to clarify her role in Greg’s research and presentation.  She was the faculty member that supervised Greg’s research and helped put together the conference proposal.  She told me that it’s standard practice at South Dakota State University for supervising faculty members signing on as the “coordinating presenter” for grad student presentations.  Thanks for the clarification Ruth!

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