2008 NASPA Conference: Facebook, Blogs, and Other Electronic Communication: How Students Construct Learning Environments through Social Networking Sites

The final technology-related program I attended on Monday was entitled “Facebook, Blogs, and Other Electronic Communication: How Students Construct Learning Environments through Social Networking Sites” and it was an extremely well-attended session; every seat was filled with some people standing in the back and I would guess there were over a hundred attendees. The presentation focused on survey results from the University of Michigan that asked Michigan students about their use of tools such as Facebook and blogs. The PowerPoint file for the presentation can be found on their Web site.

The general tone of the presentation – this is what our students are doing and we must be aware of its many effects instead of being fearful or controlling – is the right message. That we are still having to work to get that message out is disappointing but at least it seems to be getting easier to get that message out.

The presenters began by discussing CIRP data specific to Michigan students but they quickly moved on to data specific to their original research. I refer readers to the PowerPoint linked in the first paragraph for all of the specific data points.

The major findings of their research into students’ use of online communities generally echo the findings of other researchers who have focused on college students’ use of Facebook. In particular, they discovered that the top two activities of respondents to their surveys were messaging people they know and viewing profiles of people they know. The researchers further asserted that the two areas most impacted by online communities is community and identity development. They arrived at these conclusions by navigating and using multiple frameworks, including Tinto’s persistence theories and a community psychology perspective. Other specific results of the UM surveys also support or are very similar to others’ findings that one of the primary uses of online communities is for keeping in touch with high school friends.

Despite the prominent use of online communities by respondents to form and maintain social connections, the respondents largely disagreed with statements that implied or outright stated that it would be more difficult to meet new people or stay connected without online communities. These questions were discussed in the context of negating the perception that use of or participating in online communities detracts from or takes the place of face-to-face communication.

Not all of the questions UM asked on their surveys focused on online communities. They also asked about blogging and media-sharing communities, including video- and photo-sharing communities. These results, although interesting and informative, generated no discussion.

The researchers then discussed their assertion that use of online communities ties in with identity development, specifically Chickering’s “developing autonomy” and “establishing identity” vectors. This is similar to qualitative research performed by five IU Master’s students done a couple of years ago analyzing the interplay of Facebook use with Chickering’s “developing mature interpersonal relationships” vector. Similar to the IU results, the Michigan results did not appear to support the tie between online community use and participation and Chickering’s vectors.

These results seem counterintuitive to me, particularly in the case of the UM results related to identity. In particular, it seems that if the presentation accurately reflects the UM survey then there are some pretty serious methodological issues. Self-identity is much more complex than simply asking someone if you “believe who you are is reflected in your [Facebook] profile” or if “by using online communities I can better express myself.” I’m not even convinced that exploratory research in this area on these topics can be adequately done using surveys. They seem to be topics that require personal interaction – interviews, focus groups, etc. – to capture and explore the intricacies and ambiguities of human interaction and identity development.

Throughout the presentation, the presenters addressed issues of how and whether administrators should use Facebook. They recommended that administrators use peer educators in many cases rather than creating Facebook profiles and using those profiles to seek out and connect with students. Similar to others who have made recommendations regarding administrator use of Facebook, the UM presenters recommended that administrators only form online relationships with students when the students initiate them. Further, they insisted that administrators view Facebook tools such as groups, events, and fan pages as complementary tools to use alongside other tools such as Web pages. Much of the discussion after the formal presentation during the question-and-answer session focused on those Facebook tools.

Another question from the audience asked about the advertising in Facebook and how the UM administration viewed the advertising in relation to official and unofficial UM use of Facebook and Facebook tools. They are not happy with the advertisements but it’s out of their control. The question, however, was very insightful and indicative of the kinds of questions and concerns we should all be exploring as we move forward with commercial tools and environments.

Others described their experiences on their campus and with their students. One described how students on his campus viewed as “cool” compared to other administrators because of his use of Facebook. Another described how students on his campus attacked, defended, and then discussed policy changes made by campus administrators.

When one audience member asked about the danger of students creating unofficial groups or fan pages misrepresenting the university, other audience members replied by advising against creating new policies aimed specifically at Facebook. One audience member reminded the original questioner that existing policies almost certainly covered such a situation. Other audience members suggested that a high level of control over students’ use of Facebook is impossible.

Other audience members discussed using Facebook groups for and during new student orientation. One use is to create Facebook groups for each orientation group well before the actual on-campus orientation session. Discussion questions were created for each group were posted along with events.

The session was packed to the gills and there was a ton of excellent discussion after the formal presentation. Other topics of discussion not fully documented here included one anecdote about a conduct case involving harassment on Second Life, (positive and negative) use of Facebook to select roommates, and education of students about their profiles and how others view them.

The lack of methodological details makes it very hard to evaluate the quality of the original research.  In particular, the discussion was couched in the language of inference where the responses and characteristics of the respondents were assumed to reflect those of the entire population. Without knowing the particulars of the methodology, it’s impossible to evaluate if this can be done with the results of these surveys.

On the one hand, it was somewhat disappointing that some of the questions during the session were extremely basic; I had hoped that we had gotten past that point already. However, many of the questions and observations were very interesting and insightful. More importantly, the answers to the questions from both the presenters and audience members were often right on mark and consistent with current research. Despite the problems with their research, these researchers are on the right track.

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