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!

Why I Care About Information Literacy (And You Should, Too!)

Information literacy is a concept that has come up several times in recent news and discussions in my life. As previously noted, it’s a topic that I find not only inherently interesting but the process by which it has become a topic of national concern and interest is itself very interesting and potentially informative even to those not interested in the topic.

The American Library Association’s Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report, issued in 1989, defines information literacy as the ability to “recognize when information is needed and…locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” These skills have become increasingly important as more information in more formats have become available; some have even connected information literacy to democracy by arguing that for voters to be informed they must be information literate. It is worth noting that these concerns (a) generally mirror the larger concerns of liberal education as infusing learners with a broad knowledge base and the ability to seek out, identify, and integrate knowledge on one’s own and (b) predate the World Wide Web and consumer use and knowledge of the Internet (the ALA formed their Presidential Commission on Information Literacy in 1987; Berners-Lee did not invent the critical parts of the World Wide Web until the very early 90s).

There are definitely ties between technical literacy and information literacy but the two concepts are distinct. Some mistakenly conflate the two skillsets as they are often intertwined both as concepts and in how the concepts are taught and evaluated. To some extent that is understandable as the concepts are often taught in the same class and closely tied together in their presentation to students and patrons. Several examples of how the concepts are intertwined can be found in Ann Grafstein’s recently-published and very excellent article “Information Literacy and Technology: An Examination of Some Issues” in the current (Vol. 7, No. 1) issue of portal: Libraries and the Academy. That the concepts are closely related, however, in no way changes that they are distinct.

As already mentioned, I am fascinated not only by the concept of information literacy but also the way it has become a topic of national concern and interest. I don’t know all that I want to know about how this evolution came about but I really want to know more as I feel there could be very valuable lessons for others. For example, the concept of technical literacy has not gained near as much traction or attention as information literacy despite their very close ties. As already noted, the ALA has for nearly two decades invested some of their resources in defining information literacy. ETS, the company that administers tests such as the SAT and GRE, has created an ICT Literacy Assessment that purports to measure test-takers’ “ability to use digital technology, communication tools and networks appropriately to solve information problems in order to function in an information society.” Some of the work funded by The MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media, Learning & Education initiative focuses on media literacy, a subset of information literacy.

Why has information literacy become the focus of so much attention while other skillsets have not? It may be that those concerned about information literacy have been that much more organized and methodical; not only I am hard pressed to think of an organization with the resources and clout of the ALA in the technology sector but technologists do not have near as uniform a prepatory and professional path as librarians. I don’t think that we can honestly say that the time is ripe for information literacy but not for technical literacy, particularly as we continue to worry about our children’s safety on the Internet (even if those worries are largely unfounded). It may be that information literacy is a very general concept with extremely broad application whereas technical literacy is (arguably) much more narrow in focus and application; information literacy concepts will serve you for a lifetime whereas some technical literacy concepts may live for only a few years.

Let’s close this post with some links to recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative documents and projects that help underscore (a) the continuing importance and evolution of information literacy and (b) the ties between information literacy and technical literacy:

(Note how these documents tie together not only concepts mentioned in this post – information literacy, technical literacy, and even media literacy – but also other concepts discussed in previous posts that discuss characteristics of the current generation of traditional undergraduates.)

Students’ technical know-how and distance ed preferences

Two relatively recent news items discuss college students’ technical know-how (actually, the report is more limited – more on that in a bit) and students’ and employers’ preferences for distance education.

First, ETS recently released preliminary findings from their new Information and Communication Technology Literacy Assessment. The results aren’t surprising for anyone who has followed information literacy trends: students fall short of information literacy expectations. Before I discuss the meat of the findings and implications, a few notes about how these results were presented. First, InsideHigherEd’s title for the article (“Are College Students Techno Idiots?“) discussing these findings is not only wrong but also unnecessarily inflammatory. “Technical know-how” is unrelated to “information literacy” and I expect those who claim to specialize in higher education issues to know the difference. I also understand that it’s their job to attract attention and readers but insulting our students is the wrong way to go about it. Second, while ETS did issue a press-release-like statement about their preliminary findings, their “additional info” document (the first link in this paragraph) is a pdf of a PowerPoint presentation. While I appreciate those that place their presentations online I hope this is just that – a presentation they conducted and are now sharing with us – rather than the “real” document. Others have discussed the inappropriate use of Powerpoint far better than I can so I’m going to move on.

There are at least two novel reasons I am interested in college students’ information literacy. First,I see strong and obvious connections between college students’ information literacy skills and their technical skills and knowledge (an ill-defined phrase if I ever saw one). There is also a strong connection between how many perceive college students’ information literacy and their tech skills and knowledge. In both cases, many seem to assume that because students know how to use the tools (Google, Word, Powerpoint, etc.) they know when to use them and appropriate uses for them. In my experience, many students’ knowledge of these tools is very superficial (and college students aren’t unique in this). Second, the growth of the information literacy movement and how its proponents have succeeded in moving this topic into the limelight can teach us all lessons about how to effectively advocate for something. What was once merely the concern of a few academic librarians is now a national issue. I don’t know all of the history behind this movement and the lessons it can teach us but what I do know fascinates me.

Second, Eduventures has released the results of a survey that claims to demonstrate that “more employers prefer online training to traditional classroom learning when it comes to college and university certificate programs for their workers.” I would post a link to the survey results but according to this Chronicle article it’s only available to subscribers (as is the Chronicle article – irony?). It’s impossible to comment on this survey or its results without more information. I understand the dilemma researchers face when figuring out how best to release their research results as it’s always a balance between access, resources, and ensuring the integrity of the research and those involved. Unfortunately, when research gets released via press release or news article and that’s the only way I can access it, I have to file it away in the “that’s interesting but unverifiable and thus unusable” pile. The claims made in the Chronicle article are very interesting but unfortunately without further details, particularly their methodology, they’re all irrelevant.