Two Pew Research Studies About Teens and “Generation Next”

Two of the Pew research projects have recently released research documents.

The first document, a memo about ongoing research conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, is entitled “Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview.” In the study, the researchers found that “more than half (55%) of all online American youths ages 12-17 use online social networking sites…. [O]lder teens, particularly girls, are more likely to use these sites. For girls, social networking sites are primarily places to reinforce pre-existing friendships; for boys, the networks also provide opportunities for flirting and making new friends.” Rather than attempting to summarize this document myself, I defer to others more experienced in this field than I who have already produced excellent summaries and observations.

The second document is a report from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press entitled “How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics: A Portrait of ‘Generation Next.’” The summary of findings tells us that “the generation that came of age in the shadow of Sept. 11 shares the characteristics of other generations of young adults. They are generally happy with their lives and optimistic about their futures. Moreover, Gen Nexters feel that educational and job opportunities are better for them today than for the previous generation. At the same time, many of their attitudes and priorities reflect a limited set of life experiences. Marriage, children and an established career remain in the future for most of those in Generation Next.” There are certainly many findings that will be of interest to educators and student affairs professionals.

Among the interesting findings about “Generation Next” is that “about half say they sent or received a text message over the phone in the past day, approximately double the proportion of those ages 26-40.” Much of the research I have read has indicated that Americans have been slow to take up text messaging. I think it’s safe to say that, at least for the younger generations, this generalization is no longer true. In fact, it’s clear that text messaging is now in the mainstream for American youths.

One particular statement with which I take issue is that “they are the ‘Look at Me’ generation.” The researchers conclude this from their finding that “a majority of Gen Nexters have used…social networking sites, and more than four-in-ten have created a personal profile.” I certainly don’t dispute the finding. I do, however, dispute the characterization that implies narcissism and attention-seeking as the motivation for employing these tools. The researchers’ characterization of these tools reveals either a bias or a shallow understanding of these tools. It’s not that people who use those tools are necessarily seeking attention but that the nature of the tools requires one to explicitly identify yourself and a significant amount of information about yourself. Further, for the age group we are discussing these tools have reached a “critical mass” in that even those who don’t really care for the tools often find themselves using them.

Both of these documents are interesting and directly applicable for college and university administrators and educators, particularly the “Generation Next” report. It helps cut through the misconceptions and anecdotes to give us a scholarly and extremely interesting view of the current generation of American youths. As the working definition of Generation Next used by these researchers includes “those Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 years old,” these young people are the current generation of undergraduates. It’s essential to understand them not only as college and university students but also as Americans who are entering the workforce and voting booths.

Two New Surveys

Two new surveys have been recently initiated by student affairs and IT researchers.

First is a survey of student IT worker pay conducted by David Stack of UW–Milwaukee and AJ Kelton of Montclair State University. More information, including a link to the survey and information about those conducting the survey, can be found in AJ’s posting to his EDUCAUSE Blog. There are other sources of data about student IT employee pay and compensation but this survey is attempting to discover differences between how central IT and distributed departments compensate student IT employees differently.

Second is a survey of “[student affairs professionals’ and their] university’s experiences (or lack of), whether formally or informally, with online social networks.” The survey is being conducted by Dr. Leigh Anne Howard of the University of Southern Indiana and Dr. Tamara L. Wandel of the University of Evansville who are “examining how student affairs professionals think about and/or utilize online networks as a communication tool to connect with students and alumni.” The survey was announced to the membership of the ACPA this week.

I’ve corresponded with the authors of both of these surveys and I believe that both of the surveys are very interesting and should produce some wonderful results. If you are in the sample for either of these surveys, please participate!

Copyright Education Is Effective

In the new issue of the NASPA Journal is an article from Drs. Jennifer Christie Siemens and Steven W. Kopp entitled “Teaching Ethical Copyright Behavior: Assessing the Effects of a University-Sponsored Computing Ethics Program.” In summary, this article reports that persistent educational efforts have a positive effect on the self-reported behaviors and beliefs of the surveyed undergraduate college students.

The article reports on the results of a broad educational program at a private institution in the Midwest. Students in a freshman introductory class (similar to a Freshman Year Experience class or other “college 101” classes) were exposed to different instructional techniques “to address the issue of ethical use of copyrighted Internet content.” When the results of a web-based survey of the students were analyzed, the most effective efforts were those that utilized multiple techniques. No single technique performed better than any other. Moreoever, there were significant differences between men and women: “males were significantly less likely to agree with the policy…comply with the policy… [and] perceived downloading copyrighted music…and other content…to be significantly more ethical compared to female respondents.”

In a statement familiar to both student affairs administrators and IT professionals, the researchers tell us that “both technologies and laws are quickly ignored or evaded by [students] and…some other approach may be necessary to influence behavior.” In other words, institutions must create and enforce policies and educate students about those policies if they want to change this behavior. More specifically, neither lawsuits against a very, very few students nor technological attempts to enforce behavior have been successful. To the best of my knowledge, the only technology that appears to actually be effective is to simply limit the amount of bandwidth a particular student can utilize. Nearly any other technology can be easily bypassed by savvy students, steps on fair use rights, or both. Of course, one could also just make it someone else’s problem.
It’s interesting to note that both of these researchers are marketing faculty. It is my observation that most of the relevant research into technology issues in which student affairs and university administrators may be interested is coming out of faculty from departments or disciplines other than higher education. Much of the research in which I have been most interested has come from communications faculty. More on my thoughts in this phenomenon can be found in an older post.

Kudos to these researchers for performing this critical research! They are absolutely right when they assert that despite the growing presence of these programs, “there has been little published research on the effectiveness of university-sponsored educational programs in curbing illegal downloading behavior on college campuses. Due to the expense of implementing such programs, it is important to assess their effectiveness.” This is particularly important as Congress continues to press this issue and potentially ineffective solutions in an effort to appease their constituents.

As always, there is much more of interest in the article and I encourage you to read it. I don’t know how widely available the NASPA Journal is in the common journal databases but I’m sure you can obtain the article via InterLibrary Loan if you are not a NASPA member or your institution does not have a subscription.

Online Privacy: American Youth Get It (At Least In MySpace)

There has been, and continues to be, much discussion about online privacy in the context of youths and their use of social networking sites. Last year, this discussion led the House of Representatives to pass an ill-considered law in an effort to limit youths’ uncensored and unfiltered access to social networking sites (the bill was not voted on by the Senate and must be reintroduced in both houses of the 110th Congress). I don’t know if the paranoia is beginning to wear off but the research has been slowly building and, of course, it’s contrary to the common media portrayal.

First, let’s take a look at the assertion that the Internet, specifically MySpace, is full of pedophiles and criminals who prey on youth. Dr. Larry D. Rosen of California State University, Dominguez Hills has conducted research into this asserted phenomenon and found it largely to be overblown. I’m not going to repeat Larry’s but his work can be summarized as “there are much fewer criminals on the Internet preying on our children in MySpace than we believe, youth almost universally ‘blow off’ and ignore the few online solicitations or harassment they encounter, and parents need to play a stronger role in their children’s online lives” (my words, not his). That so many media sources picked up this research but still get the story wrong is quite disappointing.

Next, let’s look at research into how youth view online privacy. Contemporary beliefs are that youths, including young adults, have little understanding of online privacy and are apt to reveal personal information at the drop of a hat with potentially disastrous consequences (kidnapping, sexual assault, loss of a job or potential job, removal from school, etc.). We’ve discussed this perception before and now there is some more research that adds to the conversation. Justin Patchin, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Sameer Hinduja, criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University, conducted research into adolescents’ use of MySpace that shows that “an overwhelming majority of adolescents are using the site responsibly.”

Now, let’s briefly compare these two two research efforts. Dr. Rosen’s research combined data from multiple sources and appears to utilize more qualitative data, including surveys of over 200 child-parent pairs. Drs. Patchin and Hinduja, on the other hand, reviewed the MySpace profiles of nearly 2,500 adolescent MySpace users. One interesting limitation from which both efforts suffer is that their adolescent respondents were self-reported as the surveys were conducted online or via telephone; we know there are problems with relying on MySpace users’ self-reported age. On the whole, the two efforts are very complementary and fill in different gaps in our knowledge. It is very interesting to see how different media are spinning the same data from the same researchers very differently. The USA Today story about Patchin and Hinduja’s research is entitled “Most teens are responsible online, study shows” and seems to stress that teens’ behavior is safe whereas the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s news releaseResearchers Find Most Teens Limit Personal Information on MySpace, But Some Youth Still at Risk” seems to stress the negative aspects of the story. I would have expected the viewpoints of the two sources to be reversed (but maybe it’s-all-okay stories from university researchers don’t help secure further research funding…).

I would like to see more qualitative data to explain the results from Patchin and Hinduja’s research as that seems to be a pretty big shortcoming in their methodology. More specifically, I’d like to know more about why these youths exhibit safe or unsafe behaviors – why are so many teens apt to shrug off sexual propositions? Is it because they’ve learned from the few, horrific incidents (real or imaginary) or is some education effective? What kinds of education are most effective, if any? How do these behaviors change over time (both within the particular age-group and as the same age-group grows older)?

In any case, I hope these researchers will continue to update their websites as they conduct more research or further explore the data. Dr. Larry Rosen’s webpage is at and Drs. Patchin and Hinduja maintain, an interesting website with information about “online bullying.”

I particularly like how Larry closed one of his research papers. Before issuing one last call for parental awareness and action, he reminds us that “For the most part, the kids really are ‘alright.'”

Website Accessibility

I’m sure that most student affairs professionals and indeed most Americans have some passing familiarity with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Together with other related state and federal laws, particularly Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, these are the laws that require things like sloped roadside curbs, doors and hallways wide enough for wheelchairs, and elevators and ramps.

Fewer people, including many who work with computers and create webpages, are aware of the laws and legal rulings that govern web accessibility. Foremost among them are Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This law is essentially a codification of the World Wide Web Consortium‘s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. Although this law only applies to federal agencies, many states have passed similar or identical laws. Further, there is a small but growing body of case law that indicates that these laws may be applicable even to private corporations’ websites.

I write this post for two reasons. First, I am alarmed by my own experiences with webpage development and application procurement in higher education in that accessibility. Despite being a legal mandate for many institutions and a moral mandate for all institutions, accessibility is not even on the radar screen. It’s not a low priority – it’s not a priority at all. I understand that some of the issues may appear complicated but for us to make no effort whatsoever is shameless and unethical. I place some of the blame on the vendors who continue to ignore the issue (the major projects in which I’ve helped purchase, configure, and maintain web-based systems left us with no accessibility options unless we developed the systems ourselves; we lacked the resources to develop the systems in-house). That, of course, is a chicken-and-the-egg scenario because the vendors are naturally unwilling to expend resources on a “feature” that their clients obviously don’t care about. In my mind, educators’ lack of concern for online accessibility is an ethical and moral disconnect and I remain disappointed that many of those who are very quick to recognize physical issues that will affect disabled persons are so ignorant of or unwilling to address online issues. I’m not asking for everyone to become WAI experts but it’s perfectly reasonable for people to be aware of the issues and seek the advice and input of experts.

The second reason I raise this issue is as an opportunity to share a fascinating link. As discussed above, we have collectively done a very poor job of serving handicapped populations. However, let’s not ever underestimate the ability of people to overcome difficulties or their ability to repurpose tools to serve their own needs. The link above discusses the phenomenon of deaf persons using web cameras to communicate with one another using sign language. Not only does audio present an obvious difficulty for deaf persons but written content also presents difficulties; written English is a phonic language that depends on understanding how the words are pronounced aloud. In any case, it’s incredibly awesome to see deaf and hard-of-hearing persons using these technologies in ways that most of us have never considered. They’re using the Internet to do what so many of us use it to do: communicate with one another.  They’re doing it on their own in their own language and that’s incredibly empowering.

ACPA Webinar: The Impact of Advancing Technology on Campus Culture

ACPA is offering a webinar (it’s currently the last one listed at the bottom of that page) on Thursday, April 26, 2007, from 2:00 pm until 3:30 pm EST. It’s entitled “The Impact of Advancing Technology on Campus Culture” and it will be presented by Dr. Jonathan Kandell from the University of Maryland. Based on its description it may be another “fear session” (I am not heartened when the abstract describes e-mail, cell phones, and music sharing as “emerging technologies”) but I honestly hope that I am mistaken and the views presented will be well-balanced and supported by contemporary research. I hope I’m wrong because Dr. Kandell’s qualifications certainly seem to be very impressive! Unless I can convince my colleagues in student life (I work in our merged IT/library division) to attend and split the cost, $109 for a hour-and-a-half webinar is out of my personal price range. As always, I encourage you to check out this professional development opportunity and, if possible, attend, preferably in a large conference room where others (including students – especially graduate students studying in higher ed/student affairs) can share the experience and engage with one another.

Differences between electronic identity stabilization of young adults and teens

Social media researcher danah boyd recently wrote that her research has revealed that many American teenagers “are not dreaming of portability…. They are happy to make new accounts on new sites; they enjoy building out profiles.” In other words, when they lose their account information, forget their password, or move on to a new service, they’re happy to start over and rebuild their “identity.” (boyd is quick to note, however, that this readiness to recreate one’s identity is very different from the notion of creating or maintaining multiple discrete identities i.e. one AIM screenname for your friends and family, a gmail account for your professional contacts, and a Facebook account for your college friends). boyd also shares some philosophical musings on what we “adults” can learn from these teens but let’s focus on identity and teens’ apparent willingness to change and start over. Let’s assume this observed trend of carefree electronic identity uptake and discard holds true for a large segment of the American teen population.

Do traditional college students exhibit this same behavior? In my experience, no. College students definitely exhibit many similar behaviors for many of the same reasons – developing and discovering their self-identity – but not this particular one. (Excellent overviews of identity development in traditional college students can be found in the standard references “Education and Identity” by Arthur W. Chickering and Linda Reisser and “How College Affects Students” by Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini.)

Assuming that is true and this behavior differs between teenagers and young adults (i.e. traditional college students), why? I offer a few hypotheses:

  1. Logistical and technical issues and concerns begin to try to “lock students down” to readily-identifiable, consistent, and up-to-date identities, locations, and addresses. Within the sphere of “official” or institution-supported services, there are many examples. Despite the fact that most students enter college with multiple e-mail addresses and about half of entering freshmen prefer an e-mail provider other than their institution, nearly all 4-year institutions continue to provide “universal student e-mail.” Although some services such as e-mail forwarding allow students to maintain changing, off-campus accounts and identities many systems and services can not. It should be obvious that for students to use services such as course management systems (a service about which many students are “overwhelmingly positive”), students must have and maintain stable accounts.
  2. As noted in “Education and Identity,” “stability and integration” are key concepts in identity development for traditional undergraduate college students. More specifically, for upper-level students “a higher level of personal organization and integration is also required for the transition from college to the adult world.” In other words, for one to be successful, most people find it necessary to stop losing and forgetting information. Sounds like common sense to me…
  3. (I have no supporting evidence for this hypothesis) For the average person, attending college offers the chance to immensely expand one’s social network. This is partially an artifact of age (the longer one lives the more people one meets) but it’s also inherent in moving into a new environment with many new people. As one’s social network grows it simply becomes less practical to change contact information or visible identity (unless you’re explicitly trying to change or shrink your network). Again, please note that this differs from the deliberate maintenance of multiple identities.
  4. (I also have no supporting evidence for this hypothesis) Similar to the previous hypothesis, one tends to accumulate more physical and logical “things” related to one’s public identity as one grows older. In the electronic world, those things may include photographs, graphics, webpage links, quotes, lists of “favorites,” and, critical to most social networking sites, visible links to other social contacts (typically labeled “friends” but we all know that label lacks nuance). Unless one intends to start a new identity, moving all (or enough) of that information to a new location takes time, effort, and, in some cases, technical skill and knowledge. And some of those things can not be easily moved or moved at all, particularly one’s social network (“friends”). While that may be seen as an advantage for someone wanting to “start over” (which is often the case for those who, like many teenagers, are intentionally experimenting with their identity) for many people it’s a huge disincentive to move to a new location/service/etc.

On the one hand, we know that identity development is a gradual process. I am by no means suggesting that when one steps foot onto campus for freshman orientation the habits and practices of youth are left lying outside the gate like old clothes; that is contrary to experience and research. However, I do suggest that several factors conspire to make this particular transition rather swift as compared to many other transitions one experiences as a young adult. Not only are there significant technical and logistical pressures that slow or halt one’s rapid uptake and discard of electronic identities but maturation tends to lead to identity stabilization in an almost tautological manner.

2006 ECAR Study of Undergrads & IT

ECAR, EDUCAUSE‘s research arm, recently released the results of their 2006 Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology. While most ECAR documents are only available to ECAR subscribers and those who specifically purchase them, ECAR released this study to the public “because of the topic’s critical importance.” While I recommend everyone read through at least the Key Findings, let’s take a look at some of the findings, place them in context with other research, and try to extract some additional meaning from them.

First, without downplaying its strengths and essential validity, we must note the limitations of this study. Freshmen and seniors at 96 institutions were invited to participate (and each institution had to seek IRB approval – 96 separate IRB approvals for one study). The response rate was about 11% for a total of nearly 29,000 students. While that is a large number of respondents the researchers correctly state that their findings may only be directly applicable to the participating institutions and generalizing these results even to those institutions should be done with extreme caution. As with most surveys, the survey also suffered from self-selection bias. However, ECAR also conducted focus groups at 5 participating institutions to gather qualitative data which may have helped to offset some of these limitations. But enough about the methodology – let’s get on to some of the results.

One of the most striking findings of this survey is that computer ownership among respondents is nearly ubiquitous: 97.8% own at least one computer with over one-third (37.2%) of respondents owning both desktop and laptop computers. However, just as we’re finding in American society at large, there is also a very small minority of students who avoid or choose not to use technology. This is a separate group from those who can not afford technology or at least the level of technology they would like. Both of these groups not only present some difficulties for technical support personnel (who must support aging computers, users with uncommonly low technical skills or knowledge, etc.) but they also reveal a segment of American society who may never cross the Participation Gap, never mind the Digital Divide.

Another finding relevant for college and university administrators is that “overwhelmingly…students prefer e-mail [for institutional communication].” This finding should not be surprising. While we know that young people prefer to use Instant Messaging and other media such as social networking sites to communicate with their friends, they view e-mail as something for “old people” and a medium to be used to communicate with “institutions.” Without discussing whether the choice of medium is appropriate (there are very strong arguments that it is), we must admit to ourselves that we are indeed “old people” who work for “institutions.” Thus we can conclude that e-mail is most likely the correct medium for communicating most information to students.

Throughout the study, differences between male and female respondents are reported. For example, when discussing self-reported skill levels, the researchers note that “gender…is an influential factor in explaining perceived differences in skill levels: being male is associated with higher reported levels of skills.” Female respondents (as well as younger respondents) indicated a preference for less technology in their courses. Not surprisingly, “male [respondents] are more likely to be gamers, reporting higher usage of computer and online games.” While there is some evidence that many of these differences can be explained by factors other than gender (personal interests, academic major, economic status, etc.), this study provides evidence supporting the common sense notion that males and females use technology differently. (This is a fascinating area of scholarship)

ResNet professionals may be interested to learn that more than one-third (36.1%) of respondents reported owning a wireless “hub” (quotation marks are necessary as hub is a technical term often misused and likely incorrect in this context). While the report does not break down the different levels of ownership among on- and off-campus residents it does show that the level appears to correlate with age – the older a respondent the more likely he or she is to own a wireless “hub.” Based on that, I suspect the level of ownership may be higher among off-campus residents. But that may be wishful thinking. We know that despite students’ desire for ubiquitous wireless is far from being a reality in residence halls. We also know that wireless is perceived by many ResNet professionals as one of their top challenges. These issues are all summed up by the ECAR researchers who state that “the 1990s battle cry of a ‘port per pillow’ may be getting supplemented this century with ‘a router for every room, or at least a hub for every home!'” We’ll have to discuss the security ramifications of this later.

One surprising item in this study is that “more than 70% [of respondents] use social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.” Although there is significant qualitative data in this study supporting the assertion that usage is very high, this survey’s quantitative data regarding reported usage of social networking sites is much lower than reported in most other studies of this specific topic of which I am aware. Why the disparity? Perhaps the data is “stale” (i.e. too old to reflect current trends). Or, more likely, the demographics of this group of respondents differ very significantly from those in the other studies with which I am familiar. For example, this is the only study of which I am aware that included students in 2-year institutions. Given the differences between “typical” students at 2-year institutions and 4-year institutions, many illuminated and discussed in this study, this may explain some or much of the difference. Although I am initially inclined to lend more weight to the larger body of evidence presented by those who specifically study this phenomenon, the sample size of the ECAR study is much larger than most other studies and surveys which lends it considerable weight. In any case, whether it’s “more than 70%” or closer to 90% or 100%, usage is still very high.

Here’s something that will make many student affairs professionals nod their head and smile: When discussing self-reported skill levels, the researchers noted that “students who report learning a skill for employment or personal interest also report higher levels of learning.” Preceding this comment is a brief discussion of students who possess skills not learned or taught in their coursework but acquired through employment, personal interests, or other means. The researchers even included a quote from a student who talks about skills learned through volunteer work with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Score one for internships, co-ops, volunteer opportunities, (reasonable) employment, and other experiential learning opportunities and those who support and encourage students in finding those opportunities.

Finally, when asked to select where institutions should invest more money in IT, if money were available, nearly 28% of all respondents selected “Music (Napster subscription, etc.).” Moreover, there is a very clear trend that younger respondents selected this response much more frequently than older respondents. While this is an interesting finding, I assert that the methodology significantly weakens this finding as the respondents were asked to select three responses from a pre-defined list of ten possible responses. Nevertheless, this is an interesting finding as the research into entertainment services has thus far been very limited and found mixed results.

There’s a lot more in the full report and I’m sure there any many interesting and important findings that I could not or did not discuss here. It’s a good study and the report is well-written so read it when you have the time.

Using Social Networking Tools to Communicate and Interact with Students

Given students’ (perhaps unwarranted) expectations of privacy and boundaries, should college and university administrators use social networking sites to communicate and interact with students? If the answer is “yes,” how can we effectively and ethically use those tools and interact with students (and others) in those spaces?

There aren’t easy answers to either of those questions. Further, those two questions are intimately intertwined and very difficult or impossible to consider separately. Let’s explore a few issues and resources recently written about those issues that may offer some answers and provide guidance.

First is a recent post to the MacArthur Foundation’s digital media and learning initiative Spotlight blog. The piece was written by folks with Global Kids who work within Teen Second Life. It’s centered on a few brief comments from teens explaining their view of (the Global Kids) adults’ presence in Teen Second Life. I don’t know how representative the views expressed are of the views of teens at large or even just the teens who use Teen Second Life. There also arises the question of how or if one can extrapolate those views from Teen Second Life and its participants to the teen population at large and its participants in social networking services.

Second is another discussion of users’ (false?) expectation of privacy and the perceived erosion of privacy on the Internet. This small part of a much longer and ongoing discussion began with a blog post entitled “Social network users have ruined their privacy, forever.” The post was also linked to from Slashdot where the discussion continued. While I am not familiar with the website on which the original post was written or its author, it’s clearly an emotionally-charged opinion piece. Stripped of the hyperbole and vitriol, the basic gist of the article is one that is a real concern for many people and one with which many student affairs administrators are familiar: some people have an unrealistic expectation of privacy when posting information on the Internet. Although this expectation is clearly unwarranted, those using social networking services to interact with or “reach” traditional college students should bear this expectation in mind. Even if the expectation is groundless, violating it wins no points with those who hold it.

(I don’t know how much and how quickly these expectations of privacy are changing. My feeling is that these expectations are, at least in the very public arenas where the expectations are clearly unwarranted, changing rapidly and are not held by most college-aged persons. However, I do not know if these realistic expectations extend to all Internet activity or just to the most visible ones. In other words, I don’t know if the general lack of privacy in most Internet transactions and activity is apparent to most people or if they limit that awareness to specific activities. My sense is the latter. In all honesty, I don’t even know if the original assumption that people expect “privacy” in all of their Internet activities is valid and proven, even among the young.  It seems reasonable but it’s an assumption.)

Putting together these discussions and observations one is led to the idea of context. Even those who hold realistic expectations of privacy and technology expect others to be cognizant of context and respectful when crossing contextual and social barriers. Fred Stutzman’s recent suggestions for using “Facebook as a Tool for Learning Engagement” repeatedly emphasize awareness of and respect for context. While Fred’s recommendations are aimed primarily at faculty they are just as applicable to and useful for student affairs and other administrators.

Finally, allow me to offer a few brief warnings. Some social networking services’ terms of service prohibit accounts that represent organizations instead of people. Among others, the University of Kentucky Libraries’ Facebook account was shut down several months ago as they were held to be in violation of Facebooks’ Terms of Use. In addition, some services may also claim ownership (copyright) of any material posted or uploaded to their service. Without discussing the legality of such claims, it is an issue of which one should be aware. The most prominent example of this particular issue is several years old but the issue lingers on.

Realistic Expectations – of ourselves, our students, and one another

Several days ago, the Associated Press (AP) wrote about a recent survey conducted by the AP and AOL about Americans’ use Instant Messaging (IM). The results of this survey should not be a surprise to anyone who follows the research or simply pays attention to what has been going on the last few years. Two years ago, I even wrote about IM in the specific context of student affairs.

I personally ran into (and was swallowed by) this divide a few years ago. I was inexplicably invited to a meeting between mid-level and senior administrators to discuss how we can better conduct business during the first few weeks of class. A primary concern was that the normal lines of communication, primarily the telephone, were ineffective during that very busy time. Most of the desired communication revolved around relatively short and quick questions that would hopefully help us avoid sending a student or a parent to another office or building. When I suggested that we should explore IM as an alternative communication media many attendees at the meeting stared at me like I was an alien. Although a few attendees agreed that it was a good idea and that or their staff used IM in just this manner, the idea was tabled and never mentioned again. And I was never invited back for another meeting.

The lesson to learn here has little to do with IM. The real lesson is connected to the gap between students’ expectations and uses of technology and our own expectations (of one another and of students’) and uses of technology. To explore this lesson a bit more, let’s briefly look at e-mail.

We can look at some of the same research referenced above in the IM discussion (supplemented, of course, with additional research) to get an idea of students’ uses and perceptions of e-mail. We can also see that our own perceptions, broadly speaking, differ from our students’. For many of us, e-mail was the “killer app” that drove networking and desktop computing. We use e-mail to keep in touch with everyone – staff, colleagues (to how many listservs are you subscribed?), friends, and family. Teens and young adults, however, typically use e-mail to (a) stay in touch with their older e-mail-reliant contacts and large groups of people and (b) conduct formal or official business. Likely explanations for their behavior include the prevelance of alternative forms of communication common amongst their contacts (i.e. everyone has an AIM screenname, Facebook account, or MySpace account) and the overwhelming presence of spam in their e-mail. For us, spam is a relatively new phenomenon that is foreign to the medium of e-mail. For younger generations, spam is an inherent part of e-mail; e-mail, to them, has always had a very low signal-to-noise ratio. In other words, for many of us e-mail is seen as the primary and often the only way to communicate on the Internet. Younger generations know that is not true and are (clumsily, at times) learning to select more appropriate media and take advantage of new ones.

This certainly has implications for colleges and universities. Obviously, this affects (or should affect; too often, it doesn’t) how we communicate with prospective and current students and alumni. Not only do we display our own limitations and biases when we use the wrong medium, we also risk our message getting lost, ignored, misinterpreted, or miscontextualized. As persons whose bottom line is directly affected by how well they communicate with members of these younger generations, admissions and public relations folks are getting the message and, more importantly, tailoring their message and its medium. Let’s make sure we in student affairs and IT are doing the same.