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Using Social Networking Sites as Student Engagement Tools

Facebook and other sites may serve as a better communication channel between students and professors, but there are drawbacks to consider.

For some college students, social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook and MySpace have become their principal means of communication. Many have lessened or completely relinquished usage of their school and personal e-mail addresses. Others have installed these sites’ mobile features so that they can constantly be in touch with their online networks.

Recognizing this phenomenon, colleges and universities have started thinking about how to harness the connective power of SNS to further engage students in academic life. Likewise, higher education recruiters have begun to follow their college’s lead. Many are finding that prospective students are using these networks in addition to searching campus Web sites. As such, recruitment measures include using SNS to “e-recruit” students. Recent studies are even showing that professors are using social networking sites like these to assist in negotiating the teacher-student relationships. Yet, at many colleges and universities, administrators and faculty still wonder whether they should embrace SNS as a pedagogical tool. Some wonder whether these sites will really live up to the promise of helping them create community in the classroom and improve student retention rates.

There are paradigmatic advantages and drawbacks to consider. First, differential use of technology by different types of students has led to questions about purposeful and effective uses of information technology in higher education practices, including technology use and engagement; and fostering student and faculty collaboration and contact. One potential benefit of using SNS is the impact of their active-learning features on low-income, minority and first-generation students.

A recent study by the University of Minnesota found that low-income students are just as technologically proficient as their counterparts and credit SNS for teaching them technology skills, as well as creativity, and providing exposure to diverse views. Additionally, a 2007 survey conducted by marketing firms Noel- Levitz and James Tower, and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA) found that Black students expressed a preference for electronic communication and greater interest in using social networking to interact with colleges and make enrollment decisions compared to their White counterparts.

Second, SNS have become such a pervasive element in our students’ lives that they have restructured social practices within academic environments. A growing number of studies of social patterns among college students shows that SNS have become the common denominator among those who are actively engaged with college faculty and staff. Some universities are noting the importance of “erecruiting” after students have matriculated because of continual electronic communication and contact. This is paramount as innovative utilization of technology with this population has been deemed acutely important in encouraging critical exchange and academic development. Such findings suggest that the social aspect can increase students’ persistence in their college studies and their ability to achieve at higher levels. Furthermore, this lends itself to a recruitment and retention variable for education researchers to examine.

The third factor to consider is the emerging rate of faculty members using SNS to interact with their students outside the classroom. Recent studies have shown that 30 percent of Facebook users and 32 percent of MySpace users are older than 45. College administrators and faculty are contributing to this fast-growing group. Building interpersonal relationships among students, academicians and administrators has the potential to alter perceived power relationships by making faculty and personnel seem more accessible.

However, questions have also been raised as to whether administrators or professors should be or are even welcomed in these student-only perceived spaces. Both students and faculty members have mixed reactions. Though faculty- student interaction on SNS encourages relational exchange, issues of self-disclosure and identity management are also of concern. How much is too much? How much information should a faculty member or student share with each other? Faculty fear of losing credibility is also germane. There is the potential violation of student expectations, and university and administrative expectations of proper behaviors.

This growing influence demonstrates that the utilization of SNS can expand the dialogue outside of the classroom or campus, build better communication channels with students and may be valuable as a supplemental recruitment tool in higher education. Yet, the influence of SNS on privacy issues, credibility and the breeding of inappropriate relationships and behavior has posed technological dilemmas in which more universities will have to continually work to develop institutional online social networking policies.

— Dr. Kandace Harris is an assistant professor and interim chair in the Department of Communication Arts at Johnson C. Smith University.

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