Can online networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, help new students settle into university social and academic life and minimise the chance of them withdrawing from their courses?
Researchers at the University of Leicester are now looking for first-year University of Leicester students who use Facebook to help their pioneering research into this issue.
They should not be too difficult to recruit. Student use of the online networking site Facebook is running at a phenomenal level, with almost 10,000 present and past students and staff participating.
Currently, 95 per cent of 16-18 year olds intending to go to university are using social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.
"Yet we know little about how this phenomenon impacts on the student experience and, in particular, if and how it helps them integrate into university life," commented Jane Wellens, Education Developer in the University of Leicester's Staff Development Centre.
"The expectations and online experience of the latest and next generations of students requires universities to think carefully about how, and whether, to use these new technologies and meeting spaces to enhance the social aspects of student integration into university life."
Dr Wellens is working with Dr Clare Madge, of the Department of Geography, Tristram Hooley, of CRAC, the Career Development Organisation, and Julia Meek, an independent evaluation consultant.
Academic and social integration into university life are key factors influencing individual students' experiences and the likelihood of their withdrawing from their student courses. Until now most research in the field has concentrated on academic support rather than integration into the wider social world of the university.
Students are now so used to using social networking sites that one university in the US has actually been running sessions to encourage students to build up face-to-face networks. One aspect of the Leicester project is to explore whether there are differences in the longevity and nature of university friendships that students establish face-to-face compared with those they make online through social networking sites.
The Leicester project builds on internationally acclaimed work the University has already started on teaching and learning online. "We recently used Facebook as a means of encouraging students on an online module to get to know one another," Jane Wellens said. "This raised many issues such as where the boundary between public and private space is, and how comfortable students (and staff) of different ages feel regarding the use of such technology."
The Leicester project also draws on internationally recognised expertise by this specific team of researchers in online research methodologies. As Clare Madge of the Department of Geography at the University of Leicester stated: "This project will be using both an online questionnaire and virtual interviews, and will innovate in the use of Facebook itself as a site to conduct virtual interviews".
What Dr Wellens and her colleagues hope to establish from the new research project is how Leicester students are using Facebook as part of their social and learning experience and whether joining the University's Facebook network before they come to Leicester helps students to settle down more easily to university life.
They will also be looking to see if there is any way that university support services and academic departments can use the online social networking sites to help students integrate into university life, and how the sites might be re-shaping our everyday lives in terms of the importance of place-based versus virtual networking.
Research results are expected to influence university policies at Leicester and beyond. "It may affect the way the University uses its Facebook network," said Dr Wellens. "One outcome might be that the University would use these sites to bring new students together before their arrival, or to bring together current and new students to provide peer support. It will also ascertain students' views about the ways in which the University and its staff should, or shouldn't, use Facebook for academic purposes."
The project has received funding from the Teaching Enhancement Forum and the Registrar at the University of Leicester.
The project is being undertaken by the interdisciplinary team of Dr Jane Wellens, Staff Development, Dr Clare Madge, Geography, Dr Tristram Hooley, CRAC and Dr Julia Meek, an independent evaluation consultant, who have internationally recognised expertise in Online Research Methods.
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