Source: Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Vol. 51, No. 4, 355–365, 2014
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
This article discusses an empirical study of how online social networking can be utilised to support the initial student transition to university.
The research objectives were addressed using a multi-method approach: student questionnaire survey; student focus groups; tutor interviews and analysis of online content.
An analysis of online activities showed some differences in the pattern of engagement between two contrasting departments (Geography and English), but information drawn from student questionnaires and focus groups, combined with tutor interviews, highlighted similar perceived benefits across both networks, including greater familiarity with new people and new places, which seemed to help ease anxieties as students prepared for life at university.
By drawing on a wider cross-university questionnaire survey, eight factors which have been shown to be important in creating effective online social networking environments are discussed:
• High tutor membership and participation: a high level of membership and participation optimises the potential effectiveness of the sites.
• Be willing to ‘show your face’: Staff should include a personal photograph and student participants need to be encouraged to do the same.
Experience suggests that momentum begins to develop as more photos are added, even when there is an initial reluctance from some.
• Give a little: Staff should be encouraged to use their personal page to describe themselves and their interests. Experience has shown that stretching this description beyond the professional role is effective.
• Prompt responses: Social networks, as experienced by most students, are dynamic spaces.
• Encouragement and facilitation of discussions: the creative use of questions at the point of registration has been shown to be the most effective catalyst for discussions.
Moreover, tutors need to show a good awareness of the dynamics of the discussions that are unfolding and, in particular, of those students who may appear to be on the periphery.
• Regular refreshing of content: Interest and, therefore, the frequency of visits are maintained if the content of the site is updated regularly.
• Opportunity for programme-specific information/interactions: Student identities seem to form at least at the departmental scale and often at programme level when there is significant differentiation of content and delivery of specific programmes within departments.
• Prompt distribution of invites to all potential participants: The optimal communication strategy is to send invitations to both personal and new university email addresses when these are available.
The findings show some variation in the proportion of students who accepted the invitation to join their departmental site and in the nature of the interactions/activities that developed across them; differences which seem attributable to the extent to which students were already using other social networks to interact with their new peers; the engagement tactics adopted by tutors; and the learning styles of students specialising in subjects from different academic traditions.
However, student and staff perspectives on the utility of the sites were strikingly similar, irrespective of discipline background.
Dominant themes identified by both students and participant tutors include the opportunity to develop friendship networks; the chance to become more familiar with tutors; and the provision of access to key induction/programme-based information.
The well-established literature on the first-year university experience highlights peer friendship and support networks, a sense of belonging, accessibility of tutors and adequacy of information as important factors in supporting a successful transition to higher education.
This study has shown that, done well, university-created pre-induction networks can enhance these dimensions of the student experience.
The authors can also therefore infer that effective pre-induction social networking is likely to have positive consequences for student retention at first year, although the complexity of factors which shape student retention over time makes it very difficult to identify the relative influence of just one intervention like this.
However, during the pre-induction period, for the students who registered, their site will have acted as a key source of information and the main way in which impressions of the university were developed.