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  • 1. Running head: Social Media Use in Higher Education                                                           1    Social Media Use in Higher Education Michael Wilder University Of Nevada, Las Vegas Michael Wilder UNLV EPY 718 Summer 2010
  • 2. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                           2  Introduction Working on campus, I often witness students engaged in a variety of online social media activities. I see students texting on cell phones in the student union, chatting in class on their laptops and checking their Facebook pages in the library. My curiosity leads me to wonder how many students at any given moment are engaged in such traditional educational activities as reading articles, searching library archives, and writing scholarly papers, while simultaneously sharing cognitive attention and concentration with recreational use of Facebook wall posts, online chat, and multimedia sharing. In the past, for example, a casual walkthrough of the Lied Library computer lab has revealed numerous computer monitors with Facebook or MySpace pages visible onscreen. Is this a coincidence or a typical behavior? Ultimately, what is it about social media that is so attractive to students and could the motivational drive of social media for connectivity be used for positive educational purposes? Purpose As a microcosm of higher education student life in general, the primary purpose of this study is to explore why students in university library computer labs spend time engaged in online social activities while also working on other educational tasks. Contemporary social media technologies like Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace afford students the opportunity to remain connected with peers, family and acquaintances while continuing to task switch with more serious class-related
  • 3. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                           3  work. This study seeks to explore the social media phenomena within an educational setting. Methods The intersection of online social media and higher education is relatively new to the world of academic research. In order to witness previously unobserved cultural behaviors through open-minded exploration, this study lent itself to qualititative research methods. Rather than conduct surveys or questionnaires focused on only one aspect or another, a qualitative series of observations, interviews and data analysis provided an opportunity to identify new generalizable concepts (Glesne, 1992). As a result, this study began with three half-hour observations on Wednesday, June 9, 2010, from 6:00 p.m. until 6:30 p.m., on Friday, June 11, 2010, from 3:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and again on Thursday, June 17, 2010, from 12:30 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. In terms of the university instructional calendar, these three days occurred during second session summer school in the second and third weeks (out of four). While the library and computer labs were not quite as at maximum capacity, there were still at least 60 participants on any day. Although I only observed during half-hour increments, there seemed to be a steady flow of students both arriving and departing the computer areas. Field notes were handwritten during observations. Interviews were recorded to a handheld digital audio recorder and transcribed. Permission to record was obtained prior to all interviews.
  • 4. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                           4  Setting Observations were conducted in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Lied Library computer areas. Per Spradley (1980), my initial observation was a grand tour. Not only did I explore and note the setting most intently on this visit, I also traveled non-computer areas of the library in order to find specific places that would yield the most amount of relevant data. Later visits could be considered mini tours (Spradley, 1980) since I focused my attentions only on previously identified high-data-yielding computer areas. As opposed to typical university computer labs enclosed in separated rooms, the Lied Library main computer areas are open and integrated with study areas and library holdings. The library itself is five stories high and constructed atrium style with a central area open to all five floors. The ground floor contains the main computer area with twelve tables each equipped with eight computer workstations (Figure 1). Figure 1. Main floor seating - overhead To the north of the main ground floor is a second computer area with eleven tables also equipped with eight computer workstations each (Figure 2). Being out
  • 5. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                           5  of the atrium space, this upper computer area has lower ceilings and open tables for study groups.   Figure 2. Upper level seating – overhead Computer tables in both areas are constructed of a solid dark wood and arranged so that students sit four to a side. Each individual computer area is enclosed with low divider walls for privacy. All workstations have the Windows Vista operating system installed, and all students must log in with authorized accounts in order to use these computers. Although there is a potential for a maximum capacity of 184 computers, at least fifteen of these workstations were either not functional/out of order or occupied by printers, scanners or other peripherals. The open layout and large computer monitors of these computer areas allowed quiet, non-participative observations. With a notebook, pen and textbooks, I could easily walk up and down the aisles, blend in with other students, and discreetly record onscreen behavior. Participants Participants were undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There were an equal amount of female and male participants, and there were a mixed variety of African American, Asian,
  • 6. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                           6  Hispanic, and Pacific Islander ethnicities represented by the participants. While there were one or two older students (between forty to sixty years old), almost all of the participants were undergraduates between the ages of eighteen to twenty- three (as indicated by appearance and dress). Most were dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts, and many young males wore baseball hats. While the majority of students worked individually at their workstations, groups of two or three students often sat together either to socialize or to study online material. Access As a preliminary step toward gaining access, I approached library "gatekeepers" (Glesne, 1992) in the form of reference librarians. I spoke with two reference librarians (each on duty during different observation times) and explained the nature of my study. They found my research question interesting and provided me with valuable information and insight (as explained in the interview section below). As long as I wasn't bothersome or intrusive into student work, they gave me approval to continue my study. Focus My initial focus as a researcher was to identify whether my casual assessment of social media use in the library was correct. As a result of three observations, I determined that many students (approximately one student in ten) were engaged in some form of online social media activity while also performing traditional educational tasks. Once my suspicions were confirmed, however, the focus of my study changed. The percentage of students using social media become less important than why students felt compelled to engage in using
  • 7. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                           7  social media while studying or working. The answer to why students checked Facebook or Twitter while in the library could not be identified through casual observation. Direct face-to-face interviews needed to be conducted. Role of the Researcher Initially, I believed myself to be a non-participant in this study. While it is true that I never spend time working in the university library computer lab (since I have my own computer and network connection at both work and home), I am a student that engages in social media activities while performing educational tasks. During the process of interviewing other students, I found myself relating to behaviors and motives they shared. While every effort has been made to keep this study fair and balanced, it would be deceptive not to disclose my personal background, interests and perspectives in regard to the topic. For the last two years I’ve not only studied the use of social media in education, I’ve also trained dozens of university faculty to incorporate Web 2.0 technologies into classroom practices. I personally believe that online education in particular can leave students feeling isolated and not part of a “community of learning.” My suspicion is that students are already engaged in online social activities while performing coursework, and if harnessed properly for education, social media can be a powerful motivator. I think that the affordances of social media, if incorporated into distance education effectively, can reintroduce a sense of togetherness and collaboration often found in face-to- face classroom experiences.
  • 8. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                           8  I’m also currently beginning research toward my dissertation on the use of social media in education, and I am beginning to encounter a theoretical framework based on the connectivism theory of learning. The connectivist theory of learning posits that “knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks” (Downes, 2007). Connectivism brings together basic elements of constructivism, humanism and social learning theory, and provides a contemporary Web 2.0 perspective to education. Techniques On Wednesday, June 9, 2010, at 6:00 p.m. I began my observation of the UNLV Lied Library from the entrance of the main computer area. From my perspective, I could see straight down two rows of computer tables and partly down two more. I took note of the overall participant physical characteristics (such as age, gender, ethnicity), and the immediate environment. From where I sat, I could see several computer screens and proceeded to make some initial activity categories (such as YouTube, word processing, e-mail, etc.). Once my preliminary observations were complete, I walked up and down the aisles of the computer lab. I tried to observe non-intrusively and nonchalantly. Almost immediately I realized that holding a tablet of paper and pen and scribbling frantically while looking at someone's computer screen would draw attention. As a result, I kept my arms to my sides and walked purposely, as if on the way to an open seat. I would keep mental note of what activities participants
  • 9. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                           9  were engaged in until I reached the end of an aisle. At that point I would find a comfortable location and note my observations. I continued this process until I had observed all computer stations in the main floor computer area. I repeated my observations again in the upper areas of the library using the same techniques. I tried to keep on the go as much as possible, stopping occasionally to make notes and make myself unobtrusive. Data Analysis Taxonomy Initially, my intent was to classify observation of computer-based behavior into two categories: educational activities and recreational activities. Almost immediately it became clear that these initial categories would be inadequate. A casual glance at what was on a computer monitor was not enough to determine whether an activity fit into one or the other category. For example, I witnessed one student watching a recent Laker game sports video. My immediate reaction was to categorize this activity as recreational. How could I know, however, that watching a basketball game wasn't part of an authorized curricular activity? In what category would I place e-mail? E-mail is an activity that can be educational, recreational or both. Furthermore, I found several cases of students engaged in multitasking/rapid task switching activities with multiple windows open, some of which were educational and some or which were recreational. As a result, I rejected these simplistic categories.
  • 10. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            10  Instead, these activities were classified into five main categories based upon taxonomic analysis: information finding, information processing, artifact creation, interaction, and knowledge assessment (Figure 3). During the course of conducting observations, it became clear that some students were engaged in multiple activities at the same time. A student might have a browser window open to a class Web site for textual instructions while typing up a research paper at the same time, for example. Another student might have a browser window open to Facebook chat while reading an online article. The intersection of any two or more activity types identified above represents student multitasking or rapid task switching. Information  Finding  Knowledge  Information  Assessment  Processing  Artifact  Interaction  Creation  Figure 3. Five main activity classifications
  • 11. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            11  Information finding is any activity that involves searching for knowledge (Figure 4). Examples of activities in this category include searching local library holdings, Google, Bing, online maps, Wikipedia, or university related registration information. Information Finding Search  Library  Engines  Holdings  University  Maps  Info  Google  Bing  Wikipedia  Google  Google  Earth  Maps  Figure 4. Information finding category
  • 12. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            12  Information processing is any activity that involves reading text, viewing videos, or listening to audio--such as reading printed books, Web sites, or watching YouTube videos (Figure 5). Information Processing Videos  Text  Audio  Non‐ Educational  Recreational  YouTube  iTunes  Youtube  Reading  Reading  Comic  Wikipedia  PowerPoint  WebCT  Books  Figure 5. Information processing category
  • 13. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            13  Artifact creation is any activity that involves the development of a new product such as word processing, spreadsheet or presentation document authoring, or making architectural diagrams (see Figure 6). Artifact Creation Word  Spreadsheet  Presentation  Page Layout  Processing  MS Word  Excel  PowerPoint  InDesign  Figure 6. Artifact creation category
  • 14. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            14  Interaction is any activity that involves the communication or collaboration of multiple minds such as sending e-mail, chatting, or viewing Twitter posts or Facebook wall posts (Figure 7). Interaction Social  Talking/ Online  File  E‐mail  Chat  Discussion  Media  Socializing  Dating  Transfer  Facebook  Figure 7. Interaction category
  • 15. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            15  Knowledge assessment involves any activity that involves testing mastery of concepts, such as online testing (Figure 8). Knowledge Assessment Online  Testing  Kaplan  WebCT  Figure 8. Knowledge assessment category The current model of education includes a process involving multiple steps including researching, processing of information, proving mastery through artifact creation, and assessment. Computer activities in the library mirror this process. As is the case with many educational environments, often this process also involves communication and collaboration among students. Domain Analysis In terms of a domain analysis, the focus of this study is upon the observed computer-based activities of students in a university library. It seems logical, therefore, to analyze the observational data from that perspective. For this reason, I chose the strict inclusion semantic relationship taking the form of "X is a kind of Y" (Spradley, 1980).
  • 16. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            16  Table 1 Domain Analysis Included terms Semantic relationship Cover Term Checking social media Is a kind of social interaction Chatting Reading or sending e-mail Talking Searching Google, Wikipedia, Is a kind of educational activity or Bing Writing papers Reading online curriculum Taking tests Reading online comic books Is a kind of entertainment Shopping online Watching non-educational sports videos Playing computer games In addition to the categories identified in the taxonomical analysis above, behaviors observed during this study could also be broken down into three main types of activities. These activities are social interactions, educational activities, and entertainment. Interviews Several questions arose from the initial observations that required face-to- face interviews. On each of the three observations, in comparison to traditional educational activities (such as researching, typing papers, or reading articles) I found that a number of students were also engaged in social media activities. How often does an average social media-using student check a social media
  • 17. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            17  Web site? How often do these students keep social media Web sites active while simultaneously working on educational tasks? Do students that use social media perceive any negative effects on their educational performance? Ultimately, what is it about social media--and Facebook in particular--that make it attractive enough to warrant repetitive viewing? In order to obtain initial answers to these questions, I selected five individuals in the Lied Library computer areas to interview. Four of these individuals were students that I observed viewing their Facebook or Twitter accounts while in the library. For a different perspective, I also interviewed a reference librarian regarding her perceptions of social media use in the library. In order to obtain informed consent (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992), I explained that their participation was completely voluntary and that they could stop at any time, I explained the nature of my study, and I assured them that their remarks would be confidential and anonymous. Every one of the students that I spoke with stated that they check their Facebook or Twitter accounts frequently while studying. Often these students have automatic alerts set up to notify them via cell phone whenever new information is posted (such as new comments, new photos or new friendship requests). "I check my Facebook every thirty minutes," participant one said. "It depends on if I get a notification on my phone…then I'll go check." Another student, participant two, stated that she checks her Facebook page at least five times in a sitting.
  • 18. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            18  Several students commented that they kept social media Web site windows active while simultaneously engaging in traditional educational activities, especially while writing papers. "Facebook is usually on the entire time I'm writing a paper," explained participant three. "I use it as a kind of break in between paragraphs…a little escape from the homework." The notion that using social media as a form of mental escape came up repeatedly during my interviews. "Facebook for me is a way out of school," revealed participant four. "It's an escape. You can forget about school work for a moment, focus on something else, because it feels like that all I do." Although most students felt that social media was a distraction, few perceived any negative effects on their own educational performance. Participant three's comment is representative of most that I interviewed: "I started getting into Facebook last year, and I'm pretty much getting straight A's, so I haven't seen any adverse effects to my studying since I've used it." Participant one, however, recognized the distracting effect that checking social media sites can have on nearby peers in a face-to-face class: "There's a girl who sits in front of me right now. She's always on her Facebook, updating and chatting with people. It's not only distracting for the student, but for people around that see what that person's doing." Students identified a variety of reasons why social media was attractive. Participant one appreciated learning inside information about celebrity lifestyles and activities. He appreciated seeing the human side of entertainment celebrities. By far, however, the majority of Facebook users enjoyed the
  • 19. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            19  connectivity they felt with friends. "My friends are readily available," participant three said. "I can interact with them right on the spot instead of having to call them or having to meet up with them." "I feel connected," said participant two, "even though I'm stuck in the library, not having a life." Social media applications are great communication tools, observed the reference librarian on duty: "They're very youth oriented in many ways. You can put your own page up and invite all your friends to join." Cross Case Analysis There are a number of similar studies that shed light upon this research. Selwyn (2009), for example, conducted an in-depth qualitative analysis of Facebook wall activity of 909 undergraduate students in a UK university. His data analysis showed that students' education-related use of Facebook could be categorized into four main group: • the post-hoc critiquing of learning experiences and events, • the exchange of logistical or factual information about teaching and assessment requirements, • instances of supplication and moral support with regards to assessment or learning, • the promotion of oneself as academically incompetent and/or disengaged (Selwyn, 2009). Selwyn's research concludes that rather than necessarily enhancing or eroding students' engagement with formal studies, Facebook appears to provide a secure space where relationships with university work, teaching staff, academic
  • 20. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            20  conventions and expectations "can be worked through in a relatively closed 'backstage' area" (Selwyn, 2009). A dissertation on the uses and gratifications of Facebook (Foregger, 2008) sought to understand the appeal of interactive media. The study found nine factors of Facebook use: • Passing time, • Connection, • Sexual attraction, • Utilities and upkeep, • Establishing and maintaining old ties, • Accumulation, • Social comparison, • Channel use, • Networking (Foregger, 2008). Based on the responses from participants in this study, students seem to see Facebook as a communication tool, an information provider, and entertainment source. Findings Patterns emerge from the taxonomic and domain analyses, interviews, and cross case analysis. From the observations, student online activity in the library can be broken down into five main taxonomic categories: information finding, information processing, artifact creation, knowledge assessment, and interaction. While these activities are often accomplished one after the other, sometimes they
  • 21. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            21  are accomplished simultaneously. At least four observed students, for example, were engaged in rapid task switching--conducting one activity while another was visible onscreen, ready to switch. Ten percent of students observed during this study were engaged in social media activities at any given time. A domain analysis identified three main types of activities: social interactions, educational activities, and entertainment. Face-to-face interviews yielded valuable information regarding why students use social media in education settings. For the most part, students are engaged in traditional education activities. Students work hard, however, and often that work is isolating. As a result, students seek out ways to make a connection with family and friends to overcome this sense of isolation. In some cases, talking or texting on cell phones, sending e-mail, or talking in face-to-face study groups satisfies the human need to interact and feel a part of a community. In other cases, checking and posting on social media Web sites fills that need. Students also feel that social media provides them with a momentary mental "escape" from the stresses of extended educational concentration. Taking a temporary social break from writing a paper or reading articles provides an opportunity to refresh their creative energies while reconnecting with peers. Social media also provides access to inside information that cannot be found elsewhere, such as insight into expert (or celebrity) lifestyles and resources.
  • 22. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            22  Cross case analysis provided additional perspectives regarding the specific use of Facebook and how students perceive Facebook as a communication tool, information provider, and entertainment source. Discussion As a preliminary experience, this study provided valuable insight into the activities of higher education students in university library computer labs. While the half-hour observations were much too short to provide any detailed data, important questions were raised and specific patterns were recognized. As a short slice of reality, this information provided representative taxonomic categories and behavioral themes. Interviews with students provided useful reasons why students engage in social media and perhaps whether social media has any negative effects on student academic performance. Limitations There were several limitations to my technique of observation. In four cases, an onscreen Web site would be completely unknown to me (and thereby unclassifiable). In three cases, the site being viewed by the student was in a foreign language. Each student was observed over a very short period of time (in most cases under a minute). I suspect I could have returned ten minutes later and witnessed entirely different activities. Three half-hour observations definitely did not yield enough information for any serious study. Such a short period of time could only provide a thin slice of reality, and this study acknowledges that. Furthermore, many of these activities represent a variety of behavioral processes that cannot be observed in a
  • 23. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            23  moment. Nevertheless, this experience can be useful as a pilot study to get a quick glimpse into the use of social media on campus and identify some basic patterns. Future Directions Instead of trying to gather data on the activities of hundreds of students at any given moment, a future study could perhaps observe five or ten students for longer periods of time to determine how many online activities students engage in and what kind of activities are they. Additionally, it would be interesting to see how many students are actually engaged in rapid task switching as opposed to serial task engagement. Additional research should be conducted into how social media could be effectively incorporated into educational content. It would be interesting to know whether students would accept or reject interactions with fellow students and teaching staff in social media environments. Conclusion The need to interact and feel connected is a primary characteristic of our society. As educators, we can capitalize upon this drive for connectivity by building opportunities for communication and collaboration in our online curriculum. Too often education is isolating. If we can incorporate social media techniques in our online courses, perhaps we can engage students in a networked community of learning. Otherwise, our students will feel the need to be connected elsewhere.
  • 24. SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN HIGHER EDUCATION                                                                            24  References Downes, S. (2007). What Connectivism Is. Connectivism Conference forum. Retrieved June 13, 2010, from connectivism-is.html Foregger, S. (2008). Uses and Gratifications of (Doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University, 2008). Glesne, C. & Peshkin, A. (1992). Becoming Qualitative Researchers: An Introduction. New York: Holt, Longman. Selwyn, N. (2009). Faceworking: exploring students' education-related use of Facebook. Learning, Media and Technology, 34(2), 157 - 174. Spradley, J.P. (1980). Participant Observation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.