Social networking sites, faculty, and Micronesian student opinion

As a member of a technical team from 1996 to 2000 one of my tasks was to explore new technologies and to assist the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in adopting those technologies. When I first connected to the Internet in 1996 a colleague said to me, "There is nothing useful on the Internet, it is an academic waste of time. Gopher has everything you need."

Gopher was pre-Internet system based out of the University of Minnesota that provided on line access via menu commands to academic resources across the nation. Indeed, in 1996 there was nothing of significant academic value on the Internet, Gopher was still the place to be. Nowadays few remember Gopher or its search engines Archie and Veronica. New technology in education is like that, rejected at first as a complete waste of time and then embraced, typically by a new generation of instructors who grew up with the new technology.

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.
[Using Social Networking Sites as Student Engagement Tools]

In an informal convenience sample survey of 57 students in a statistics course at the College of Micronesia-FSM national site, 42 students (74%) responded "yes" to the question "Do you want faculty to use social networking sites?" Nine of the 57 (16%) responded "no" and the remaining six left the question blank.

Given the concern over the potential for a "creepy treehouse," the survey also sought to explore whether students were comfortable with having faculty active in social networking sites. Discussions with a non-randomly selected focus group prior to the survey indicated that "creepy" was not a well understood word in the ESL environment of the college. The focus group suggested using the word "weird." Thirty-four of 57 students (60%) responded "no" to the question "Does having faculty on social networking site seem weird?" Sixteen
(28%) responded "yes" and seven left the question blank.

While discussion currently centers on whether faculty should use social networking sites such as FaceBook, my own intuition is that time will render this question irrelevant. In the late 1980s I used an email precursor called Free Educational Mail or FrEdmail for short. At that time only a few early adopter educators were using FrEdmail and many of my colleagues felt the project was of limited educational value and use. Today no academic argues that email is irrelevant to academia and student-faculty interaction.

Today's students are tomorrow's faculty. With an estimated 83% of our students using social networking sites, there will be a day when 83% of the faculty are socially networked. The question will not be whether a faculty member should exist in "social networking" space but rather how to behave ethically in this brave new world.

Speaking to a student using Bebo I noted that she enjoyed a freedom on Bebo that will be unique to her generation. I was thinking of the articles that refer to social networking sites as student spaces. I realize that this is a transitory phase, a produce of the newness of the technology. The student asked why her freedom on Bebo was unique to her generation.

I explained, "One day you may be a parent. Your children are likely to use Bebo, or MySpace. You will be able to interact with, watch, and monitor your children. Now you are free, your parents are not on Bebo. Your children will have you looking over their on line shoulder."

"But my mother uses Bebo," responded the student.

Recovering from my surprise I asked, "Can't she read everything you are writing? Or do you 'block' her?"

"No, I do not block her," responded the student. I thought for a moment, searching for the correct terminology in what for me is a new world.

"Did you, have you 'friended' her?" I say with some uncertainty.

The student laughed, "No, of course not!" Ah, so children will not block their parents, but they might not "friend" them either. The "rules" are already being sorted out by thousands of such interactions on social networking sites by students, faculty, parents, and children. Social networking and other Internet spawn are already having an impact on both academia and the academics who inhabit the hallways and classrooms. Academic conferences now includes sessions on the utility and benefits of using social networking sites.

Education rarely meets a technology that it does not co-opt. Eventually the social networking fad will become part of the social fabric of campuses. Social networks will be a part of the future university and college experience. And, to my own surprise, our students at the college want to be able to interact with faculty in a world in which they spend so much of their time. This is the place, judging by the amount of time and energy spent by our students in these cyberworlds, students feel comfortable. That said, our students remain a little nervous about faculty members joining them on line with eight students responding yes to both of the two questions asked on the survey. Yes, they want faculty on line in social networking space and for eight, yes, that will that will seem weird. For thirty-two other students (56%), however, they want faculty on line and that will not seem weird.

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