When does a student become a friend? This question has long occupied academics but a study suggests that growing numbers of them are answering it at the click of a button.
A survey of 308 academics who use Facebook found that more than half, 54.4 per cent, counted current and former students among their “friends” on the site.
Most had accepted friend requests made by students but nearly a quarter of the academics (about 23 per cent) had sent the friend request themselves.
The study, carried out in universities across the US, found widespread variation in the amount of personal information that academics chose to share with students on the social network.
Of the respondents who said that they did interact on Facebook with students, 24.2 per cent said that they shared very little information, limited to a personal photo and information about their university post.
A further 46.6 per cent shared family photos and information such as their favourite films or books; while 28.4 per cent disclosed information extending as far as relationship status, religious preference and political views.
Asked how often they directly engaged with students on Facebook, however, 64.2 per cent of the group said that they did so only rarely. Another 28.3 per cent communicated with students on the site several times a month, and just 7.5 per cent did so several times a week or daily.
Researchers Susan Sarapin, assistant professor of journalism and communication at Alabama’s Troy University, and Pamela Morris, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, found that respondents who interacted on Facebook more frequently felt that using the site would make them appear more professional to their students.
The prospect of appearing more credible, approachable and gaining a feeling of mutual connectedness also encouraged interaction, the pair write in a forthcoming edition of The Internet and Higher Education.
Dr Sarapin said that a stronger relationship between academics and students could improve learners’ performance but could also benefit the lecturer personally.
“If an instructor could do something to make the students’ perceptions of him or her improve or to make himself or herself more likeable and popular, then that could bleed over into a student’s impression of the instructor’s teaching,” she said.
But Dr Sarapin said that the results also suggested that many academics regarded engagement with students on Facebook to be “risky”, with the potential to cross the lines of propriety or professionalism. Academics should “never lose sight of the fact” that they are the teacher and the person they are communicating with is the student, she added.