Social networks’ pernicious influence

Lecturers urged to consider impact of informal support groups for courses. Chris Parr reports

September 25, 2014

The creation of unofficial Facebook support groups for undergraduate courses, and which type of students will choose to set up and operate them, can have a huge impact on student performance.

This is according to Justin Steele-Davies, special projects manager at the University of Southampton’s Institute for Learning Innovation and Development, who told Times Higher Education that academics need to be aware of the types of support groups for their courses that will be appearing on social networking sites over the coming weeks.

According to separate research, 97 per cent of UK students now have some form of academic-related activity on their Facebook profiles.

At the start of term there is “a big rush” to create the most popular Facebook site for each course, Dr Steele-Davies said, pointing out it is likely that a number of students will attempt to set up a Facebook group designed to act as the online hub for students on a particular degree.

“You may not be aware, but this can actually have a massive effect on the performance of the [student] cohort,” he said. “If the wrong students set up [the most popular] group, and that’s the one everyone goes on, the amount of control they have…is massive.”

He continued: “If the group is set up by students so that only they can post and nobody else, they can censor discussions.

“The social ‘it crowd’ can then end up running the group, and it can extend to cyberbullying [of other students].”

Acknowledging and considering so-called third space learning (learning that takes place outside the normal working environment) was now an important aspect of lecturers’ work, Dr Steele-Davies said.

“If academics are not having this conversation you can end up with massive variations in cohort performance purely because of what is going on in that space,” he added.

Dr Steele-Davies was speaking to THE after the Association for Learning Technology Conference at the University of Warwick earlier this month. At the event, Rebecca Vivian, research associate in the department of computer science, presented the findings of a paper she co-authored that explores the increasing role of social networking sites in students’ academic lives.

According to “The academic journey of university students on Facebook: an analysis of informal academic-related activity over a semester”, published earlier this year in the Research in Learning Technology journal, more than 97 per cent of students have some type of public academic-related activity on their Facebook profiles.

However, the paper advises caution to academics who might look to exert greater control over Facebook activity relating to their course.

“While it may be possible for lecturers to find ways to include social networking sites [in their course]… such as by creating Facebook ‘groups’ or encouraging students to create their own groups, is it the role of universities to initiate informal student spaces or should students be left to initiate their own learning in social spaces, if they require it?,” it asks.


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