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The Journal of Technology in Student Affairs

Summer 2011 Edition  [home]

Rethinking Facebook: A Tool to Promote Student Engagement

Sarah E. Jenness
Graduate Research Assistant
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Though the nature of technology’s impact on college campuses is widely debated (Bargh & McKenna, 2004; Katz, Rice, & Aspden, 2001; Milliron & Miles, 2000; Treuer & Belote, 1997), the fact that it has dramatically altered student and campus life is undeniable. Since the early decades of the twentieth century, the advent of new communication technologies such as the telephone, radio, and television have necessitated changes in the way student affairs professionals design programming and interact with students (Guidry, 2008). Unlike these earlier forms of technology, however, the wide-spread integration of the Internet happened in just four years (Milliron & Miles, 2000), causing more rapid changes than in the past (Kleinglass, 2005). According to the Student Monitor (as cited in Kleinglass, 2005), full-time undergraduate students in 2004 spent approximately fifteen hours online each week, up 42 percent from reported usage in 2001. A more recent study (Jones, Johnson-Yale, Millermaier, & Perez, 2009) reports that students are devoting increasing amounts of time to online activity; specifically, over half of the students surveyed reported spending 21 hours or more online per week. Jones et al. (2009) also document the increase in use of mobile devices by undergraduates to access the Internet. Certainly, this trend is not stagnant; use of the Internet and related technologies by undergraduates is constantly becoming more deeply integrated with the college experience (Elling & Brown, 2001; Kleinglass, 2005; Kruger, 2009; Malaney, 2004-2005; Treuer & Belote, 1997).

Today’s college students are “plugged in” everywhere – and student affairs practitioners must use this to their advantage if they aim to engage students in the campus culture (Heiberger & Harper, 2008; Shier, 2005). In fact, Elling & Brown (2001) instruct that “connectivity [is the] key word for student affairs in the 21st century,” (p. 82) a notion they suggest is vital to building effective relationships with students. Traditionally aged undergraduates today report high comfort levels with technology (Shier, 2005) and are overall much more technologically savvy than older generations (Milliron & Miles, 2000), due in part to the fact that they began using computers at a very young age (Gemmill & Peterson, 2006; Jones, 2002). As a result, this generation is “the most wired in history” (Juncol & Cole-Avent, 2008, p. 3), expecting those in higher education to be knowledgeable about technological advances and invested in maximizing new technologies to increase efficiency and ensure immediacy of services (Heiberger & Harper, 2008; Juncol & Cole-Avent, 2008; Lowery, 2004; Shier, 2005).

While a host of technologies are available to students, Facebook seems to be among the most popular, reporting over 500 million active users worldwide in 2010 (“Statistics,” 2010). This figure refers to users of all ages, but student participation in the Facebook community has grown exponentially (Cain, 2008; Heiberger & Harper, 2008), resulting in widespread student use. Specifically, Facebook engages an estimated 80 to 90 percent of college students (EDUCAUSE, 2007).

The current version of Facebook allows users to see when friends are online and chat in real time via an instant messaging tool, send email messages, advertise and reply to event invitations, upload and share photos, post and reply to status updates and notes, find friends, “like” particular products and services, and create and join virtual groups. For many students, Facebook is an appealing and easy way to keep in touch with friends from high school, as well as a low-risk way to connect with fellow students who share similar interests (Shier, 2005). Little formal research exists to explain the popularity behind Facebook (Pempek, Yermolayeva, & Calvert, 2009), but the availability of this wide variety of tools and features (EDUCAUSE, 2007), and the ability of users to alter privacy settings and control other aspects of interaction with friends (Heiberger & Harper, 2008), may be some reasons for growing membership of the site.

According to Read (2004), another appealing aspect of Facebook is its potential to foster the creation of smaller, more intimate communities within the larger context of an institution, engendering a greater sense of belonging among students. Feeling a sense of belonging is widely documented (Astin, 1999; Barefoot, 2000; Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, Whitt, & Associates, 2010; Tinto, 2007; Upcraft, Gardner, & Associates, 1989) as an important factor influencing student involvement and student retention. For this reason, and due to evidence suggesting that increasing numbers of undergraduates are spending considerable time using Facebook (Cain, 2008; Pempek et al., 2009), student affairs professionals must seriously consider how Facebook can be used on their campuses to facilitate social connections among students and between students and faculty and staff (Cain, 2008; Heiberger & Harper, 2008; Kolek & Saunders, 2008; Lowery, 2004; Treuer & Belote, 1997). The value in maximizing a resource that students are already tapped in to and excited about cannot be underestimated. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of some of the ways Facebook is already being used in higher education to engage a wide variety of students, and to offer student affairs practitioners additional recommendations for using Facebook to positively impact student learning and development.

Engaging Newly Admitted Students
Some institutions are attempting to involve newly admitted students in campus culture as early as possible (Heiberger & Harper, 2008) – and many institutions have taken advantage of the heightened publicity available through Facebook, as evidenced by the new student orientation initiatives that follow. Though these online initiatives vary depending on the institution, the innumerable group listings and pages returned in Facebook searches (e.g., “new student orientation”) suggest that this early method of contact is becoming more prevalent. Much more research is needed, however, to explain whether and how new students’ participation in Facebook groups impacts their overall transition to college.

Unlike past first-year students who arrived on campus knowing virtually no one, today’s freshmen are connecting with fellow students online through Facebook groups and pages prior to setting foot on campus. The State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase, for example, created a 2010 orientation page through Facebook that provides general information and connects newly admitted students in a common virtual space. In addition to offering details about orientation programming and the university itself, the SUNY Facebook orientation page also offers photos of orientation staff and students, relevant videos, and makes use of the “event” function of Facebook, which allows users to see other students who are attending the same orientation session (SUNY Purchase Orientation, 2010). The “wall” section of this group’s page features an assortment of links to events and useful information from the orientation staff along with questions and comments posted by new students themselves. Many of these wall posts aim to connect with other students attending orientation, while other posts pose general questions about the transition to college.

Another variation of Facebook use to promote orientation events and new student connections is the page managed by the orientation staff at Hofstra. Hofstra’s 2010 new student orientation page includes many of the features already mentioned (general and contact information, photos, videos, events), but this page also includes details about common reading and numerous links to information about events well beyond the orientation (Hofstra New Student Orientation, n.d.). Apart from simply engaging students in the early days of the college experience, this page seems to be a tool for keeping the newly admitted students connected and involved throughout their first year, advertising such events as “stress busters” for finals week at the end of the fall semester, alternative spring break trips, guest speakers on campus, local debates, intramural sports, talent show auditions, and providing links to online campus publications detailing other news and events.

In addition to these kinds of groups, Inigral, Inc. recently launched a “Schools” application on Facebook that is a paid service attempting to connect new students with common social and academic interests through a variety of features (Inigral, Inc., 2010). Essentially, this application creates a private community within Facebook that allows new students at a particular institution to interact with each other and make connections prior to arriving on campus (Ellison, 2010; Inigral, Inc., 2010). Since this aspect of Facebook is still quite new, little information apart from client testimonials is available regarding its impact. Certainly, research will be needed to determine how “Schools” affects students differently, if at all, from the traditional Facebook groups already described.

Not only can Facebook pages connect newly admitted students before they arrive on campus, but they can continue to facilitate engagement with other new students and involvement in campus events long after orientation activities have ended. The potential benefits for students include a greater sense of connection and community (Eberhardt, 2007), factors Schlossberg, Waters, & Goodman (1995) identify as crucial in helping students transition successfully to college.

Engaging Current Students
Once students have negotiated the initial transition to college, social networking sites like Facebook can continue to be useful in connecting students with new opportunities, people, and ideas (Eberhardt, 2007). According to EDUCAUSE (2006), one of the most useful features of Facebook may be the ability to efficiently disseminate information to targeted groups (created based on shared interests or affiliations) through the message feature. In addition to the simple message feature, Facebook also offers a “Facebook Flyers” tool that creates advertisements (for a fee) designed to appeal to specific networks or groups of students based on shared characteristics (EDUCAUSE, 2007). These ads may promote campus job openings, elections, local activities, or other events (EDUCAUSE, 2007).

While Facebook is widely thought of as a venue for engaging students in social activities, research (EDUCAUSE, 2007) suggests that users are connecting over more diverse interests, including those political and professional in nature, among others. A search on Facebook for groups and pages related to a variety of student activities returned overwhelming results; colleges and universities of all types are using Facebook to engage students in events that range from social to civic to academic in nature. Like the pages and groups designed to engage newly admitted students, more research is needed to understand how students use Facebook and the impact of initiatives aimed at engaging current students.

Student Activities & Campus Events
Eberhardt (2007) and Olson & Martin (2010) document the increasing use of Facebook by campus activities staff and those associated with athletic teams and intramural sports clubs to promote attendance and participation at sporting and other events. Scholars (Lowery, 2004; Olson & Martin, 2010) also suggest that effective use of social networking holds great potential for increasing participation in these activities – and contributing to more positive college experiences for students.

Athletics. One example of the use of Facebook to engender support for and participation in college athletics is the Michigan State Spartans page. As a Big Ten School, Michigan State University (MSU) certainly places more emphasis on athletics than many other institutions, however, the features of Facebook the institution uses to involve students and general fans alike could be tailored to meet the needs of any college or university. This page, representing all athletic teams at MSU, has nearly 160,000 followers and provides regular announcements about sporting events, links to news features, photos and video clips from games, trivia, game day updates, fan polls, discussion blogs covering a variety of sports-related topics, and it also includes links to support teams through donations, to buy game tickets, and to purchase team apparel (Michigan State Spartans, n.d.).

While it is unclear how many of the followers are students, alumni/ae, or simply fans, it is clear that the institution has maximized the features of Facebook to appeal to as many different types of followers as possible. One downside to the design of this page, however, is that fans can only see a limited number of other fans; a group page or traditional profile would allow members to see other members and establish connections within the group.

Student clubs & intramural sports. On a much smaller scale than Michigan State, small institutions like Saint Joseph’s College of Maine have a modest but informative intramural sports page, covering all intramural opportunities available, including sign up information, times of events, results of contests, and photos of teams in competition (Saint Joe’s Intramurals, n.d.). Still, other institutions like Mount Holyoke College (MHC) promote engagement with specific teams, clubs, or other organizations through individual Facebook pages or groups. Among these are MHC Glee Club, MHC Center for the Environment, MHC Japan Group, MHC Jewish Student Union, MHC Fencing Team, and MHC V8s (an a cappella group). Each organization’s page differs slightly, but all include linked members, general information about membership, events, and in some cases, relevant videos or photos.

Other entertainment. The University of Minnesota promotes a wide variety of non-athletic events and campus activities using its “Student Unions & Activities” Facebook page (Student Unions & Activities, n.d.). In addition to advertising a link to follow “Student Unions” on Twitter, this page also provides a variety of information regarding event programming such as community events, guest lectures, trivia contests with giveaways, movie screenings, and opportunities to get involved with the Student Union planning board (Student Unions & Activities, n.d.). Like other pages, “Student Unions & Activities” also includes general information, photos and videos from events, and opportunities to respond to event invitations and learn of other event attendees.

Civic & Political Engagement
Though Millennial students are often characterized as politically apathetic and uninterested in community involvement unless course credit is involved, some scholars (DeBard, 2004; Levine, 2008) suggest that this generation of students is more politically and civically engaged than it may initially appear, if we are willing to reconsider what is meant by engagement (Heiberger & Harper, 2008). A review of the way students use Facebook to show their support for particular candidates or platforms, learn about candidates, promote their own campaigns, and attempt to encourage active engagement with both campus and community government suggests that students are indeed more involved that it may seem – and that Facebook holds potential for boosting student participation in civic and political activities (Shier, 2005).

Civic Engagement. A search of Facebook for civic engagement or service-learning pages for colleges and universities returned innumerable results, though many of the pages viewed did not appear quite as robust as those for other student activities. Overall, these pages included basic information, a contact person(s), a listing of past and upcoming events in which students were encouraged to participate, some press and photos related to service, and sometimes discussion posts surveying students for service project ideas. Northwestern University’s civic engagement page offers some more depth to the civic engagement process, promoting lectures, film screenings, and readings that inform students about the larger systemic issues creating a need for service (Northwestern University Center for Civic Engagement, n.d.), but this kind of depth seemed to be an exception.

Many of these pages may be effective at increasing student awareness of particular events, yet they do not seem to maximize the features of the site. For example, these pages could be used as a tool to interact with community partners who would like to solicit short-term volunteers, or who would like to pose ideas for long-term sustainable projects. Facebook could also help to facilitate communication between the institution and service sites via private messages or instant messenger whenever face-to-face communication is not possible. As well, more could be done to provide students with a context for service like Northwestern has done, though it is unclear whether students take advantage of these resources.

Political Engagement. Whether undergraduates are interested in campus issues, local issues beyond campus, or are more focused on national concerns, the number of Facebook pages illustrating student involvement in government suggest that apathy may not be an appropriate descriptor of this generation. Innumerable pages for specific institutions’ Republicans, Democrats, and Green Party members exist, as well as pages for larger regional and national groups such as “Maine College Democrats,” or “College Republicans of America.”

At the college level, student government associations’ Facebook pages may include information about student government officers and contact information, pressing issues, ways to get involved, meeting times, sponsored events, and discussion forums. Georgia Tech’s Student Government Association page, for example, attempts to engage students in conversation about important issues, such as those concerning equality on campus, through the discussion feature of the site, but only two or three students posted responses to each question (Georgia Tech, n.d.). Like this page, other student government pages also include information about political rallies or other similar events, but little can be gleaned from the Facebook forum about how many students actually attended. This unknown link between online behavior and real-world behavior points to an important issue that deserves further investigation: How are students using Facebook to learn about issues that matter to them? Though the presence of these kinds of pages and groups on Facebook are promising, unfortunately, they are no guarantee for student involvement.

Overall Engagement
Interestingly, as an alternative to some of the examples above, other schools like University of Maine Orono (UMO) maintain a general student affairs page, which covers a wide variety of events and services, rather than charging each office with creating and maintaining its own Facebook presence. UMO’s page includes information ranging from events and services related to multicultural and LBGT affairs, Greek life, transfer and commuter services, and counseling services, among others (University of Maine Student Affairs, n.d.).

The benefits of such a model for students include having all campus activities and services information in one place, and learning about a wide variety of events and services that they may not have known to seek out otherwise. On the other side, however, the depth of information featured on this page may not be as great as that featured on groups and pages specific to one service or organization. For student affairs professionals, this collaborative model can streamline efforts spent updating page content and can help raise practitioners’ awareness of events and services outside their own divisions. The challenge of using this model for student affairs, however, is that it requires continued collaboration among departments which may not always be feasible or well-supported.

Academic Engagement
Though Facebook is a social networking medium, research studies (Caruso & Salaway, 2008; Ellison, 2010; Selwyn, 2009) suggest that large numbers of students are using the site to communicate about academic coursework and goals. In a study done by Ellison et al. (as cited in Ellison, 2010), undergraduates reported using Facebook to coordinate face-to-face study group meetings, to manage group projects, and to seek help from classmates to aid their understanding of specific concepts or assignments (Selwyn, 2009). In fact, some participants in Ellison’s study suggested that undergraduates would benefit from the availability of more academically-oriented tools on Facebook. Using Facebook as a means for helping support academic goals or supplement classroom time may not be readily accepted, but evidence (Ellison, 2010; Fontana, 2008-2009; Pempek et al., 2009) suggests that it can be an invaluable tool.

A tool for academic support. Ellison (2010) and Fontana (2010) suggest that students’ level of comfort and familiarity with Facebook is one reason it holds such great potential as an academic support tool. Unlike other online tools such as Blackboard, Facebook appeals widely to students, and is a website they are already using – and visiting quite frequently (Fontana, 2010). Facebook also allows students to learn more about their classmates through their profiles, and possibly make connections with other students, something that other online academic tools do not offer (Ellison, 2010). Other research (Selwyn, 2009) suggests that groups could be created to connect students in particular course sections outside of the classroom for extra support from each other and the instructor. By helping students in a course connect on Facebook, faculty can broaden students’ resources for academic assistance, and improve students’ chances of feeling more comfortable at the institution as well. Some scholars (Eberhardt, 2007; Gemmill & Peterson, 2006) propose that increased levels of comfort and well-developed support systems may help reduce anxiety and facilitate better academic performance.

Another way colleges are using Facebook to support students academically is in the advising process. At Holyoke Community College (HCC), the First-Year Student Success program surveys students about preferred methods of contact for the advising process; this year, many students chose Facebook as the best way to communicate (M. Snizek, personal communication, October 18, 2010). This initiative is still in its early stages, but program coordinators noted the flurry of communication with advisors through messages and wall posts on Facebook early in the semester (M. Snizek, personal communication, October 18, 2010).

In addition to connecting with advisors and building relationships among classmates to support academic goals, Facebook can also be used to assist students academically through the creation of student support services pages. Disabilities services, tutoring services, or general student support services offices can use Facebook as a way to promote their services and help make students aware of the supports available to them. Being able to connect with support personnel online – or with other struggling students – may make seeking in-person assistance less intimidating (Eberhardt, 2007).

A tool to engage students beyond the classroom. Apart from using Facebook as a tool to provide students with academic support when they need it, some faculty have incorporated Facebook directly into course requirements. Fontana (2010) originally created a Facebook page for one of his art courses in 2008 in an effort to make students more aware of art events on campus and to provide links to art suppliers on the Web. As the semester progressed, students in the class also contributed to the page, using it as a forum for promoting events, posting links, and sharing relevant photos (Fontana, 2010). This development led to the creation of one page in 2010 (called “Fontana’s Class”) that united all of his art students across courses and required them to post photos of their own in-progress artwork as well as comment on that of others; surprisingly, students began interacting with others in different art courses, even engaging each other in discussion of their artwork when it was not required (Fontana, 2010).

Fontana (2008-2009) does note, however, that this process posed challenges at times. In particular, he reported that student commentary was often lacking in substance when not required as part of a student’s course grade. Such challenges will certainly persist as other faculty attempt to incorporate Facebook or other similar tools, though research (Yan, 2008) suggests that this kind of online collaboration beyond the classroom can create an environment that motivates and empowers both students and faculty.

Engaging Alumni/ae
Finally, use of Facebook can move beyond engaging newly admitted and current students to keeping alumni/ae connected to the institution, to each other, and to current students. In particular, alumni may be valuable resources for current students to learn more about specific career fields or job or internship opportunities (EDUCAUSE, 2007; Pempek et al., 2009). Career services offices would be wise to work closely with alumni relations to maximize such connections, which could be useful in identifying speakers or panelists for career services events. Likewise, companies employing alumni/ae could benefit from such a relationship through free promotion of particular job opportunities.

A common space for alums to connect with each other may also be valuable for networking, reconnecting (EDUCAUSE, 2007), or sharing ideas or resources with colleagues in similar fields (Elling & Brown, 2001). Not only will this common virtual space facilitate relationships among classmates, but it is another vehicle for keeping students connected to the university, which may make them more inclined to be involved in campus activities and to donate to campus causes. Vanderbilt’s Alumni Association Facebook page, for example, includes listings of alumni-sponsored or alumni-relevant events such as reunion, holiday gatherings, and lectures given by alumi/ae. The page also features links to current events at the University, photos and updates from alums, and other opportunities to connect with former Vanderbilt students and to get involved with University events (Vanderbilt Alumni, n.d.).

Challenges and Questions
Alongside the many potential benefits of using Facebook as a tool to engage students, there are, of course, many questions about whether and how Facebook actually promotes engagement and supports student learning (Eberhardt, 2007). Educators and student affairs practitioners have expressed a variety of concerns about the use of Facebook, which center around students’ success and well-being as it relates to time spent online, privacy, and online behavior.

Excessive Time Spent Online
Can students be “addicted” to Facebook? If so, what does this behavior look like, and what can be done about it? (Anderson, 2001; EDUCAUSE, 2006; Heiberger & Harper, 2008). Gemmill & Peterson (2006) suggest that the degree to which technology distracts college students is significant and needs to be further investigated by student affairs practitioners to learn how such an obsession impacts students’ offline interactions and other aspects of their lives (Heiberger & Harper, 2008). Scholars suggest that those working in student affairs will need to encourage students to find a balance between being on- and off-line (Gemmill & Peterson, 2006); to explicitly promote face-to-face interaction through maintaining of physical campus gathering spaces and modeling of this offline interaction (Elling & Brown, 2001); and to provide training to student leaders to help recognize patterns of excessive use (Eberhardt, 2007).

Another concern about excessive time spent online is that students participating in online communities are doing so in isolation (Elling & Brown, 2001). Despite research studies (e.g., Kraut et al., 1998) warning that extensive time online may lead to social isolation and loneliness for users, more recent investigations (e.g., Anderson & Rainie, 2010) suggest that these virtual spaces facilitate connections among users by removing potential barriers. With regard to undergraduates specifically, Heiberger & Harper (2008) report that students who spend more time on social networking sites seem to be more frequently engaged in real-world campus and community organizations. Additionally, in the same study these scholars suggest that students who cultivate relationships online also report more positive feelings about their social life and feel a deeper connection to their respective institutions.

Student Privacy
Because younger students, especially, are less attuned to privacy concerns (Caruso & Salaway, 2008), many faculty and staff worry that students will share information that may be too personal, too specific, or even incriminating – and they stress the importance of educating students about responsible participation in online communities (Cain, 2008; Eberhardt, 2007; Heiberger & Harper, 2008; Kolek & Saunders, 2008). One specific facet of this concern is the need to make known the very public nature of sites like Facebook, which may feel quite private to many users (Cain, 2008). Unintended audiences of Facebook content that students are not likely to consider also should be part of the discussion about the public nature of Facebook (Kolek & Saunders, 2008).

Monitoring Online Behavior
Another question surrounding the promotion of Facebook use is whether administrators should monitor Facebook activity to ensure student safety. If so, how can they effectively address online etiquette and establish enforceable guidelines to govern student behavior in this virtual realm (Cain, 2008; Kleinglass, 2005)? And, how might these efforts conflict with rights to free speech and privacy (Cain, 2008)? Eberhardt (2007) suggests that clear rules for online behavior will need to be established and communicated explicitly to students.

Other Concerns
With the prevalence of newly admitted students using Facebook, concerns are also surfacing that online scrutiny of assigned roommates has led to an unprecedented number of requests to change roommates before students ever meet in person (Eberhardt, 2007; Farrell, 2006). Apart from being an administrative nightmare, certainly this kind of hasty judgment can lead to missed opportunities to connect with others, or opportunities to negotiate challenging relationships, all of which can be important parts of development (Eberhardt, 2007). Finally, what does all of this mean for those students who do not have a Facebook account, or regular, convenient access to the Internet? (Bargh & McKenna, 2004).

Certainly, Facebook holds great potential for engaging many types of students in a variety of different ways, but many questions will need to be answered, and more innovations attempted, to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of Facebook use in higher education to encourage student engagement. Interestingly, students reported using Facebook regardless of how busy they were on a given day (Pempek et al., 2009), which suggests that it has become an enduring fixture in the higher education landscape. This means that faculty and staff, and particularly those in student affairs, will need to learn how to harness the potential of Facebook to help cultivate community among students (Heiberger & Harper, 2008; Shier, 2005).

In addition, faculty and staff will need to take steps to better understand students’ interactions with Facebook, as well as recognize when its use may be prohibitive to academic and social success (Anderson, 2001; Kruger, 2005). Beyond simply observing students’ use of Facebook, staff and faculty will need to be active users of Facebook and similar technologies and engage students via these tools in order to understand students’ expectations and to design programming that meets their needs (Kleinglass, 2005). It will also be essential to include students in discussions about how to use technology most effectively and in evaluation of technology’s current uses on campuses (Juncol & Cole-Avent, 2008). Lastly, those involved with implementing Facebook initiatives for student engagement will need to share their experiences with colleagues (Kleinglass, 2005) through formal and informal conversations and published research in order to clarify the extent of Facebook’s impact on student engagement and success.


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