A few weeks ago Josie Ahlquist wrote a great post on developing campus community through social media. Before you read this, go read that post (it is good). She used published research (thank you!) to make a great argument that the strategic implementation of social networking sites (SNS’s) can indeed lead to a greater sense of community amongst students on campus. For me, though, her post (and the research she references in the post) points to an even bigger idea: That social media is THE key to the successful implementation of student services for online learners.
Let’s start with facts. Technology has permeated nearly every aspect of modern life. Presently, the landscape of higher education may be among those realms changing most rapidly. Increasing financial pressures, easily accessible new forums for content delivery, and more robust infrastructures have all contributed to the ongoing evolution of this environment. The most notable change, perhaps, is the enormous migration to online education that has taken place over the past decade. According to recent research, an all-time high of 32% of all college students were enrolled in at least one online class in 2012, a proportion that has more than tripled over the past ten years (Allen & Seamen, 2013).
So what’s the problem?
Even if you subscribe to the notion that online content delivery provides a low-cost, accessible, and effective way of providing education, the looming issues with persistence and retention have still not subsided. A great deal of literature exists with regards to the challenges of persistence and retention in online education (Ariwa, 2002; Dirkx, & Jha, 1994; Levy, 2007; Parker, 1999; Parker, 2003; Rovai, 2002; Xenos, 2004; and Xenos, Pierrakeas, & Pintelas, 2002). Specifically, student retention is significantly lower for online students than their bricks and mortar counterparts (Parker, 1999). In fact, dropout rates in online environments have been found to be between 25%–40%. When compared to on-campus rates of 10%–20% (Carter, 1996; Parker, 1999; Parker 2003; and Xenos, 2004), a call to action becomes abundantly clear.
So what does this have to do with student affairs?
Everything. It is no surprise to student affairs professionals that social engagement is a key component to student success and specifically persistence (Astin, 1984; Mallette & Cabrera, 1991; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1980; Terenzini & Pascarella, 1977; Tinto, 1997). These types of interactions help students to feel connected to their institution and, in turn, increase the likelihood of their persistence to graduation (Rendon, 1994). Tinto (1997) suggested that this correlation is so important to student success that it should guide the overall organization of the university infrastructure. It would follow that community connection is an important component for online student success as well.
With that premise in mind, and knowing that online education will continue to grow, it is incumbent upon us to seek out and implement new ways to enrich the student experience for online learners; and I believe that social media is the channel to provide that support.
Why Social Media?
In her post Josie cited some great examples of how SNS’s support community building for on-campus students. But wait…there’s even more.
Evidence from some studies suggest that when used in specific ways, SNS’s don’t just support community building, but accomplish several other outcomes that align incredibly well with our work and values in student affairs. These outcomes included higher self-esteem (Ellison, Steinfeld, & Lampe, 2007), higher social capital and lower levels of loneliness (Burke, Marlow, & Lento, 2010), higher engagement (Junco, 2012), and higher engagement in offline activities (Heiberger & Harper, 2008).
Not convinced yet? What if I told you that we could have some positive impacts on the diversity of student communities? While research is scarce, there is also some indication that social media could be a key to bridging racial diversity gaps. Wimmer and Lewis (2010) found evidence that students’ social media networks were significantly more diverse than their offline networks. Although these results are in conflict with findings in other studies suggesting that the social networks of college-aged students broadly overlap with their offline networks (Subrahmanyam, Reich, Waechter, & Espinoza, 2008), there is still hope that using these platforms for online education may serve to create more diverse communities than what might exist when students are left to their own devices in offline environments.
Along with the potential for positive effects on diversity, there is also evidence that social media can help students in overall acclimation to college life. Popular research (DeAndrea, Ellison, LaRose, Steinfeld, & Fiore, 2012; Gray, Vitak, Easton, & Ellison, 2013; Haythornthwaite & Kazmer, 2002; Pittman & Richmond, 2008; Selwyn, 2007; ) supports the idea that these unique sites are ideally suited to assisting students in adjusting socially to the college experience, something that many students struggle with. DeAndrea et al. (2012) found that students’ self-efficacy beliefs improved significantly simply by having access to peers in social media environments.
So let’s revisit the facts. Online education is continuing to grow and students are continuing to struggle. As student affairs practitioners, who are in the business of student success, we have the responsibility of finding ways to support the experience of our online learners too. With community building at the core of our mission, I believe that social media may be the key. What do you think?
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