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Lynch School of Education

Social Campus: How Social Media is Shaping Life on Campus

Ana Martinez Aleman and Heather Rowan Kenyon
Photo courtesy of BC Office of Marketing and Communications

Dr. Ana Martínez Alemán, associate professor in the Lynch School of Education and co-author of the book 'Online Social Networking on Campus” (2004), and Dr. Heather Rowan-Kenyon, assistant professor in the Lynch School of Education, have spent the past several years researching how mobile and iPad technology affect first-generation college student engagement.

The Lynch School duo, along with their colleague from Harvard, Mandy Savitz-Romer, were recently awarded an Academic Technology Innovation Grant (ATIG) from the Academic Technology Advisory Board (ATAB) for their project, “Promoting first-generation college student success: Using online social networking, digital gaming, and iPad2 technology to enhance academic support and engagement in Options Through Education (OTE) students.”

As a result, they have provided a group of incoming Boston College first-year students in the OTE Transitional Summer Program with iPads for the academic year in order to help them become more engaged in the campus community, both academically and through extra-curricular activities.

Social media plays a huge role on college campuses. How do you think that role is evolving?

HRK: It’s really interesting. Most of today’s college students started using Facebook in high school, some of them even see it as sort of a “high school thing.” We heard from multiple students at one campus where we worked “Well, that was more of a high school thing I don’t use it as much as I did when I was in high school. Now I use Twitter more because it’s cooler, you can follow celebrities…”etc. Whereas other students are saying “I used Facebook in high school that’s what I’m used to and that is what I’m comfortable with. I’m sticking with Facebook.” So it depends on what is “new” and what is “hot” but also who students are connected with--because they are most likely to use the platform that allows them to most easily connect with their friends.

AMA: [Boston College] seems to still be a Facebook campus. And it wouldn’t surprise me if we were to do a big study of thousands of institutions, that we would find that Facebook dominates the residential campuses. And that’s not the case on other types of campuses. While Twitter has a much more transient character to it, the Facebook culture of the residential campus is very much about the residential campus. It still captures that feel, you know?  Especially with student affairs offices and residential groups really feeding into that virtual presence of what we do on campus.

How do you think that colleges and universities can use social media and social networking sites to their advantage?

AMA: There is a lot to be leveraged. We’ve talked a lot about how offices leverage social media. Certainly the first offices that leveraged [social media sites] historically were admissions offices and alumni offices. I remember years ago I got interviewed by the New York Times because they were doing a story on alumni reunions and it was a relatively junior reporter and she said “Why should I bother going to my 5 year reunion when we already all keep up with each other on Facebook?” And that’s the problem that alumni offices are facing. Social media sites are going to replace some things so how are they going to use them? And with admissions it’s the reverse. It’s very fortuitous because it becomes much more of an extension of campus.

HRK: One of the things we found on the first campus that we visited was when we asked students how much they checked emails and they said ‘once a week’ or ‘every few days’ so these emails that the offices were sending out were going unopened whereas when they started using their Facebook page it started showing up on students’ newsfeeds so then they got that information or those reminders about “Oh, yeah we have that program at 1p.m” or “Oh, my housing deposit is due today.” Social media provides a more integrated and a more in-your-face reminder system.

But still, the challenge to get at is the back and forth communication because students are still primarily consuming the information that offices send out rather than building that relationship.

Even though students aren’t necessarily contributing to the conversation, do you think they are still benefiting from the messaging?

AMA: We do know that students appreciate administrator use of Facebook as “the information kiosk.” The real nut to crack though, and we haven’t cracked it, is how to fit the academic piece in there because the academic requires that back and forth relationship. So, how can we get faculty to use Facebook and leverage its many abilities to get into that learning relationship? That’s part of this ATIG grant--to test out these social media in a very narrow academic context and see if it can be leveraged.

Can you talk broadly about some of your findings regarding race and gender within social media sites?

AMA: Well, from our early data, it is clearly true that impression management and presentation of self for women in terms of social media is different. Women are more productive and design-oriented users and much more proficient image producers. Men, on the other hand, tend to me much more functional with their page.

In terms of race, certainly for Latino and African American students, [social media sites] really are places where students are very conscious of how they’re being seen as Latino and African American students. They think about managing their image and are very frontline about race and ethnicity—you don’t see that with white students.

When you combine ethnicity and gender, then [for example] African-American women are hyper-conscious of being African-American women on a predominantly white campus. If you scan their posted images, they are mostly posed, poised, formal types of photos. They convey a real desire to present themselves as not doing anything inappropriate.

What are the next phases of your research?

HRK: Right now we’re working with some mobile [game] application development designed to work specifically with first-generation students on campus to promote sense of belonging and engagement on campus.

AMA: So getting at those engagement and learning objectives is the target. So right now we’re putting out the proposals for the game development, working with undergraduate and graduate research assistants to really carve out what that means, and also working with students and gathering data.