Social media use may flag up likely dropouts

Lack of online interaction could signal need for support, research suggests

Do you ever trawl through social media to see what your students are saying about your course? While this can satisfy your curiosity, it could also be an effective way to identify students who are failing to interact with their classmates and are at risk of quitting, researchers have found.

A University of Leicester-led study asked all 257 undergraduate students in its School of Biological Sciences to use the Google+ social network as part of an IT module. They were encouraged to use it to discuss their studies, and undertaking active social networking even contributed to their final mark.

At the end of the term, the students had contributed thousands of posts. Some had happily used the site to share information about their course with their peers, in a similar way to how they might talk to friends on Facebook. Others were much more targeted in their use of online tools - and would log on only to get the information they needed, when they needed it. These two types of internet user are known as “residents” and “visitors”, respectively.

“The students’ networks mostly looked similar, with lots of interactions,” said Alan Cann, co-author of the study and senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences. “But we did find exceptions.”

Some students formed very small networks, he explained, and were not speaking with their peers at all.

“Instead, they were communicating primarily with members of academic staff. We found that many were overseas students whose first language was not English.

“It shows that some students place authority figures in very high regard and are not interested in peer-to-peer conversations or student-directed learning,” he said.

In the end, one of the international students with a very small network dropped out of the course. “I should stress that the majority of our overseas students did interact, and most completed the course,” Dr Cann added. “However, it does show that you can look at social network usage to identify those who might need more support.”

The paper, “Visitors and residents: mapping student attitudes to academic use of social networks”, was co-written with academics from the University of Oxford and The Open University and published in the journal Learning, Media and Technology.

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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