Washington, May 13 : Facebook and MySpace might have become the hottest communities in existence, but now an initiative is being made to find out if such online networking sites can become a way of helping new students to settle into their university's social and academic life, as well as minimise the chance of them withdrawing from their courses.
A team of researchers at the University of Leicester are looking for first-year students who use Facebook to help their pioneering research into this issue.
The use of online networking site Facebook by students is running at a phenomenal level, with almost 10,000 present and past students and staff participating.
Presently, 95 per cent of 16-18 year olds intending to go to university are using social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.
"Yet we know little about how this phenomenon impacts on the student experience and, in particular, if and how it helps them integrate into university life," said Jane Wellens, Education Developer in the University of Leicester's Staff Development Centre.
"The expectations and online experience of the latest and next generations of students requires universities to think carefully about how, and whether, to use these new technologies and meeting spaces to enhance the social aspects of student integration into university life," she added.
Academic and social integration into university life are key factors influencing individual students' experiences and the likelihood of their withdrawing from their student courses.
Until now, most research in the field has focused on academic support rather than integration into the wider social world of the university.
One aspect of the research is to explore whether there are differences in the longevity and nature of university friendships that students establish face-to-face as compared to those they make online through social networking sites.
The research builds on internationally acclaimed work the University of Leicester has already started on teaching and learning online.
"We recently used Facebook as a means of encouraging students on an online module to get to know one another. This raised many issues such as where the boundary between public and private space is, and how comfortable students (and staff) of different ages feel regarding the use of such technology," Jane Wellens said.
The Leicester project also draws on internationally recognised expertise by this specific team of researchers in online research methodologies.
Clare Madge of the Department of Geography at the University of Leicester stated: "This project will be using both an online questionnaire and virtual interviews, and will innovate in the use of Facebook itself as a site to conduct virtual interviews".
From the new research, Wellens and her colleagues hope to establish how Leicester students are using Facebook as part of their social and learning experience and whether joining the University's Facebook network before they come to Leicester helps students to settle down more easily to university life.
As part of the project, researchers will also be looking to see if there is any way that university support services and academic departments can use the online social networking sites to help students integrate into university life, and how the sites might be re-shaping everyday lives in terms of the importance of place-based versus virtual networking.
The results of the research are expected to influence university policies at Leicester and beyond.
"It may affect the way the University uses its Facebook network. One outcome might be that the University would use these sites to bring new students together before their arrival, or to bring together current and new students to provide peer support. It will also ascertain students' views about the ways in which the University and its staff should, or shouldn't, use Facebook for academic purposes," Dr Wellens said.