Crossing the Boundary: Exploring the Educational Potential of Social Networking Sites

  1. 1. Anouk Lang

    Queen Mary University of London

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

To date, the scholarship on social networking
sites (SNSs) such as Facebook and MySpace has
focused largely on areas other than pedagogy,
with Boyd and Ellison (2007) observing
that so far, most SNS research has centred
on “impression management and friendship
performance, networks and network structure,
online/offline connections, and privacy issues”.
Some work has been done on the effect of
instructor presence on Facebook (Hewitt and
Forte, 2006; Mazer et al., 2007; Szwelnik,
2008), the creation of MySpace pages in terms
of the acquisition of new forms of digital literacy
(Perkel, 2008), and some of the difficulties
and benefits of SNSs for university students
(Thelwall, 2008). Aside from this, however,
there is little scholarship on the educational
uses and potential of SNSs at university level.
As Szwelnik (2008) comments, ‘Facebook has
attracted a lot of attention from media and
business but not yet a lot of attention from
educational researchers’.
It is perhaps not surprising that it is the
social aspects of these sites that have attracted
the most critical attention, given that their
central purpose is understood to be the
management and navigation of (often pre-
existing) relationships, rather than a means
by which to share interests, complete tasks,
or simply communicate with others (Boyd
and Ellison, 2007; OFCOM, 2008). However,
given that the social dimension of education
is a fundamental to learning, it is worth
exploring how SNSs may be used to pedagogical
advantage. This is particularly the case given
the large proportion of university students that
access the sites: Ellison et al. (2007) found
that 94% of the undergraduate population at
Michigan State University were members, while
a 2007 Ipsos Mori poll found that 95% of British
undergraduates are regular users (Shepherd,
2008). SNSs, it would seem, are a resource
not yet being used to their full potential for
university teaching.
This paper reports on the findings of a
research project designed to address the under-
utilisation of SNSs at university level and the
corresponding gap in the literature. Undertaken
with students in the School of Languages,
Linguistics and Film at Queen Mary, University
of London, it investigates the educational
potential of Facebook for facilitating informal
learning with students on their year abroad,
particularly in the domain of intercultural
awareness and communication. Events held in
previous years demonstrated the usefulness of
bringing language students together in face-
to-face contexts to reflect on their own and
others’ diverse experiences of the year abroad.
This project set up an online space on an
SNS to facilitate this kind of learning through
a peer mentoring framework, and to allow
discussions of this sort to occur regularly during
the students’ time abroad, rather than after it
was over.
Undergraduate students in their second and
final year of a language course were surveyed
about their attitude towards the year abroad,
their use of technology and SNSs, and, following
Ellison et al. (2007), their affective investment
in SNSs. Two different populations were
surveyed: second year students organising their
year abroad for the following year, and final
year students who had returned from their year
abroad. The results were used to develop focus
group protocols to gauge students’ receptivity
to the idea of using Facebook to carry out
course-related discussions, to judge the extent to
which Facebook was a hospitable environment
for peer mentoring to occur, and to determine
which Facebook applications would best assist
with educational objectives. Students were also
asked about which aspects of the year abroad
they were already using Facebook to engage
with, and which elements of their time away
could be ameliorated through provision of a
virtual meeting place for discussion. Several
peer mentors were then chosen from the cohort
who had already completed a year abroad,
and these students were trained in online
moderating and mentoring. A Facebook group
was set up for the student mentors to use, and

this was observed over a period of three months.
Following this, four methods of evaluation
were used to measure the effectiveness of the
Facebook group: a) an online survey for third-
year students currently on their year abroad;
b) informal discussions with academic staff
in modern languages; c) interviews with the
peer mentors held at a computer; and d) close
analysis and corpus analysis of the text of the
online discussions.
Paul and Brier (2001) and Cummings et
al. (2006) have explored how students of
university age use Facebook and other internet
technologies to alleviate the “friendsickness”
brought about by moving away from one’s
friends. This project aimed to capitalise on
the powerful ability of SNSs to address this
relational need by drawing students into
online conversations and collaborations that
not only helped them to sustain relationships
but also to use those relationships to learn
from one another. However, existing research
points to a strong resistance from university
students to academics occupying “their” space
on an SNS, something Szwelnik terms “crossing
the boundary” (2008). Hewitt and Forte
(2003) observe that identity management is
a significant concern for SNS users when
the roles they occupy cross perceived social
boundaries and bring organizational power
relationships into visibility, citing one student’s
fears that Facebook could “unfairly skew
a professor's perception of a student in a
student environment”. Given that both social
boundaries and uneven power relationships
both come into play in the context of teacher-
led discussions around course-related material,
the project sought to find a way to build a
learning community without infringing on a
space perceived not to belong to academic
staff, and to shift the discursive content from
social to educational without forcing students
to “cross the boundary”. In working with
peer mentors, the project aimed not only to
avoid these boundary-crossing problems but
also to work intentionality into the fabric of
the Facebook group. As Woods and Ebersole
(2003) observe, transforming textual exchanges
into a learning community with a positive
social dynamic requires intentional decisions
in the realm of both verbal and nonverbal
communication, so student mentors needed to
be made acquainted with the learning objectives
for the educational context, and carefully trained
in techniques of e-moderation to overcome
the challenges a mediated environment can
pose to productive discussions. This approach
also had the advantage of being, to an extent,
futureproofed: students were more likely than
academic staff to know which technologies are
most popular with their peers, and once a
framework for online mentoring is established,
this could be moved in future years to different
sites or applications as students’ usage patterns
change. A further advantage of this model is that
it equips the student mentors with the digital
literacy and communication skills to operate
in the kinds of virtual environments that, as
knowledge workers, they are likely to inhabit in
their careers.
In summarising the results of this study, this
paper will report on the benefits of using an
SNS to support informal learning in the context
of students on a year abroad, and set out
approaches that universities can take to promote
learning more generally through the use of
SNSs. It uses tools from the Internet Community
Text Analyzer (
) to
visualise the networks that developed between
students on the site, and to identify productive
models of SNS-mediated student mentoring
Boyd, D. M., Ellison, N. B.
(2007). 'Social Network Sites: Definition,
History, and Scholarship'.
Journal of
Computer-Mediated Communication.
(accessed 19 September
Cummings, J., Lee, J., Kraut, R.
'Communication Technology and Friendship
During the Transition from High School to
Computers, Phones, and the Internet:
Domesticating Information Technology.
R. E., Brynin, M., Kiesler, S. (eds.). New York:
Oxford University Press, pp. pp. 265-278.
Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C.,
Lampe, C.
(2007). 'The Benefits of
Facebook "Friends:" Social Capital and
College Students' Use of Online Social

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None