Mount Royal researchers spent months examining Facebook comments, reactions and posts. This wasn’t their chosen method of procrastination, it was the subject of their recently published paper that challenges post-secondary institutions to understand the popular online platforms where undergraduate students engage with teaching and learning topics.
A Facebook page that solicits anonymous submissions about all things related to Mount Royal University was the subject of a full year investigation into the information behaviour of undergraduate students in need of academic help. Richard Hayman is an Associate Professor and Librarian at MRU Library, and Erika E. Smith is an Assistant Professor and Faculty Development Consultant with the Academic Development Centre. Both work under the same roof on campus, with each of their departments being in the Riddell Library and Learning Centre, and are co-authors on the publication Information behaviour of undergraduate students using Facebook Confessions for educational purposes along with recently graduated Psychology (Honours) alumna Hannah Storrs.
The trio used a mixed-method content analysis approach to track posts on MRU Confessions—a public Facebook page, geared toward students, that accepts anonymous posts through an online form before published by the page administrator. Using specialized mixed methods software to work with a large social media dataset, they analyzed over 2,700 confessions posted during the 2016/17 academic year and found that a notable portion of the posts, just over 26 per cent, were directly related to student’s learning experiences. The data revealed that students were venting about day-to-day issues related to their university student lives while also turning to each other to find and learn about specific on-campus resources.
“I think the most impactful confessions were the ones where the need for help was tangible,” explains Hayman who refers to a specific post where a first-year student confesses that they are overwhelmed and asks for advice on where to go for help.
“While our university offers many support services, the fact that students can’t easily find them means that we need to do better. We can make these services more accessible, and do more to identify and connect students in need so that they don’t have to turn to places like Facebook Confessions to get help,” adds Hayman.
Smith, whose research background includes digital literacies and social media, says there’s lots of research demonstrating how social media is used in formal learning, but considerably less research on social media as an informal learning environment.
“Our findings demonstrate that students actually do use these informal social media spaces to support their learning in meaningful ways, interacting to meet their own needs, or to assist others outside of their formal classes,” says Smith.
The authors emphasize that the takeaway from the study isn’t that post-secondary administrators should try to interact with students on these unaffiliated forums. Instead, they can be a way for colleges and universities to better understand the needs of their students.
“Students will always want their own spaces to interact outside of the formal learning environment. Our research provides administrators, librarians, educators, and staff with key insights into not only the types of help and information that students seek, but also when these common areas of need arise,” says Smith.
Storrs reviewed the Facebook posts as a co-author of the study while she was navigating post-secondary life and a member of the MRU Confessions page. As she reflects on the experience, Storrs recalls that many of the questions asked in confessions were ones that she also didn’t know the answers to.
Storrs graduated from MRU with a Bachelor of Arts degree this past year and entered this project with an impressive work history as a research assistant on several other projects. The alumna, who plans to apply to graduate school, says she recalls immediately knowing that this research would be of great interest to her when she went into the interview for the research assistant position with Smith.
“I found it fascinating and felt I would be able to learn a lot from this opportunity while also being able to bring my voice and experience to the table,” explains Storrs. “My previous research experience was really quantitative focused but this project allowed me to learn and develop my skills with qualitative analysis and mixed methods research.”
Hayman, Smith, and Storrs presented this scholarship at national and international conferences this past year, including the Canadian Association for Information Science (CAIS) where their research was awarded Best Practitioner Paper. The team plans to expand their data and weave in new observations, including the changing nature of social media that has led to a drop in activity on Facebook Confessions but has channeled similar activity to other forums like Instagram and Reddit.