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PhD Candidate at Griffith University, mummy, wife, teacher, social media enthusiast, avid reader

Monday, 28 July 2014

Using Facebook as a data collection tool

The number one rule of effective pedagogy (in my humble opinion) is learning your students: knowing what they are focused on; what interests them; and how those interests can be linked to curriculum planning.  In 1984, Astin had an idea for gathering information on student focus:

“Perhaps the first task in working with such students is to understand the principal objects on which their energies are focused. It might be helpful, for example, to ask the student to keep a detailed diary, showing the time spent in various activities such as studying, sleeping, socializing, daydreaming, working, and commuting” (pp. 526-527).
Wouldn’t it be great if there was some sort of software program that young people recorded in intimate detail their studying, sleeping, socializing, daydreaming, working, and commuting?
Oh wait…there is! And I used it to understand what school leavers were focused on throughout their first year of university.
The decision to use Facebook as the only means of data gathering was reflexive.
In 2011, I was navigating the trials and tribulations of parenthood for the first time. Life became very complicated. I decided that my PhD needed to fit in with my life, because family comes first. Facebook allowed me to collect data from home at any point I had free from the demands of a newborn.
Secondly, as a PhD student and a fringe dweller to the academic world and without direct access to a class of first year students, gaining face-to-face access to a group of students was problematic. It is important to create a safe space in which to conduct an interview, especially on a voluntary basis outside the classroom structure. First year students are often anxious and overwhelmed at the beginning of their transition to university; therefore, a student volunteering for a research project during the official orientation week activities was highly unlikely. Using Facebook as a means of collecting data circumnavigated this concern because Facebook is comfortable and familiar to the general late-teen.
Thirdly, the principal purpose of Facebook is to record personal activities using the status update function. The status update is like a short, written online diary and is organised on Facebook as part of a personal timeline. Facebook is essentially a public, interactive, and instant personal diary. Using Facebook as a data collection tool gave me access to 31 public-personal diaries.
Fourthly, the decision to use Facebook was grounded in the literature – some people have had a go at it (see for example Selwyn 2009) and others have indicated the value of Facebook to university students (see for example Stephenson-Abetz and Holman 2012 and Gray, Vitak, Easton, and Ellison 2013). There is a large body of research into the social implications of SNSs and the experiences of the university students but none of the above literature considers the student experiences that they describe on Facebook. My research project aimed to fill that gap.
So how did I collect the data?
I began by initiating a networked connection with 17-19 year old first year university students through a Facebook profile created specifically for the study. The participants made available their status updates that related to their time at university, which I archived.
The participants were school leavers who were entering their first year of university in 2011and who have an active Facebook account. The 31 participants all attended one of three multi-campus universities in Southeast Queensland, Australia, and were enrolled in a diversity of courses including education, creative industries, marketing, and engineering. This study initially recruited thirty-one (31) first year students. Twelve of the students were identified as being first year students by using the school identification feature on Facebook. They were also identified as being 17-19 years old from their nominated age on Facebook. The twelve participants were subsequently approached and recruited via Facebook’s Friend request tool –Students were sent a request to add the researcher as a Friend to allow access to their general posts. Eighteen participants were recruited through emails to first year university students via their first year liaison supervisors, or through secondary school alumni contacts. These emails also asked participants to help recruit further participants. 
A Facebook profile named FYHE Profile (the name has been changed to protect the privacy of the participants) was created to be my online presence for the duration of the study. The FYHE Profile enabled recruitment and interaction with the participants through either the status update or the direct messaging tool. These tools allowed for either public (status update) or private (direct messaging) communication. On the profile, informed consent materials were recorded, directing each participant to read the information. Consent was granted when participants agreed to participate by “friending” the FYHE Profile. By agreeing to connect with the FYHE Profile, each participant became part of the researcher’s Facebook network. The profile had a newsfeed that showed the public status updates and other Facebook activities in which the FYHE Profile network was engaged. It was via this newsfeed that I collected status updates.
Status-data was collected through manual data crawling. I was able to collect conversations about university experiences 24 hours, seven days per week. Both status updates and any further commentary the participants made within the status-thread was collected. While, commentary was not collected from the participants’ Facebook network, enough information was extracted to enhance the participants’ meaning. Data collection also only occurred during specific phases during the university year. The times are based on those nominated by the first year student participants in Penn-Edwards’ and Donnison’s (2011) study: in the first weeks of orientation, after the first assignment is returned, end of the first semester and end of the first year.
Facebook status updates provided insight into the informal learning world of the participants in this study who were recording experiences of their first year at university. These experiences included post and ad-hoc descriptions of learning experiences, the exchange of information, moral support, and descriptions of their level of academic engagement.
Facebook as a data collection tool was valuable for conducting a longitudinal study. I was able to keep in touch with the same participants during all four critical times. Only one participant withdrew from the study and that was because she cancelled her Facebook account, not because she was opposed to continuing the study.
The use of Facebook to track the experiences of first year students has great potential for future research, especially for longitudinal studies that follow a large number of students for an entire degree. The use of software, such as Leximancer, is worth investigating as it could handle a much larger amount of data (Penn-Edwards, 2010).
A limitation is in the changeable nature of social media. Facebook is valuable for collecting qualitative data because the networked users must be mutually connected. Mini-blog and video-blog social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube are gaining popularity and also contain descriptions of experiences of first year. These applications, unlike Facebook profiles, are publically available. A mixed methods approach might consider these applications for access to a larger data set; however, the ethics of what it means to collect online publically available experiential data is far from clear (Henderson, Johnson, and Auld, 2013; James, N. & Busher, 2007).
This study referred to in this paper (reference removed for the integrity of the blind review process), has shown the important role SNSs play in the learning experiences of first year university students. By limiting data collection to those status updates only associated with the university experience, it became evident that a type of learning community exists online.
The use of Facebook as a data gathering tool is an emerging field in educational research. To date, the majority of research has been limited to how students use Facebook, its use for social integration, and its relevance in a twenty-first century curriculum. My research indicates that Facebook status data is a worthwhile source of experiential descriptions. Selwyn (2012) suggests that there is a gap in the study of SNSs which do not try to manipulate and control the use of social media in education, but rather uses the medium authentically. This research, as well as that of Selwyn (2009), Baker (2013) and Jenkins et al. (2012), is part of the expansion of this field – a field that is bound to continue expanding over the coming decades.

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