Communication between Higher Education and Social Networking Sites

Communication between Higher Education and Social Networking Sites

Jodi Whitehurst (University of Arkansas – Little Rock, USA) and Jim Vander Putten (University of Arkansas – Little Rock, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5178-4.ch001
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This phenomenological study explores the rhetorical roles employed by participants on Facebook and connected findings to research concerning communication and collaboration in higher education. Six interviews were conducted involving one male and one female in the 18-24 age range, 25-35 age range, and 36 and older age range. Data indicates that messages on Facebook were used for cooperation and coordination but not necessarily collaboration. It also indicates that while participants were audience-minded, they were not necessarily audience aware, and many participants used audience shaping as a coping mechanism. Finally, composers’ inclinations to exercise authority over their personal, representational space (Facebook wall) leads the researchers to conclude that use of Facebook in higher education may best be achieved by creating a Facebook page or group for specific communicative purposes.
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Institutions in higher education have grown into complex networks of administrators, faculty members, support staff, and students. This growing complexity has complicated interactions between the multiple stakeholders (Sexton & Bollinger, 2002). Professionals in higher education have expressed the need for greater collaboration between institutions (Sexton & Bollinger, 2002); between disciplines (Airey, 2011); between institutions of higher education and industry (Masie, 2012); and between students, faculty, administrators, and lawmakers (Richardson, 1999).

In the last decade, professionals have studied social networking sites as possible platforms for collaboration and instruction. However, these studies have often been narrow in scope, typically focusing on a certain course discipline, such as Cain and Policastri’s (2011) study of Facebook use in a pharmacy management, leadership, and business course; LaRue’s (2011) study using Facebook as course management software in a nursing informatics course; and Estus’ (2010) study utilizing Facebook in a geriatrics pharmacotherapy class.

Each of these studies is useful for understanding social networking site use within respective disciplines. However, they do not indicate how communication takes place on social networking sites or how these sites might be used on a broader scale to improve communication and collaboration across units of higher education. To understand how communication may be enhanced, it is useful to study the rhetorical situation used in communicating on social networking sites and how they change the nature of communication and collaboration (Olson, 2001).

To illustrate the differences in the rhetorical situation while using a social networking site platform, first consider communication and collaboration as it occurs in a face-to-face setting. Typically, the number of participants is limited to a physical space—in a room and in a geographic region. They are limited by time since collaboration must take place synchronously. They are limited by the visual tools available (i.e. pictures, videos, and links). In face-to-face situations, the audience members often listen passively until their turn to speak. In contrast, collaboration via a social networking site imposes no restrictions through physical space, time, or time zones since collaboration can take place asynchronously. Also, numerous tools are available for illustration and reference for all collaborators. The audience is rarely passively reading; they are responding in multiple rhetorical forms.

This illustration demonstrates some of the ways in which roles of composers and audience members in collaboration naturally change in a social networking platform, like Facebook. The roles re-shape the context of the communication act (Olson, 2001). Gaining a better understanding of rhetorical roles of communicators and collaborators on social networking sites could offer insights into how these digital platforms might be used effectively across units of higher education.

It is clear that colleges and universities are already utilizing social media. For example, Barnes and Lescault’s (2012) edition of their annual national study of college and university social media adoption included interviews with 456 institutional representatives at an array of different institutional types. Data analyses indicated that 100% of colleges and universities surveyed used some form of social media in 2010-2011, and this increased from 61% in 2007-2008. Findings from longitudinal data analyses suggested that institutional usage continues to rise for the most popular tools, but adoption of others has leveled off or fallen. One notable finding for this topic is that Facebook usage continued to rise over time, and it was the most common form of social networking being used. In addition, 98% of colleges and universities reported having a Facebook page in 2010-2011. This is more than a 10% increase from the previous year, and it is more than a 60% increase since 2008-2009. While digital platforms like Facebook are being utilized in higher education, they are typically only used to recruit and research prospective students (Barnes & Lescault, 2012).

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