Online Networking: Integrating International Students into First Year University through the Strategic Use of Participatory Media

Online Networking: Integrating International Students into First Year University through the Strategic Use of Participatory Media

Josh McCarthy (University of South Australia , Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2101-5.ch012
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This chapter explores the use of Facebook in helping immerse international students into Australian university culture at a first year level by furthering the development of academic and social relationships between peers. The study was initiated in response to a national survey that found 65% of international students experience periods of loneliness and isolation when studying in Australia; moreover, one of the key triggers for this loneliness is an inability to develop academic relationships with peers, particularly local students, during the early stages of their university careers. 100 first year design students (including 23 international students) took part in the semester-long study, as part of the course “Imaging Our World” at the University of Adelaide. Every two weeks, students were required to submit images to an online gallery in Facebook and to provide critiques on peers’ submissions. The gallery topics were broad in nature, and open to the students’ own interpretations, allowing for a concurrently wide range of images in each. The galleries gave students the opportunity to connect with their peers in a virtual environment, and develop academic relationships freed from the constraints of the classroom and their own inhibitions. Discussions between students often evolved from formal, academic critiques to informal social interactions as embryonic online connections were formed. The study was considered to have been a success, due to Facebook’s engaging and interactive qualities, the students’ existing interest and experience with the software, and their eagerness to connect with their peers.
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For a course to be truly successful, the high quality of the content must be matched by the quality and innovation of its delivery. As a teacher, it is not enough to simply have an excellent understanding of a subject. Instead, a good teacher must also possess an understanding of the student mindset. To create a suitable learning environment it is crucial that a strong rapport is established with students, and their unique approaches to learning are encouraged, not deterred. One learning tool, perhaps under utilised in higher education, yet part of everyday culture within Generation-Y, is the online Social Network Site (SNS). In 2007 a national study was conducted by Sawir, Marginson, Deumert, Nyland, and Ramia (2007), analyzing the university experience of international students. The study highlighted various issues confronting international students studying in Australia, where we educate 9% of the world’s cross-border tertiary students, who provide 15% of the sector’s revenue. Sawir et al. note that international students plunge suddenly upon arrival at their chosen institutions into a challenging new study setting, with up to 65% experiencing ‘relational deficit’ and isolation at a time when in need of greatest support. Their loneliness is often acute, separated as they are from Australian students by language and cultural barriers, and from students sharing a common culture by dint of the fact that so many of them are strangers in a strange land. They no longer belong to the world they left behind, but in first year, do not yet belong to the world they have entered. The immense popularity of Web 2.0 technologies however, offers potential solutions to such learning problems. The virtual environment and accessibility of SNSs, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr, are highly effective for developing ‘preliminary’ relationships between local and international students as they negate key loneliness triggers such as language barriers and social inhibitions. Students are able to communicate at their own pace and consider comments and responses, rather than being ‘put on the spot’ in the physical classroom. This was the context for the development of an assessment task that would both educate and integrate.

Project Objectives

This research has been carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of SNSs as tools for establishing connections, both academic and social, between first year university students, specifically international students. The core objectives for the study were: a) to identify key triggers of loneliness within commencing international students; b) to develop accessible tools and measures to negate such emotions; c) to increase academic interaction between local and international students; d) to increase social interaction between local and international students; and e) increase international students’ participation in academic discussion, be it online or in class.

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