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A social network for success

From posting a photo on Instagram to a status update on twitter, online social networking is the newest way to share ideas and thoughts with colleagues, friends, and family. But beyond posting detailed accounts of your most recent meal (sometimes in 140 characters or less), what value does social media have for educational institutions and their students, particularly those less affluent?

Associate Professor of Education Cecilia Rios-Aguilar uses social network analysis—the study of relationship patterns within a social structure—to determine just this. Her research focuses on underrepresented and underprivileged students in community college settings, and how being a part of an online social network affects their educational success.

Past studies suggest that the more connected a student is—both academically and socially—the more successful they tend to be. Most students at community colleges have fewer opportunities to connect with their peers than at traditional four-year institutions. That is why Rios-Aguilar is looking at those in the two-year college setting.

“Can we help build community, a virtual community, so that the students feel engaged and connected to their college?” Rios-Aguilar queried. “Maybe the virtual environment can help us fulfill those social and academic needs so that it creates a certain type of community that can improve their outcomes.”

She teamed up with a former colleague Regina Deil-Amen, associate professor at the University of Arizona; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the League for Innovation in the Community College; and Inigral, Inc., for a three-year exploratory study that examines if and how social media affects community college students’ persistence and success.

Inigral developed the Schools App, an application that can be monitored remotely to collect data and provide a community college focused social media platform for students to engage in. With metrics from this platform, Rios-Aguilar hopes to study the relationship between students’ social networks and the persistence and success of the students. The project also examines the content and meaning of the online interactions of students with peers, faculty, and staff. 

Through a selection process, the team identified nine community colleges representing a wide range of demographics and regional areas, including the Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATTC), where almost 93 percent of students live on or below the poverty line. In spring 2012, they visited each campus and interviewed over 500 students about the role of social media in their community college life.  

“Now we have qualitative data about what social media is for them, what they use it for, what impact it has on their college experience, if at all. We will eventually be able to answer questions like, ‘Do the students that spend more time on social media do better or worse academically?’ That’s ultimately what we want to understand,” Rios-Aguilar said.

One challenge is identifying what constitutes better or worse for community-college students. Traditional measures of success, such as credits attempted and credits earned, grade-point averages, and transferring to a four-year institution, are not always the most accurate. For some students, success often means just showing up for class, completing a certificate, or finishing their homework, according to Rios-Aguilar.

But if social media has the potential to encourage students to meet these measures of success in their professional and academic lives, it has to have value and purpose.

 “If there’s not value in using the tool, it’s just like checking one more account,” she said. “Students are already inundated with e-mails. If you don’t show purpose and value, it’s just another e-mail account. That’s when the technology cannot work. So we’re trying to find ways we can make it purposeful and relevant.”

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