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An Investigation of College Students’ Facebook Use in Their Personal Learning Environments

  • Author(s): Wang, Yiran;
  • Advisor(s): Mark, Gloria;
  • et al.

Young people today grow up alongside the rapidly developing information and communication technologies, which have transformed their informational habits and have allowed for a culture of autonomous exploration and learning. Widely adopted by college students, Facebook serves multi-faceted purposes in college life. While some research claims that Facebook is detrimental to learning by distracting students (from formal learning), others see great potential in online social networking platforms to support (informal) learning opportunities. This dissertation responds to these contrasting views on the uses and effects of Facebook, particularly with respect to learning. Learning, here, is conceptualized as learners constructing knowledge using various methods and pathways in a social and cultural context.

This dissertation investigated: 1) when and under what conditions college students actually use Facebook, and how; 2) whether and in what ways college students’ informal learning activities on Facebook are consistent with elements of connected learning—personal interest, peer support, and academic orientation; and 3) how college students perceive the benefits and shortcomings associated with news engagement on Facebook. To answer these questions, I studied in situ Facebook use of undergraduate college students using mixed methods, including automatic logging, experience sampling surveys, diaries, and semi-structured interviews.

Students exhibited two contrasting Facebook use patterns after schoolwork and after leisure activities. Results suggest that a student’s attentional state might carry over from their previous activity into a Facebook use session. Focusing on students’ self-directed learning activities, findings show that connected learning can take place in spaces that are not designed for educational purposes, like Facebook. Specifically, the networking environment provides a foundation to support personal interests, which allow for interest-driven academic activities on Facebook, bridging the formal and informal learning divide. We need to caution, however, that learning can also be hindered by 1) students’ lack of critical information skills, 2) information filtering, personalization, and the overall quality of information on Facebook, and 3) the challenges surrounding self-presentation due to context collapse on Facebook. Considering both the opportunities and pitfalls, I provide directions for students and educators on how to effectively incorporate Facebook into meaningful college learning experience.

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