Social Networking: Distraction or Motivator?

| February 22, 2011

I have always thought of social networking sites as threats to academic performance, so this recent NPR story caught my eye: Can Social Networking Keep Students in School?

The Gates Foundation is investing in a company called Inigral in order for them to further explore and evaluate social networking options with the goal of increasing college’s graduation rates. The hypothesis is that many students drop out of college because they lack the social ties that could support them through challenging academic and personal experiences. Current social networking options allow for some school affiliation (e.g., Facebook pages), but they do not actively encourage school-based networking.

Although this idea is intriguing, I have some reservations. First of all, there are some privacy issues – even as social networking grows in popularity and acceptability, many individuals don’t like to share much personal information online, for whatever reason. Maybe this problem could be solved by making the networks strictly opt-in. However, then they might end up just catering to the same people who are into social networking already. Colleges will have to strike a balance between student privacy and making their social networking sites very inclusive.

Second, social networking takes time, and can be somewhat addictive. I don’t even want to think about how many hours I’ve spent on Facebook since joining in the fall of 2004 – probably could have written my dissertation a few times over in that amount of time! Do students really need another demand on their waking hours, even a potentially valuable one? Sometimes the tradeoff between another 30 minutes of studying and 30 minutes of social networking will not be worth it. But students may be made to feel as if this school-based social networking is particularly valuable, and that could help them to rationalize their excessive usage of it.

Finally, even if this is a great idea, is it really a priority? Colleges are under enough financial pressures these days; do they really need to be expending any resources in order to encourage students to do something that they already do voluntarily?

Would you use a school-based social networking site?