Social Networks, Social Learning

Mom reminded me often during my undergraduate years that they would be some of the best years of my life. "Join student organizations and be sure to study in groups--it's more fun that way," she advised. Mom was right, of course, for my social networks not only made final exam prep more lively and productive, but also shaped my personal and professional interests.

College is about more than becoming knowledgeable specialists in our chosen academic fields; it's also about learning to collaborate, explore, and contribute as members of a community. It's a place where we stumble upon worlds of pursuit previously unknown to us. A place where we meet like-minded students who expand our worldview through engagement both planned and unexpected.

Traditional universities have long supported academic and professional enrichment in social contexts. If you were a member of the marching band, campus newspaper staff, or basketball team, you'll recall the bonds of friendship and common aspirations that motivated you to sharpen your craft and venture into new academic and social territory.

Yet not all students have the opportunity to participate in the traditional form of academic community by means of in-person interactions. Students may go to school online or may go to school at a campus but with an atypical class schedule. For these students, in addition to traditional students who are looking for additional ways to engage, online social networks have arisen to create an alternate meeting ground. An online quad, so to speak. These forums provide students with the opportunity to discuss course work or life events, seek divergent viewpoints and receive support from their peers.

Even with access to the student union and myriad organized activities, students are quickly joining online social networks. Going on sites like Facebook or similar university-provided sites is often a complementary activity to physical interaction, with students talking via chat, messaging, email, phone or in-person. Further, students can work together without being near one another, sharing work, posting questions for classmates in dedicated spaces, and finding others with similar interests or backgrounds. In many ways, the social network can evolve into a collaborative learning platform.

When looking at the numbers it becomes clear that the body of students who are likely to take advantage of online social networks should continue to grow. Over 70% of higher education students today are "non-traditional" learners, many with jobs and family responsibilities that limit their engagement in extracurricular social activities on campus. Online networks provide an alternative meeting ground where students can discuss current events, academic issues or even play games with one another. As we look toward the future, it appears online social networks, in particular those that serve students, will continue to thrive.

As the educational landscape changes, the fundamental human need to connect and broaden one's horizons through relationships remains unchanged. Perhaps the old adage is true: the more things change, the more they stay the same. The purpose of community remains as significant as ever.