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A female student using a computer.

Educational benefits of social networking sites

From eNews, July 10, 2008

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have discovered the educational benefits of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. The same study found that low-income students are in many ways just as technologically proficient as middle- and upper-income students, going against what results from previous studies have suggested.

The study found that, of the students observed, 94 percent used the Internet, 82 percent go online at home, and 77 percent had a profile on a social networking site. When asked what they learn from using social networking sites, the students listed technology skills as the top lesson, followed by creativity, being open to new or diverse views, and communication skills.

Data were collected over six months from students, ages 16 to 18, in 13 urban high schools in the Midwest. Beyond the surveyed students, a follow-up, randomly selected subset was chosen. Students in this group were asked questions about their Internet activity as they navigated MySpace, an online forum that provides users with e-mail, web communities, and audio and video capabilities.

"What we found was that students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st-century skills we want them to develop to be successful today," says Christine Greenhow, a learning technologies researcher in the University's College of Education and Human Development and principal investigator of the study. "Students are developing a positive attitude towards using technology systems, editing and customizing content, and thinking about online design and layout. They're also sharing creative original work like poetry and film, and practicing safe and responsible use of information and technology. The Web sites offer tremendous educational potential."

The good side of social networking

Watch a video about the study, which includes an interview with the lead researcher Christine Greenhow, or listen to a U of M Moment with her.

Greenhow says that the study's results, while proving that social networking sites offer more than just social fulfillment or potential job contacts, also have implications for educators, who now have a vast opportunity to support what students are learning on the Web sites.

"Now that we know what skills students are learning and what experiences they're being exposed to, we can help foster and extend those skills," says Greenhow. "As educators, we always want to know where our students are coming from and what they're interested in so we can build on that in our teaching. By understanding how students may be positively using these networking technologies in their daily lives and where the as-yet-unrecognized educational opportunities are, we can help make schools even more relevant, connected, and meaningful to kids."

Interestingly, researchers found that very few students in the study were actually aware of the academic and professional networking opportunities that the Web sites provide. Making this opportunity more known to students, Greenhow says, is just one way that educators can work with students and their experiences on social networking sites.

The study goes against previous research from Pew in 2005 that suggests a "digital divide," where low-income students are technologically impoverished. That study found that Internet usage of teenagers from families earning $30,000 or less was 73 percent, which is 21 percentage points below what the latest research shows.

The students participating in the University of Minnesota study were from families whose incomes were at or below the county median income (at or below $25,000) and were taking part in an after-school program, Admission Possible, aimed at improving college access for low-income youth.