Professors present Facebook research findings

BY THOMAS CHAN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 15, 2008

A pair of University researchers discussed ethical dilemmas for professors interested in joining the social networking site Facebook.com yesterday afternoon in the Michigan League.

Malinda Matney, a senior research associate in the Division of Student Affairs, and E.J. Westlake, a professor in the School of Music, Theater and Dance, presented the results of their studies about Facebook and how it factors in to campus life.

The presentation was a part of the Provost’s Seminar on Teaching, a series of talks and panels on the “millennial” generation — people born after 1979.

Matney surveyed about 2,400 University students over the past two years, asking them whether or not they had a Facebook profile and how they used it in their everyday lives. Westlake’s research was a theoretical interpretation of her own experience joining Facebook. After the presentations, they moderated a discussion about the ways that educators could use Facebook the benefit of their students.

Regardless of the possibility for using Facebook to help University educators do their jobs, Westland and Matney both addressed the ethical dilemmas that using Facebook could pose for them.

Faculty and staff can get into a variety of relationships with students, like mentorships, friendships and professional relationships, Matney said.

“For faculty and staff, we have a special responsibility to not confuse the relationships,” Matney said. “It’s easier to do that face-to-face than it is across Facebook.”

Westlake acknowledged the need for boundaries, but said she could use Facebook to be forward with her political views so they are transparent in classroom discussions.

In her research, Westlake said some faculty thought they should avoid joining offensive Facebook groups.

“Being an out lesbian in my class, for instance, is already offensive to some people, so if I join a group that’s for gay rights or something like that, that could be construed as offensive when students already know who I am and what my positions are,” she said.

Education Professor Catherine Reischl said she uses Facebook to help her alumni and students network.

“They go through this long list of people who are on our Facebook page and they’ve made connections with each other,” she said. “‘Oh this person’s teaching in North Carolina,’ or New York City or whatever, and they will just Facebook that person.”

Matney said hearing anecdotes about people losing jobs because racy pictures posted on their profiles inspired her research.

“Rather than work with anecdotes, we wanted to work with actual information and talk to students, survey students, get a sense of what they were doing,” Matney said.

According to Matney’s surveys, 99.5 percent of University students – or all but 12 of her 2,400 respondents – have a Facebook account.

“By and large, college students now don’t know what college life is without Facebook,” she said.

Westlake said her findings challenged many stereotypes of using online media. One such perception was the idea that the millennial generation was socially isolated because of its frequent media usage.

“There’s this continual feedback loop between what’s actually happening in real life and what happening in the world of Facebook,” Westlake said.