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MSU professors study different uses of social networking sites

December 9, 2009

Signing into Facebook during class normally is looked down upon by MSU faculty, but some MSU professors are taking a different approach through research on social networking sites.

Nicole Ellison, an assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media is part of a team using about $500,000 from a National Science Foundation grant to study how people use social networking sites such as Facebook.

“The story of students using Facebook in class and not paying attention … (is) one small part of it,” Ellison said. “(We’re) trying to think about the way in which using new tools to connect with peers is an important part of student social and academic experience.”

Researchers are examining how people gather information and collaborate with each other, said Cliff Lampe, an assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media and one of the researchers.

“Another aspect of this (is) how students use this in the classroom as alternatives to other official tools … for classroom organizing,” Lampe said. “A lot of students are communicating with each other through Facebook.”

Pre-law senior Matthew Lunn said he uses and likes Facebook. Although Facebook could be used for communicating with peers, he worries it could be ineffective. However, he sees some benefits to communicating with others in class on sites such as Facebook.

“It would be a great tool if you added your professor,” he said. “You could use it to network with everyone in the class … so you could talk to people in the class.”

Although some students might not put Facebook to good use, it can be beneficial to student learning, Lampe said.

“We’re not saying that Facebook can never be used for cheating,” he said. “Also, it’s used to help people get together.”

Ellison and Lampe also will study information gathering through social networking sites.

“The way in which individuals can post a query in their status update … (and) get information from a very wide range of people,” she said. “These sites kind of facilitate … seeking (and) sharing information with others.”

Ellison said the research also will focus on how people use sites for social support.

“You find out you have an illness or you just got fired from your job. … People will use the site to receive sympathy (and) social support from their peers,” she said.

Researchers will work on the study for three years and Ellison said she hopes to have a better understanding of how social networking tools are being used by the end of the study.

“Part of the questions that (are) motivating us is, ‘What are some of the positive outcomes and some of the ways we can use these tools … to share information in effortless ways,’” she said.

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