A diminutive amount of research can be found about how or why doctoral students use social media to enhance their Personal Learning Network (PLN) and learning environmental designs. The purpose of this qualitative research study was to explore through content analysis both the views and experiences of a group of doctoral students using Facebook. Leaders will gain useful information and insight into the impact of social media on teaching, research, culture, and learning environmental designs.
Graduate students, especially in the United States, are reaching out through social media to enhance their Personal Learning Networks (PLN) (Bennett & Folley, 2014); however, very little is known about the how or why doctoral students are using social media. Several research studies have suggested that online doctoral program developers may need to analyze why some students are not completing their dissertation and end up All But Dissertation (ABD). Despite having access to multiple resources and access to other students and instructors through conventional and online methods (Hilscher, 2013), many students are not completing their degree programs. For example, several blogs (Adler, n.d), Facebook pages, Twitter pages, and websites, such as those of graduate student associations, show doctoral students posting about their experiences and sharing advice. The need for answers to such questions provided a strong motivation to conduct an exploratory qualitative content analysis study. Knowing how doctoral students are reaching out to enhance their learning experiences would improve how educators, learners, and career networks communicate, distribute information, improve marketing, and enhance doctoral student learning and form a foundation for emerging careers.
The purpose of this qualitative study was to add to the general knowledge and understanding of how doctoral students use social media as they proceed through doctoral programs. Since the purpose of the study was to investigate circumstances and the responses of the doctoral students’ personal narratives to determine themes and characteristics as described by Gelo, Braakman, and Benetka (2008), an exploratory qualitative methodology was chosen. Using exploratorye content analysis, both the views and the experiences of participants were analyzed using nVivo software. The data samples consisted of secondary data collected from an online social media venue: a Facebook closed group. Permission was obtained from the director of a closed Facebook group called Path to Dissertation (PtD) to conduct research, IRB approval was obtained, the researchers gathered and analyzed posts and comments made January 1, 2016, through October 31, 2016. After the posts and replies had been collected, they were rated as to their level of significance to the purpose of the study by the researchers, who are experts at using a Likert scale, and then the ratings were averaged. Informed consent was obtained from the students to use personal postings, and five students were interviewed for further clarification of their posts. Posts that rated 3 or higher on a 1 to 5 scale were considered for the study.
Qualitative research is exploratory and used when the researcher is concerned with understanding human behavior (or an unknown culture in which they live) from the informants’ perspective (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Since little is known about the habits, views, and uses of social media by doctoral students (Bennett & Folley, 2014; Veletsianos, 2013), the focus in this study was about how online doctoral students learn through their interactions with each other to understand the dissertation process, and how to be successful. There were several questions that the researchers wished to pursue, but narrowed the focus and refined the study to two overarching research questions (RQ), which were followed by two subsidiary research questions (SQ).
RQ. How are students using social media for communication?
SQ1. How are doctoral students using social media and the relationships formed to avoid feelings of isolation and disconnectedness?
SQ2. How is social media helping students to proceed through their doctoral programs?
By answering the research questions, the researchers hoped to find a foundation of understanding of what students need to become successful at completing their doctoral programs and be competitive in their academic careers. In a global society where knowledge and degrees across International borders are increasingly commonplace, understanding what students think and communicate about learning becomes relevant. Research on how doctoral students are using social media in their online learning experiences fills a significant void of information in the current learning continuum and understanding at the doctoral level.
Results of the analysis include:
RQ: Students use social media for communication in a variety of ways with support and
direction from other students.
SQ1: Student postings fell into three groups: a) questions and answers about conducting research, b) frustration /questions about the IRB process, and c) celebrations with others.
SQ2: Social media helped some students complete their dissertation but did not help others due to: a) varying degrees of student study and preparation, b) information or answers that students may or may not have trusted and c) lack of understanding or completeness of some answers.
In conclusion, the participants in this study were able to help clarify some of the initial questions and concerns of the researchers, and have added insight to current research about how or why doctoral students use social media to enhance their Personal Learning Networks (PLN). The purpose of this qualitative research study was to explore through content analysis both the views and experiences of a group of doctoral students using a closed Facebook group of other doctoral students. Educational leaders can gain useful information and insight into the impact of social media on doctoral students and complet the doctoral degree, and find useful insight into how teachers and researchers can use or encourage doctoral students to use social media in their PLNs.
Adler, J. (n.d.). Top 50 blogs for PhD students. Retrieved from http://www.online-phd-programs.org/top-50-blog-for-phd-students
Bennett, L., & Folley, S. (2014, May 26). A tale of two doctoral students: Social media tools and hybridised identities. Retrieved from Research in Learning Technology, http://www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt/article/view/2...
Denzin, N. K. & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (1994). Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Gelo, O., Braakman, D., & Benetka, G. (2008). Quantitative and qualitative research: Beyond the debate. Integrative and Psychological Behavioral Science, 42(3), 266-90. doi10.1007/s12124-008-9078-3
Hilscher, J. (2013). A case study examining how students make meaning out of using Facebook as a virtual learning community at a Midwestern university (Doctoral dissertation).Retrieved from lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4041&context=etd
Veletsianos, G. (2013). Open practices and identity: Evidence from researchers and educators’ social media participation. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(4), 639-651.
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