A study documenting the experiences of first-year UTS Bachelor of Nursing students has found that social media plays an increasingly important role in facilitating student learning.
Researchers from the UTS Faculty of Health found that first-year nursing students use platforms like Facebook to develop and strengthen online and offline relationships with peers and to organise group assessments and clinical placements, when regular communication and organisation is vital.
The research was led by Caleb Ferguson, who worked collaboratively with Janet Green, Michelle DiGiacomo, Bernard Saliba, Aileen Wyllie and Debra Jackson as well as international colleagues from Oxford Brookes and London SouthBank (UK) universities.
"The majority of academic literature and news stories related to social media use and student nurses is in relation to misconduct and professional issues. It is exciting to see positive evidence of the supportive role social media can have in assisting and supporting student nurses into university life," said Dr Ferguson.
"Increasingly, social media will be of greater importance in learning at university. Whilst some of this may be informal, the collaborative and engaging nature of social media make these platforms exciting to explore."
The project was supported by a UTS Widening Participation Strategy First Year Experience Grant (2015), funded through the Australian Government Higher Education Participation Program.It emphasises the university's continued focus on employing cutting-edge technology in teaching and learning practices, through the learning.futures model.
Researchers conducted three face-to-face focus groups with ten volunteer first-year nursing students. In these focus groups, students were asked questions about their experience of social media in relation to their transition and engagement with studying at university.
Participating students agreed that Facebook enhanced their ability to interact with their nursing student peers outside of class contact hours and across geographic distances and incompatible schedules. Facebook enabled the creation of both large groups (such as the entire first-year nursing cohort) and smaller, closer-knit groups for the purposes of tasks like group assessments and clinical placements.
"As soon as I get an assignment, I go on Facebook to make a group," said one student. "You know who's in the group and you can start planning, and if you need to participate heavily, you can use Skype."
Facebook was also an important tool for connecting with peers and building new friendships. After meeting peers at orientation workshops, Facebook was used to build networks of support online.
Students also use Facebook to provide social and emotional support to their peers during stressful times, for example in the lead up to exams. This helped students to build a sense of camaraderie with their peers.
Social media offers the added benefit of instantaneous communication. Participants revealed that when they come up against hurdles or road blocks in their studies, the first port of call is often Facebook. Friends online will generally respond quickly, whereas lecturers may take hours or days to respond to questions via email.
In addition, social media is used by students to research future job opportunities and to share in a sense of pride and solidarity in the nursing profession.
Whilst social media can be enormously useful for first-year nursing students, it is not without its risks. Many participants commented that sites like Facebook can become an unwelcome distraction from studies. There is also a risk of students becoming overly dependent on Facebook friends for information about their studies, when they should be checking official UTS platforms for accurate and updated information. Additionally, students were wary of privacy issues when posting on Facebook and showed a clear awareness of e-professionalism.
"Employers can look at Facebook and easily find you, so you have to be a lot more cautious," said one student.
Ultimately, the study concludes that social media platforms like Facebook are important tools facilitating "informal peer-to-peer learning and support, augmenting online and offline relationships and building professional identity as a nurse."
Students use Facebook to debrief and reflect whilst on clinical placement, to meet new friends and strengthen relationships and to foster a sense of camaraderie and solidarity as student nurses. For first years, Facebook is particularly useful, helping students to network with peers and to come to terms with their new learning environments.
Nursing is a highly collaborative field of work and study, making Facebook a valuable tool for communication, organisation and professional development. In the years to come, it is likely that social media technologies will play an increasingly important role in delivering and facilitating nursing education.
"It is encouraging that student nurses are leveraging the benefits of social media to collaborate and engage with other students to advance their studies and learning," said Dr Ferguson.
"There is great utility in Facebook for collaboration around group activities, as a supportive tool whilst not on campus or to generally support learning whilst at university."