University of Tasmania
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An investigation of the social relationships and social interactions amongst international students studying in Australia : a case study using Facebook

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posted on 2023-05-26, 02:18 authored by Olding, AL
This thesis investigates the role of Facebook on the social relationships and social interactions amongst a class of international students undertaking a University foundation study course in Australia. Rapid growth in the adoption and use of social media globally, particularly amongst young people, highlights both the appetite for social connection and the capacity of technology to be an enabler. Globally, Facebook is the most widely adopted digital social network and has built its success on leveraging this appetite for social connection. In the educational sector, institutions are increasingly using digital social networks, like Facebook, as mechanisms to support and enhance student experiences. In Australia, where the international student market is now the third largest export sector, there is strong interest in ensuring these students successfully achieve their educational goals. For international students a key aspect of achieving positive educational outcomes relates to the level of social support available while studying overseas. An important source of this social support comes from the social connections that these students form with others, particularly with those individuals who are geographically co-located. To date, however, assumptions about Facebook, its use and role in supporting social connections within educational environments and its specific role amongst international students studying abroad has received limited research attention. In this context, this research investigates what role, if any, Facebook plays amongst a class group of international students and how it influences their approaches to interactions and relationship maintenance. The research methodology employed in conducting this exploratory investigation adopted a research philosophy drawing on a subjective ontology and an interpretivist epistemology. The research strategy involved a 15 month case study of a class of 52 international students enrolled in the University of Tasmania's Foundation Studies Program (FSP) course. The research design aimed to collect data on the students' social connections, their Facebook usage, and their adoption, use and experience with technology prior to, during and after the FSP course. The research design structured data collection through two key techniques: self-reported surveys and semi-structured interviews. Three surveys were undertaken at three different time points over the 15 month case study (at the commencement of the program; at the mid-point; and four months after the completion of the FSP course). Semi-structured interviews were also conducted with six selected participants six months after the conclusion of the FSP course. Data analysis was conducted using three separate techniques. The first technique involved analysis of descriptive statistics from the data collated from the three surveys. This technique revealed who the participants were, their behaviours, technological skills (including the use of Facebook) and their interactions with each other over time. The second technique, drawing on approaches adapted from social network analysis generated a series of social network diagrams representing the relationships present between the students before, during and after the study course. The combined data analysis generated from the surveys was then examined and discussed to highlight key insights that were further examined through the third technique of semi-structured interviews. These interviews were conducted with six participants selected on criteria generated from the survey results. Analysis examined the interview transcripts and deployed a thematic coding approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The codes produced from the interviews were interpreted to highlight the key semantic inter-relationships across the data. The combination of analysis and interpretation arising from the three streams generated key findings and these were then discussed in relation to the existing body of knowledge. This exploratory research investigating the role of Facebook amongst international students has produced a number of key findings, which are: 1. There are three primary sets of factors that both stimulate and inhibit whether an initiated interaction proceeds and which communication mode is used. The three overlapping factors are the 'interaction convenience', 'environmental influences' and 'relationship strength'. 2. The influence of social relationship strength on moderate social relationships emerges as distinct in relation to Facebook use. Past research has identified a weak and strong category but this research identified an important moderate category. 3. Facebook is one of a range of technology based communication modes used by students. Despite Facebook's wide usage by students other technical methods of interaction will be used based on the method they wish to use to interact and with whom. 4. Facebook's role in social connection maintenance emerges as being influenced by the strength of the relationship that exists between the individuals connected. Facebook plays the most important role when the relationship between two individuals could be considered as moderate in strength. In relation to social interactions amongst these students this research highlights three dominant factors: interaction convenience; environmental influences; and relationship strength. These three factors influence the choice of communication mode as well as the amount of time and effort that a student is willing to exert to engage in an interaction. This research highlights that the stronger the relationship the greater sensitivity exhibited in the selection of communication mode, the greater the willingness to interact and to overcome spatial or temporal barriers to interaction. Facebook is used as one communication mode amongst a suite of other choices including face-to-face and other technology based modes (e.g. Skype, MSN etc.). The choice and use of Facebook primarily relates to the convenience of communication offered for interactions that are generally not intimate in nature, rarely urgent in time and do not rely on high levels of interaction response. In relation to the social relationships of these students, the research highlights that the importance of Facebook as a mode of maintaining social relationships relates directly to the nature and strength of that relationship. Significantly, its importance is highest amongst social relationships that are moderate in strength, those that can be broadly characterised as being friends. For these types of social relationships Facebook emerges as one of the most convenient and time efficient modes, particularly during periods when the students were not geographically co-located. For strong social relationships, while Facebook is still part of the suite of communication modes, individuals tended to opt for more direct communication approaches to support a greater level of intimacy. For weak social relationships, their lack of value lowers the importance of their maintenance over time. This exploratory research into the role of Facebook amongst international students undertaking a foundation course at an Australian University contributes to knowledge at three levels. Firstly, at the substantive level, this research contributes a detailed case study on the role of Facebook amongst a small self-contained class of international students. It highlights that the social connections of international students evolve in complex ways that mitigate against simplistic assumptions about Facebook, its use and importance. Importantly, it reveals that the choice of Facebook does not reflect any inherent loyalty to the tool, such that it is likely to be substituted readily to accommodate changing social relationships and interaction needs. This case study suggests that instead of relying on technological approaches to teaching and supporting international students, educational institutions would be better served by encouraging and providing opportunities for social interaction between students. This can provide them with opportunities to form their own social support networks. Secondly, at the methodological level, this research combined multiple data collection and data analysis techniques together as an innovative approach to overcoming the methodological limitations of previous research on Facebook. The use of this method allows greater insight into the influence of specific social connections and the role of Facebook in the communicative behaviours of international students over time. Finally, at the theoretical level, this research has produced models that illustrate the connections that exist between social relationships, social interactions and the use of Facebook. These models illustrate how the changing nature of social connections in terms of strength interacts with convenience, location, time and the need for a communicative response.


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Copyright 2013 the author

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