"Omg i cant do this signing up thing!" Jenny Morrison writes on the wall of a Facebook group set up by a new business student at Birmingham University. "I'm soo confused and can't find where to do it on the site ... any help would be much appreciated!"
Jenny is not alone. Other students are having trouble signing up, too, until one works it out and gives instructions. "Thanks for the web ct thingy," writes a grateful future colleague. These exchanges between the group's 24 members take place in the days before term starts, so the first contact that the students have with each other happens not in Birmingham's bars or lecture theatres but in cyberspace.
There are a lot of things about this that universities would welcome. The students have made the first steps in bonding as a group. They have felt able to ask a question vital to their university experience that could have made them feel stupid if asked in the real world. They have gained information. And any lecturer taking the trouble to look at the group's wall would realise the need to make the signing-on process easier.
But the growing use of social-networking sites also raises concerns for institutions. First, they are not in control. Facebook, MySpace, and other sites that allow people to create a profile and contact others with similar interests – not only within a university or country but worldwide – are defined by their lack of boundaries. Those signing up to them decide what to put there – it could be violent, sexist or defamatory – and then decide who can see it.
Members may establish a public network, or a closed network to which academics may be invited. But, unlike an institution's own virtual-learning environment, the discussions on these sites take place without any institutional sanction. And this is the case even if the contacts are made exclusively within an institution. Furthermore, universities are conscious that the more they try to get involved in social-networking sites, the more resistant student users may become.
"There are a lot of students saying, 'If they go on to Facebook, I'm moving out'," says Gilly Salmon, professor of e-learning at Leicester University. "There is the idea that it's their environment, not ours."
This was highlighted in a survey carried out by Ipsos Mori for the universities' Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), published last month. It showed that 65 per cent of sixth-formers hoping to go to university regularly used social-networking sites. But most failed to see how they could be used for teaching, and said that they resented the idea that they might be invaded by academics.
Mike Cameron, learning technologist at the University of Durham, says that students often don't realise that there are educational as well as social conversations going on at these sites – and this presents another concern for institutions: the sites can be exclusive. "Because students are going on to Facebook and using it with their friends, there is informal learning occurring and students may be blocking certain people out of this," says Cameron.
But the real worry for universities, as publicly funded purveyors of information and ideas, is that the sites are privately owned. That means they aren't audited, may withdraw services at any time, and – most worrying – could be tempted to exploit the vast amount of information that they carry.
Facebook owns the material on the site, including teaching notes and, potentially, research, says Lawrie Phipps, manager of the users and innovation programme at JISC. He has already advised a couple of research groups to take research notes off a site. While there are plenty of new technologies that lecturers can use in teaching, such as discussion groups, wikis, or Second Life, social networking is not one of them, he says, unless it's restricted to an institution's virtual-learning environment. "I'm on Facebook and I have a laugh with friends," he says. "But, if it comes to academic work on Facebook, it's totally inappropriate."
All very well, says Jo Fox, senior lecturer in history at Durham University, but like it or not, students are using these social-networking sites, and they often appear less keen on using the virtual learning environment. In fact, she suspected, the popularity of one was leading to her increasing lack of success in getting interactions going in the other.
When she browsed Facebook, she found it a useful way of getting to know her students better through their profiles. Then she was invited to join the online group they had formed, associated with her module, and used it to pick up on discussions for her seminars. It is a tricky relationship to negotiate, she admits. "You have to be sensitive because it is a personal space for students, so you don't want to be too interactive," she says.
But Fox was impressed by the way that discussions that floundered in other contexts seemed to take off on Facebook – perhaps for the very reason that students felt ownership of the space. "Students are much more forthright and critical on Facebook," she says. "There is something about the medium that they feel comfortable with, which our normal virtual learning environment doesn't provide."
According to Seb Schmoller, chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology, if people are getting together on Facebook to highlight issues such as excessive bank charges, it is natural that students will take the same approach to express views (valid or otherwise) about a course, institution or teacher. Hence sites have appeared such as ratemyprofessor. com, offering criticism or praise of lecturers, which have been accused of upsetting and inhibiting teachers.
This is something that institutions will need to live with, he says, with support for staff who are adversely affected. And it can work both ways, with some departments, such as computer science at Durham University, already realising the potential of Facebook for student recruitment. Students who have attended open days are encouraged to sign up to the department's Facebook group, and the emails automatically sent out by Facebook to members when news appears on the group's site keeps them thinking about the institution.
What these new technologies mean for universities is unclear. Schmoller argues that no one should get too excited because technologies take time to embed, and fads come and go. Lectures have been around for hundreds of years and are likely to continue. But the underlying change in the way information and knowledge is provided will persist, he thinks. "Institutions used to be the main providers of materials and systems for learners and teachers," he says. "This is no longer the case. Provision of both is increasingly external to them, and there are big-money players (News Corp, Google, Microsoft) on the scene, typically providing content and services that are free to the end user. Adapting to this change is a major challenge to institutions."
But it is also an opportunity. For teachers, says Fox, anything that contributes to the excitement of learning has to be welcome.