Wodzicki, Schwammlein, and Moskaliuk (2012) investigated how students use social networking sites for informal learning and study-related knowledge exchange and sought to identify the characteristics of students who do so. Like the rest of the world, Facebook is the most popular social networking site (SNS) used in Germany. However, the authors chose StudiVZ for their use case study because it is the second most popular SNS in the country and it was originally launched for students. Given there are about 2 million students in Germany and a reported 6 million users on StudiVZ, the researchers reasoned that every student had likely created an account on the platform at some point in time.
Building on prior research, the researchers expected that students used the SNS primarily for social communication and, to some extent, knowledge communication, however sought to better understand the latter usage by investigating the relationship between the two. Three studies were conducted the first of which involved 774 StudiVZ online survey participants who were asked if they use StudiVZ for exchanging study-related knowledge with others and why they became a member. The primary goal was to gain an understanding of how important students perceived knowledge sharing in relation to social communication. The second study investigated the role that groups play. A subset of 140 of the initial 774 students participated in the second survey. Students were asked why they joined StudiVZ groups, how they used them for study-related knowledge exchange, which group was their favorite and in which one they were most active. In the last study 260 groups were identified and after eliminating duplicates, excessively small groups, and excessively active groups, 175 were analyzed and rated in terms of their actual social exchange value versus a name or cause that members want to be associated with for self-presentation purposes.
Results of the first study revealed that over 63% had no interest in study-related knowledge exchange and of those, most indicated they joined in order to stay in touch with friends or for entertainment. Members motivated by finding new contacts were shown to have a corresponding interest in knowledge exchange. Regression analysis further revealed that those who were online more frequently were more interested in study-related knowledge exchanges, while the number of friends had no relationship to such an interest.
Results of the second study showed that 60% of the participants joined groups to find like-minded people. Over 31% of participants indicated their study-relevant knowledge sharing involved discussion of general topics. This was followed by exchanging course materials, group preparing for tests, and group in-depth discussion at 20%, 15%, and 9% respectively. Participants were also less likely to be interested in exchanging knowledge in their favorite group than in their most active group and that favorite groups were more self-presentation associations (e.g. statement groups) rather than social in nature. Results of the third study validated these findings with a nearly 90% agreement between independent raters as to group classification. Of the 175 groups, 87 were classified as social and of those, 37 were identified as study-related. Ten of those were freshmen groups and though new student groups tend to have fewer members, they tend to also be more active suggesting the less experienced students rely more on social media for knowledge exchange than their more experienced counterparts.
Limitations of this study include an over-representation of females (64%) compared to a German female student population of 46%. Age (19-29) and areas of study by students, however were found to be representative of the German student population. Researchers are also advised to refrain from making causal interpretations due to the cross-sectional nature of the data. Further, while this research indicates that a minority of young adult students appear to use social networks for knowledge sharing related to their formal education endeavors, whether that is due to lack of interest or some other reason, such as because what they need is already available through more formal channels, is unclear. In the absence of official channels, which is unlikely in a formal educational environment, the results may be quite different suggesting a need for studies on how social media is used by informal learners.