We know that students come to university along multiple pathways and we are aware that university is just one part of each student’s identity development; that there are multiple mangled complexities that lead to each student’s conceptions of success, both inside and outside university structures. Understanding these and representing them are two very different things. The problem is how to transcend the political and architectural boundaries of traditional research methods in order to glimpse university students intra-acting with university rather than just in university.
Much of what we know of student transition has come to us through controlled environments: focus groups, interviews, observations, and surveys. A controlled environment can never truly give us the full picture and years of social conditioning in education means that even a cafe interview cannot remove the body politics between a university student and a member of the research community. Twelve plus years of predicting what a teacher wants at school is great training for providing a myopic view of education environments. Researchers are well aware of the limitations of well established research tools but it has been difficult to find an alternative.
Transition research has known for a while that traditional models of transition are reductionist. We know that orientation takes more than six weeks; we understand that transition is a cyclical, messy and iterative process of becoming. However, transition (or in fact all education) research is localised in a system architecture that makes it very difficult to work outside the laboratory, whether that be a classroom, online course, assessment piece or statistics program. Student transition research, needs both the positivist, statistical research and the thick qualitative research. What is missing is the grand narrative of where they all fit together and how they relate to each other. My research suggests that social media may be a way to step outside the education system architecture and politics and begin to write parts of the grand narrative, drawing all the research together.
Social media groups have been formulated and observed with some success in student transition research, but they are still bounded within the education system they were created in. A course Facebook group is still within the education architecture and politics. However, social media does provide a way to move outside those borders. Instead of creating a Facebook group to collect information about student experiences, my research reported experiences collected through the unbounded Facebook Newsfeed: the place users speak to their friends and family about university not with the university in the form of a researcher. My research posits that this information can begin to reveal some of the grand narrative of student transition research.
My thesis reported on four phenomenographical studies where 26 school leavers updated, via Facebook, their friends, family and me on their experiences with university. It provides a snapshot of student experiences at four critical times in the first year of university. The 26 students that informed this study were from three different multi-campus universities in Southeast Queensland, Australia and enrolled in a range of disciplines allowing the study to focus on the generalised experiences of the students. The aim of the study was to move back the research lens around four critical times in the first year of university to encapsulate peripheral experiences that move in and out of focus for students while they are navigating that which is well established in the literature.