It has been widely recognised that transition into higher education (HE) can be challenging for incoming students. Literature identifies three main areas where students may benefit from support: social, practical and academic. This paper discusses a cas e study that explores the potential of a social networking environment to provide support in these areas during students transition into HE. The Learning Development Unit (LDU) at Bucks New University has previously addressed transitional issues throug h pre‑sessional campus‑based programmes. However, to provide opportunities for a wider range of students, the LDU launched Startonline in 2010. This online pre‑sessional environment used the social networking platform Ning to provide new students with acc ess to non‑subject‑specific academic activities (e.g., critical thinking), social networking tools and practical information. As a pilot, the aim was to observe where students focussed their attention and explore the affordances of a social networking e nvironment for facilitating transition. Startonline ran for the month leading up to the beginning of the academic year, during which time around 300 students signed up and participated. Quantitative analysis of platform user data was conducted and student and staff participants were interviewed, providing useful qualitative data. Findings highlighted that students engaged intensely in social and informational aspects of the environment, but remained resolutely uninterested in generic academic activities. There was, however, considerable self‑directed interest in finding subject‑specific information and learning activities. Direct, personal involvement of subject‑teaching staff seemed the determining factor in take up of these aspects. Social networking p latforms are already used by students to maintain social capital and access emotional support from existing social networks when leaving secondary school. This project highlights that, equally, such environments also provide powerful opportunities for stu dents to establish social networks as they transition into higher education. Lessons have also been learned with regard to effective pedagogical strategies for engaging students academically in social networking environments and areas identified for future research.
The Electronic Journal of e-Learning