In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in the use of social networking tools and social media in general, mainly for social, recreational, and entertainment purposes. Many educators believe that these tools offer new educational affordances and avenues for students to interact with each other and with their teachers or tutors. Considering the traditional dropout rate problem documented in distance courses, these tools may be of special interest for distance education institutions as they have the potential to assist in the critical “social integration” associated with persistence. However, as distance students are typically older than regular on-campus students, little is known about their expertise with social media or their interest in harnessing these tools for informal learning or collaborating with peers.
To investigate these issues, an online questionnaire was distributed to students from four large Canadian distance education institutions. A systematic sampling procedure led to 3,462 completed questionnaires. The results show that students have diverse views and experiences, but they also show strong and significant age and gender differences in a variety of measures, as well as an important institution effect on the student’s interest in collaboration. Males and younger students scored higher on almost all indicators. These age and gender differences should be interpreted cautiously, however, as they are based on self-reported measures. The limits of the study, as well as future developments and research questions, are outlined.