DOI: 10.1145/2630008 © 2014 ACM 1072-5520/14/07 $15.00
the Network section of their Facebook
profiles, created usernames such as
“college kid,” or described themselves
in their Twitter and Instagram profiles
as college-bound. When we asked
about these practices, they asserted
that it was important for people within
their network to view them as a college-goer. These students used social media
to share information with the world,
not just to access it—information about
their college-going aspirations that may
have garnered them valuable support
from their network and helped them
in their transition from high school
student to college-goer.
The potential for social media to
help address college-access issues
has not gone unnoticed. Several
organizations, including the Gates
Foundation, the King Center Charter
School, and College Summit, came
together recently to support the
development of software apps, games,
and websites aimed at harnessing the
power of social media for the purpose
of addressing specific college-access
challenges. The College Knowledge
Challenge funded the development
of a wide range of platforms that
help students at various stages of the
process, from awareness to graduation.
For example, College Connect, a
Facebook application developed by
the first author and colleagues at the
University of Oxford and Michigan
State University, provides students
with the ability to access a network
visualization of their Facebook friends
network, highlighting individuals
who list a college or university in
their profile and thus might be
more likely to help answer a college-
related question. Another Facebook
application, FastFor ward, helps
students throughout the K- 12 and post-
secondary pipeline develop plans for
their future careers. Students choose a
field of study and potential profession,
and then FastForward provides a
visualization of their Facebook feed
that illustrates a pathway toward
achieving that career. For instance,
a student might see screenshots of
themselves posting about graduating
college with congratulatory
comments from their Facebook
friends. FastForward’s imaginary
feed identifies major milestones for
students and uses images of users
from a student’s network to provide
encouraging (imagined) feedback.
Our studies have given us the
opportunity to meet many different
kinds of adolescents, each with their
own challenges and their own ways of
meeting these challenges. Although
it’s easy to be pessimistic about some
of the social trends being enacted via
social media, our work with young
people has made us optimistic about the
potential for Internet technologies to
be used in ways that can change lives.
We encourage other researchers and
designers to consider how to create tools
and experiences that can increase access
to education and other benefits, for all
kinds of people across the lifespan and
throughout the globe.
This work is not always easy. Only
by making a concerted effort to recruit
participants from diverse populations
will researchers and designers be
able to understand the diversity of
structured and ad-hoc practices and to
account for them in the interventions
they create. Life transitions are a
particularly challenging time for
many individuals. Better tools to
support these changes, such as easier
ways to segment audiences in social
media, might facilitate network and
identity transitions for high school
seniors as well as others going through
significant life changes, such as a
divorce, college graduation, or moving.
Making personalized information
more accessible is another way in which
designers can support positive change.
Our participants were generally able
to access online information, but this
information was not always usable,
understandable, or even correct. We
are excited about the potential of social
media tools in the area of college access
and other domains where designers,
researchers, and technologists have the
potential to help individuals as they
work to change their lives by creating
transformative tools and experiences
for learners of all ages.
1. The names of our participants have been
replaced with pseudonyms.
2. Burke, M., Kraut, R., and Marlow, C.
Social capital on Facebook: Differentiating
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3. Ellison, N. B., Wohn, D. Y., and Greenhow,
C. Adolescents’ visions of their future
careers, educational plans, and life
pathways: The role of bridging and
bonding social capital experiences.
Journal of Social and Personal Relationships
31, 4 (2014), 516–534.
4. Bettinger, E.P., Long, B. T., Oreopoulos,
P., and Sanbonmatsu, L. The role of
simplification and information in college
decisions: Results from the H&R Block
FAFSA Experiment. NBER Working
Paper No. 1536. Sept. 2009.
5. Leonhardt, D. A simple way to send poor
kids to top colleges. The New York Times.
Mar. 29, 2013; http://www.nytimes.
6. Wohn, D. Y., Ellison, N. B., Khan, M.L.,
Fewins-Bliss, R., and Gray, R. The role of
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Nicole B. Ellison is an associate professor
in the School of Information at the University of
D. Yvette Wohn is an assistant professor of
HCI at New Jersey Institute of Technology
Michael G. Brown is a doctoral student in
the Center for the Study of Higher and Post-Secondary Education in the School of Education
at the University of Michigan.