November 2021 | Volume 23 No. 1
Clicking with the Right People
The concept of ‘social capital’ is entrenched in the social sciences. Who we know can make a difference to the opportunities we get in life and the resources we have at our disposal. This insight is mostly based on research in offline settings, where people interact in person. But with the explosion of digital communications has come the new concept of digital social capital – the resources embedded in social connections we make through digital technologies. Dr Feng Shihui of the Faculty of Education is at the forefront studying the phenomenon.
“Because of digital technologies, our world is expanding significantly. We not only have chances to know people in our school, workplace or neighbourhood, we also have chances to make connections virtually. And those virtual connections could also have a significant impact on our development,” she said.
Dr Feng’s key interest is in network effects on student development. She has been studying the theoretical and practical implications of this new form of social capital mediated via digital environments within the context of education.
She points out that digital social capital is unique because it brings a global perspective at a critical time for young people. “They are in the process of getting an understanding of the world and while local support is very important, it’s also important for them to develop some digital connections with others who can show them more of the world,” she said.
Digital social capital has the potential to impact students’ academic development, socio-emotional well-being and sociopolitical participation. However, whether or not digital social capital can benefit student development highly depends on their use of digital technologies.
“It sounds simple – give the same digital technology tools to all students and the world will become equally open to all of them. But the question here is not only about accessibility, but also how they use technology to make social connections beyond their offline social circles, and access social resources in a global context, beyond pure entertainment,” she said.
Indeed, a 2019 study she did found students who made greater use of Facebook or the internet for entertainment had a higher tendency to be distracted during academic tasks.
Making students aware
“Awareness is the first important step,” she said. “It is critical to raise the awareness of this new form of social capital among students, teachers, parents and other stakeholders in educational systems so they can effectively provide guidance and interventions to help students develop a healthy use of digital technologies. A collective effort among these stakeholders is needed to help students actively develop their digital social capital.”
Dr Feng noted that the multifaceted nature of digital social capital is a challenge to researchers, but she is working with collaborators to further define and quantitatively measure it. These measurement methods are critical for improving understanding about the formation and influence of digital social capital.
“Digital social capital provides an important theoretical lens for helping us understand the effect of digital technologies on student development. But how do we measure digital social capital? And how do stakeholders in educational systems help the digitally disadvantaged students develop their digital social capital? These are some important questions to be addressed while studying this topic,” she said.
While digital social capital is still a developing concept, Dr Feng has also started exploring the interaction of offline and online social connections on student development.
A recent study of students in Mainland China looked at how offline social connections affected their online and offline civic engagement, such as online voting, helping out at school and in the community, raising money for charity, buying products because of a company’s social values, and discussing public issues with others. Students’ weak ties with teachers or peers exerted greater influence than their strong ties with close friends or family members, which was in line with the theory of weak ties and further confirmed that students’ social connections matter.
Social connections in the research world
Along with her study of social capital theory, Dr Feng is also interested in the mechanisms underlying the development of social connections – why are certain people connected and others not?
A study she published last year found that in interdisciplinary research collaboration, researchers prefer to connect with others who have similar interdisciplinary research profiles. This contrasts with the typical assumption that researchers with different backgrounds collaborate in interdisciplinary research. ‘Homophily’ – the concept that people prefer to make connections with others of similar characteristics – still prevails in this context.
“In interdisciplinary research, researchers tend to have diverse experience in multiple disciplines. In this sense, interdisciplinarity is primarily manifested at the individual level, rather than the pair or group level as one might expect,” she said. “This shows that it is important to provide interdisciplinary training in universities.”
It sounds simple – give the same digital technology tools to all students and the world will become equally open to all of them. But the question here is not only about accessibility, but also how they use technology to make social connections beyond their offline social circles, and access social resources in a global context, beyond pure entertainment.
DR FENG SHIHUI