This paper describes an evaluation of the quality and utility of synchronous online interviewing for data collection in social network research. Synchronous online interviews facilitated by Instant Messenger as the communication medium, were undertaken with ten final year university students. Quantitative and qualitative content analysis of respondent and researcher evaluation of the quality and utility of IM indicated that IM was an integral part of student university life and also an excellent and innovative communication platform; a potential advancement for research interviewing. IM was subsequently compared with face-to-face communication in terms of gains and losses for research interviewing. The efficacy of the method of online interviewing using IM in this context is discussed. Key Words: Synchronous Online Interviewing, Instant Messenger, Social Support Networks, Virtual Networks, and Content Analysis
Transition to Higher Education (HE) within the United Kingdom (UK) environment can present students with personal challenges that are, for some, resolvable and yet for others, insurmountable. Well established social support provided by family and friends is disrupted by this transition, leaving some students struggling to adjust (Wilcox, Winn, & Fyvie-Gauld, 2005). Typically, students construct for themselves new social support networks that provide formal support - practical help with academic tasks, appreciation of opinions (Hobfoll, 1998) and informal emotional support and social companionship (Walker, Wasserman, & Wellman, 1994). Those who provide social support are vital in this transition, and beyond (Agneessens, Waege, & Lievens, 2006). Individuals' personal contact with others constitutes their social network, which is:
...composed of all others with whom a person has a certain relationship. An important part of this personal network consists of those others who provide social support. (Agneessens, Waege, & Lievens, p. 427)
Social support networks allow an individual to feel cared about and understood (McKinney, 2002). This, in turn, can have a positive impact upon students' self-identity, self-esteem and thus membership of the learning community (Antia, Stinson, & Gaustad, 2002). The positive contribution of social support networks goes beyond the personal; affecting academic performance. Korinek, Walther-Thomas, McLaughlin, and Williams (1999), as well as Peat, Dalziel, and Grant (2000) have begun to explore the links between social support networks and academic performance. Their work suggests that strong social support networks are central to retention and progression because of their potential to impact upon both formal and informal aspects of student academic experience. Students engaged in strong social support networks clearly benefit academically and socially from their experiences.
The New Labour government in the UK (1997 - present) currently asserts that social justice will be achieved by reducing exclusion through education and subsequent employment (Armitage et al., 2003). Thus, UK policy instituted a system of evidencebased accountability for the formal academic needs of students. Much research and resource has been dedicated to the formal academic needs of university students, in pursuit of improvements in achievement (McLean, 2001), retention and progression (Christie, 2004; Raab & Adam, 2005). This has created a climate in which the focus is almost exclusively on formal academic need, yet consideration of purely formal academic need alone may be insufficient to ensure that students fully benefit from their education. For example, the deep rooted and intractable problems of the UK HE system may be indicative of a system in danger of becoming increasingly unresponsive to real student need.
A small but growing body of research (see for example, Putnam, 2000; Elias, 2006) indicates that students' personal and …