For most incoming college freshmen, using Internet social-networking sites to connect with friends, meet new people and get questions answered is as routine as brushing their teeth.
So the University of Kentucky developed its own Facebook-like site, called the Big Blue Network, that's available only to students, faculty and staff. A uky.edu e-mail address is required to join.
The site was launched this summer and has emerged as a key tool for incoming freshmen making the transition to UK, which begins holding classes Wednesday. University officials hope it will result in more freshmen coming back for their sophomore years.
"We want to increase the quality of interactions with students," said Christopher S. Rice, a political science professor who is a kind of gatekeeper for the Big Blue Network. "We're going out to them and saying, 'We're going to interact with you in a way that's comfortable and familiar to you.'"
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By early August, before most new students had begun packing for college, more than 2,200 of the roughly 4,500 incoming freshmen had signed on to the Big Blue Network. The goal is to have 75 percent participation.
Students regularly exchange information about what residence halls they're living in, what organizations they're interested in joining and logistical quandaries: how to park, where to buy books and what to do if they don't have a housing assignment.
At the same time, the site offers a valuable research opportunity for the university, Rice said.
He and a team will catalog students' exchanges and discussions to track how participation in the Big Blue Network might affect freshmen retention rates, although most of the incoming students using the site haven't been told that their comments will be collected.
Rice said they didn't broadcast the cataloging of content because they wanted to avoid "creepy treehouse syndrome."
"Nobody wants to hang out in the treehouse with Dad," Rice said. "We didn't want the research to get in the way of aspects students find useful."
He and a team will keep track of how many times each student posts something on the network as well as the quality of the discussions, Rice said. For instance, there's a big difference between starting a debate over an academic issue and posting a mundane update, such as "my cat just threw up," he said.
Randolph Hollingsworth, UK's assistant provost for integrated academic services, said that information will be a key tool in helping to fight what Provost Kumble Subbaswamy dubbed "the war on student attrition."
In fall 2008, 81 percent of freshmen came back to UK — an all-time high. Officials have set a goal for 90 percent.
"We're seeing evidence of the continuing conversation being worth it," Hollingsworth said. "We will likely get some kids back that we otherwise wouldn't."
Many student leaders have joined the site to answer questions from new students.
Ben Duncan, a senior from Columbus, Ohio, who is the Student Government chief of staff, said he has been amazed at the breadth and depth of conversations — many of which take place between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.
Student leaders were told about the research component and cataloging of content. Several said they weren't concerned that incoming freshmen didn't receive the same warning.
"No one has expressed that fear," Duncan said, adding that most students probably realize that it's being monitored because it's hosted by UK.
There is an educational component to that as well, said Rice, who noted that some incoming students might not know the bounds of what they should put in the public domain.
One new student, who was clearly younger than 21, posted a picture of himself bonging a beer, Rice said. After a student leader pointed out the photo to Rice and the site administrators, the photo was taken down, and the freshman was politely admonished.
"Part of it is helping students learn the appropriateness of online sharing," Rice said.
Jaclyn Hawkins, the student coordinator of UK's welcome week activities, said she has been impressed that faculty and staff also are engaging the new students in discussions. In fact, it could be a valuable learning experience for them as well, Hawkins said.
"I think it's kind of cool that some of the faculty are on there and they get to see how our generation acts on those social networking sites," she said.