Study Abroad in the Age of Social Media

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The advancement of information and communication technology has radically transformed the nature of study abroad and the way in which students apprehend this experience. As part of this larger shift, social media and digital communications have changed the way people interact, communicate and socialise and therefore also transformed the nature of study abroad as an immersive context for second language learning. This thesis aims to better understand the holistic and socially transformative dimensions of study abroad and explores the impact of what has become a quasi-constant digital connection to home on two traditional models of study abroad: the model of social network development (Bochner, McLeod, & Lin, 1977; Coleman, 2013, 2015; Furnham & Alibhai, 1985; Hendrickson, Rosen, & Aune, 2011, Rienties & Nolan, 2014; Schartner, 2015) and the theory of study abroad being a rite of passage (Grabowski, Wearing, Lyons, Tarrant, & Landon, 2017; Murphy-Lejeune, 2002; Starr-Glass, 2016) to transition to emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000, 2010, 2012) effected through a strict separation from home. The study is based on a digital ethnography of seven Australian university students learning French in France or Switzerland on a year-long study abroad program. Data were collected by following and cataloguing participants’ posts on both Facebook and Instagram. These textual and photographic posts subsequently served as prompts for in-depth photo-elicitation interviews. Findings indicate that using social media as a research tool in the study abroad context raises new questions and provides new insights. First, participants’ narratives highlight the need to rethink students’ social networking paradigms as the traditional circles of study aboard socialisation are challenged by the use of social media in study abroad contexts and the shifting student objectives and motivations inherent in the larger study abroad sector. Second, the digital ethnography revealed the central role played by travel experiences while studying abroad. Contrary to expectations, these travel experiences fostered participants’ feelings of belonging in their host environment and their identity transition to emerging adulthood. These outcomes at once support and complicate the conceptualisation of study abroad as a rite of passage that impacts students’ identity. Third, the online ethnography revealed an unstudied but important phenomenon: the visit from participants’ relatives, specifically their parents. These visits disrupted the separation from home, disturbed participants’ experience and negatively impacted their identity transition to emerging adulthood. The thesis accordingly acknowledges the changing landscape of study abroad and the need for researchers to adapt to it. Consequently it advocates for the use of research tools aligned with rather than simply evaluative or critical of students’ established digital practices.
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