My colleague Linda Feng pointed me to an interesting article about a study by the University of Liecester about how students are using Facebook and how it impacts their lives at the university. Two critical points come out of this for me. On the one hand, social networking in and of itself does seem to help students. In particular, the researchers found that it is "part of the social glue that helps students settle into university life." Nearly three quarters of the students said "Facebook had played an important part in helping them to settle in at university." The article doesn't specifically mention first-year retention measurements, but my guess is that successful use of social networks can improve retention of students through their first year and into their second year. More than a third of the students also "used Facebook to discuss academic work with other students on a weekly basis."
On the other hand, "41 per cent of students were against being contacted directly by tutors via Facebook," and less than a third were interested in being contacted by the university via Facebook for administrative matters. Facebook isn't a portal and isn't an LMS either. It can play a vital role in student success, but only insofar as universities relinquish the idea that it is somehow beneficial for them to control that space. Think of it as being like off-campus housing. It plays a vital role in university life, but it does not belong to the university.