Facebook in the Classroom
Perhaps you've heard of Facebook. According to TechCrunch, it now accounts for 44% of social sharing on the web, and its precocious founder, 26-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, was TIME Magazine's 2010 Person of the Year. You may already have a Facebook account. Your students undoubtedly do, and they might even be using it during your class. Should you meet students "where they are"? Does Facebook have a more formal place in your academic life?
The answers aren't so simple. You may find the affordances of Facebook to be interesting or even useful for engaging students. The site has a fresher design than most learning management systems and supports a wide range of social interactivity and multimedia sharing that can be challenging with the tools typically offered by universities. However, in CCNMTL staff members' experience, using Facebook for teaching and learning is a mixed bag, requiring faculty to be even clearer about their expectations and more involved in the design and management of activities than they would in a traditional online course space. Below we'll explore the pros and cons of Facebook and suggests some alternatives.
What is Facebook, really?
The "face book" of yore was a printed and bound directory of students' photos and contact information. The Facebook we know today is an online ecosystem: a platform for communicating with "friends" by sharing information about yourself and what you are doing or thinking, and for connecting with groups, institutions, consumer products, and public individuals via their more formal "pages" on the site. On your personal profile, you can post information about your background, your likes and dislikes, and photos and videos of yourself and others. Facebook "pages" and groups support many of the same features as personal profiles. By affiliating yourself with friends or pages, you generate a personal network and activate the primary feature of Facebook: the news feed. The news feed is the focal point of Facebook, where the most popular or current content from your network floats to the top and invites commentary.
If this description hasn't scared you off, perhaps you're thinking about how these features might benefit you. You can set up your own profile and "friend" your students (yes, "to friend" has been a transitive verb since the 13th century), and you can send them updates related to your course. They will also know what books and music you like, and see photos of your children, and you will see their updates about recent breakups, photos of them drinking at parties ... OK, maybe this Facebook thing isn't such a good idea, after all.
Before we give up on Facebook, however, it might be helpful to review some pros and cons:
- Pervasive: most students - more than 80%, by some estimates - are already active on Facebook
- Intuitive: profiles, Facebook pages and groups are easily created and managed
- Accessible: Facebook works well on both web and mobile browsers, or as an "app" on many phones
- Social: sharing ideas, links, and other things is simple and fast on Facebook
- Motivational: students may be enthusiastic about participating in course activities within Facebook
- Elective: some students may choose not have Facebook accounts for specific reasons, including privacy
- Public: FERPA protects students' right not to disclose their course enrollments
- Effortful: because Facebook isn't set up for teaching and learning, additional work may be required for designing and managing activities
- Noisy: your course updates might get lost in the news feed and other distractions
- Uncomfortable: you might not wish to share personal information with your students, or to be privy to theirs
There are undoubtedly others. Our hope is these initial considerations will help you make a more informed decision about whether to use Facebook in your course. The next sections describe how to set up course activities in Facebook and suggest alternative platforms and services that offer similar functionality.
To Facebook ...
If you decide to take the plunge, you will first want to set up either a page or a group. Creating either one is straightforward and keeps your personal profile somewhat distinct from course-related activities; you don't have to "friend" your students to interact with them in one of these contexts. The differences between pages and groups is simple: pages function more like personal profiles, are viewable by the public, and can "push" information to subscribed users in their news feed, whereas groups can be restricted to invited members only but do not "push" content to the news feed. Groups are more akin to formal online course platforms in this respect, but if you want to offer your students a more "fun", public experience, a page might be the way to go.
Facebook documentation offers very thorough instructions for setting up both pages and groups. Once you've set up your space of choice, you can begin to populate it with information about your course, your intentions and expectations for students in that space, and to begin seeding the kind of interactions you'd like to see. Have an activity ready to go when students first join your page or group, even a simple self-introduction or a statement about their hopes for participation in your course. Also, because Facebook is designed for sharing, think about activities that require students to post, critique, and discuss relevant links or other materials they find on the web.
Before you launch your page or group, it's well worth spending a few minutes configuring the privacy settings of your personal profile. You may choose to make your personal information private except to Facebook "friends," or, if you plan to accept friend requests from your students, you may want to enable more fine-grained privacy settings by restricting what your students can access on your personal profile. How to manage these features is detailed more fully in Facebook's own guide to privacy.
Once you're up and running, just remember to keep up with the activity on Facebook; students quickly sense when faculty are not engaged online and their efforts flag accordingly.
... or not to Facebook?
You may decide it's not Facebook you need per se but Facebook-like activities that can be replicated in other spaces. The number of services dedicated to social sharing, explicitly related to academic work or not, grows almost daily. These services would allow you to stick with the familiar terrain of your course website while employing one or more of the following in tandem.
First: a selection of tools supported by CCNMTL and supporting UNI authentication, meaning they can be restricted to course members.
- EdBlogs - Wordpress blogging platform, ideal for posting extended thoughts, or conducting a discussion
- Wikispaces - platform for group authoring and collaboration
- MediaThread - social video and image analysis and communication tool developed by CCNMTL and currently available in beta
Second: a selection of third-party tools developed and supported by groups external to Columbia that can be leveraged for presentation, sharing, and study purposes.
- Academia.edu - advertised as a Facebook for scholars, with academically oriented personal profiles, lists of interests, publications, etc.
- Mendeley - social bibliographic and reference-sharing tool (see EnhancED note)
- Mixable - Facebook application for sharing notes developed by Purdue University
- Note-sharing services include GradeGuru (McGraw-Hill) and NoteUtopia
- OpenStudy - social studying platform developed by Emory University and Georgia Tech (see EnhancED note)
- Twitter - very popular "microblogging" tool for sharing brief thoughts and links (see EnhancED note)
- VoiceThread - platform for creating and sharing interactive, social presentations (see EnhancED note)
Many of these services share two desirable characteristics: they are free (or offer at least a limited version for free) and embeddable, meaning you can manage content on their platforms and offer it to students within your course website. For example, if you create a presentation in VoiceThread, you can either circulate a link to it or embed the presentation itself in your online syllabus. The content and interactive features remain the same, and students don't necessarily have to leave the comfort of your course website.
For more information about some of these third-party services, please see this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education: New Social Software Tries To Make Studying Feel Like Facebook.
Use your best judgment! Try out a few of these tools first to gauge your own comfort level with them. You might even survey your students at the beginning of the semester to assess whether they are interested in using Facebook or other tools, and at the end to assess whether they liked the experience or felt it helped their studies. Consult a CCNMTL educational technologist if you would like to discuss or get assistance with any of the above. Or "like" the CCNMTL Facebook page and post a comment on our wall!