CTE : Teaching and Learning News

Volume 17, Number 3     February & March 2008

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Facebook as Pedagogical Tool?

Anna Bedford, Publications Coordinator, CTE
Dr. Jennifer Golbeck, College of Information Studies


Facebook is a social networking site that today serves over 64 million active users, with an average of 250,000 new registrations per day since January of last year. While students generally embrace the new medium for communication, faculty and administration have mixed feelings about their presence on/in Facebook, especially when it comes to interacting with students.  

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article last summer, entitled “Should Professors Use Facebook?” and many professors have been pondering the same question. Yet even the ambivalent are logging on and testing the water, and trying to divine the rules of the game – as evinced by the popularity of groups such as Faculty Ethics on Facebook. This particular Facebook group is 244 members strong and offers guidelines like never “friend requesting” students, but allowing them to initiate a connection. "Friend" is the name given to your virtual connections with other users, whether or not the term is accurately descriptive of your relationship in the material world). Indeed, Facebook isn’t just for friends, or even friends in the Facebook sense – many prospective employers will review public profiles, and even a university scholarship committee makes use of the profiles as part of the review process (Amy Ginther, OIT Podcast, March 2007).

As online social networking becomes increasingly pervasive, Teaching and Learning News interviewed one professor who’s embracing the technology and using it to extend the classroom communications. Dr. Jennifer Golbeck is Assistant Professor in the College of Information Studies who has found several advantages to an academic foray into Facebook.

TLN: You created a “student group” on Facebook for your LBSC 690 class last semester. Can you describe how you and your students incorporated Facebook into the course as an additional tool for teaching and learning? Why did you decide to use Facebook (any specific learning outcomes)?

JG: I've used Facebook in all of my classes for the past couple years. It has a few benefits. On a most basic level, it lets people in the class (including me) learn who everyone else is. We can go through a whole term recognizing someone but not knowing their name. Facebook lets you figure that out. This semester I have 36 [students] and seeing their profiles helps me match faces to names.

Communication on social networks is also less intrusive than emails. Facebook provides discussion boards and ways for students to contact one another in a very informal way. In a sense, it extends the casual environment of the classroom online so students can talk and organize. It also helps students find one another. If they have a conversation after class, they can communicate on Facebook without knowing the other person's email address (or even their name).

Students frequently use this to send messages to one another. For example, I have a group project every semester. Students use Facebook to find partners for the project, to ask other students to join groups, and as a way for contacting other class members whose email addresses they may not have. I create a Facebook group for my courses, and some students also use the message board features of Facebook for a less-formal-than-Blackboard way of doing discussion. Students generally dislike Blackboard because it's hard to use. The interface to Facebook is nicer, so the discussion boards there often replace the ones available on Blackboard.

TLN: How did your students react to using Facebook for academic purposes? Did they all have existing accounts? Were any students reluctant to open their profiles to a faculty member by joining the group? 

JG: Basically all undergraduates have Facebook profiles and have no problem sharing. Most of their profiles are open anyway. Some of my masters students did not have accounts, but they had no complaints about creating them. Generally, social networking is so much a part of students' lives that they don't have a reaction to using it for class.

TLN: Many educators are now trying to reach students in ways that are relevant to their own lives, and often that involves using the technologies the students are already invested in – be it through Podcasts, Blogs, or social networking sites. In what ways have you found Facebook to be a useful pedagogical tool, and how might it offer advantages over official University course tools such as ELMS?

JG: Facebook is not designed for managing a course. I would probably not use it to post class materials or manage things. I also do not use it for official communications with my class because it is a personal, information environment. I see the benefit of Facebook as being a very informal medium for facilitating communication and community among students. ELMS or other official course tools are intended to be formal and official. Facebook is not, and I think it provides an important extension of the classroom environment that is beyond the scope of what course tools can do.

On a broader point, I think technology is really secondary to teaching. Presenting material clearly, working to make sure students understand core points, reacting to them in class, and being available for discussion makes a class successful. If you can't do that in person, using blogs or podcasts will not help in the slightest. I think these tools should be used only to add on to a course, not to replace the traditional way things are done.

TLN: Did you encounter any difficulties or challenges in using Facebook with a class? For example inappropriate messages from students or being witness to problematic profile content?

JG: I have actually never heard any comments from students about Facebook. They just use it.

Is there such a thing as problematic profile content? Students post all kinds of crazy pictures of themselves doing inappropriate things. I do take time in class at some point to tell them that posting photos of themselves drunk and half naked is a bad thing for their careers, but frankly, what they post on their Facebook profile is nobody's business but their own. I use it specifically because it is not a university system, and the students have a right to put anything they want in their profiles. It is not at all my place (nor the place of any faculty member) to tell a student that their profile content is inappropriate. It is far beyond our right to tell students what they should be doing in their real social lives, and it is equally inappropriate for us to be telling them what to do in their online social lives. Facebook is designed for posting pictures and socializing, not for classes. If we use it for classes, we need to realize our intentions are secondary. If faculty want professional profiles for their students, they shouldn't use an entertainment-oriented social network like Facebook for their class.

TLN: Will you use Facebook in future classes?

JG: Of course.

TLN: What advice or caveats would you offer teachers or administrators who are beginning to interact with students in virtual environments?

First, anyone considering using Facebook or a virtual environment in their class should use it themselves, actively, for several months before the class starts.  It is important to be familiar with all the issues, features, and possibilities of the tool you are using. You also should be sensitive to the learning curve and privacy concerns of students. For example, I would never use Second Life for students, because it requires them to learn a lot of new things that have nothing to do with the course material. Facebook, on the other hand, allows them to put in just their name and nothing else, hide their personal information, and work in a very familiar online environment. Finally, teachers should keep in mind that they are borrowing technology from Facebook or another virtual environment. It is not designed around them, and their interests are secondary to the primary purpose of the site. It should be used for the features it brings by default and not forced to support other needs of the class. That's what course management software is for.

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Teaching and Learning News
Spencer Benson, Director
Dave Eubanks, Assistant Director
Anna Bedford, Editor