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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Will you use Facebook in future classes?
JG: Of course.
What advice or caveats would you offer teachers
or administrators who are beginning to interact with students in
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.