Using Facebook as an Educational Resource in the Classroom
Summary and Keywords
Facebook is a social networking site created in 2004 which has since obtained over a billion users, and it has the potential to facilitate learning in the classroom. With the widespread use of Facebook in society, it simply makes sense to look into ways it might be used in higher education. In fact, a number of studies have been done by scholars in different disciplines regarding the use of Facebook (in general and in academia). These include studies by scholars in library science, education, media and communication, psychology, management information systems, business, political science, marketing, instructional technology, and commerce and accounting. Students come to school wired and are willing and eager to use technology, but higher education has a well-established trend toward non-adoption of new technologies. A variety of studies on the use of Facebook, however, indicate that there are a wide number of potential benefits to using Facebook as an educational tool. There are four inter-related potential benefits: creating a sense of community and promoting collaboration, enhancing communication between instructors and students, developing computer literacy and language skills, and incorporating current student culture into the learning environment. In addition, Facebook is particularly well suited for sharing and discussion of current events in the news.
As instructors in higher education seek new ways to connect with their students in order to facilitate learning, they are increasingly experimenting with a variety of new technologies in the classroom. One technology that has been incorporated to only a limited extent, but that has potential, is the use of the social networking site Facebook. Facebook was created in 2004 specifically for use among students at Harvard University but quickly became available to universities across the United States, and eventually to the general public around the world in 2006. Use of Facebook has since skyrocketed from 100 million users in 2008 to 1.3 billion users in 2014 (Facebook Statistics, 2014). There are many other similar technologies, such as Google+, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter, but only Twitter approaches the high number of users that Facebook has. In March 2014, 82% of Internet users worldwide had Facebook accounts. Because of its wide usage, Facebook provides a readily accessible platform that can be adapted for educational purposes, given thoughtful planning and curricular design. There are many other online applications that can enhance learning, such as blogs, wikis, and discussion boards, but the focus here is specifically on the use of social media in the classroom. For a good discussion of blogging and wikis, see Lawrence and Dion (2010) as well as the track summaries of Teaching with Technology from the annual APSA Teaching and Learning Conference.
The potential benefits and possible drawbacks to using Facebook in an educational context will be explored. Facebook is briefly described in terms of its functionality and common terminology. Previous studies about the uses of Facebook, broadly as well as in an academic setting, are reviewed. Specific examples of different options for incorporating Facebook as a pedagogical tool are presented.
Description of Facebook Functionality and Terminology
Components of Facebook for those who are not familiar with the platform are described, but note that Facebook functionality changes frequently and some of these descriptions may not remain entirely accurate in the future. New functionality might not be included in this description. In order to use Facebook, all users must create their own account and profile. Profiles contain basic information about the user including name, birthday, relationship status, contact information, group associations, and a photo, as well as background information about “favorites” such as books, movies, music, etc. Users can choose to provide very minimal profile information, or can be quite detailed. Users can choose to post status updates regularly, which might include a simple text statement (e.g., I am really busy today!) or a photo with or without text (e.g., picture of my cat lying on my laundry). Users can also share links to other web pages or to postings that other users have made. All of these posts can be viewed in a user’s news feed.
In order to create a network of people to interact with on Facebook, a user can search for other users by name and send a friend request to them. When this request is approved, the user can view postings by them and vice versa. There are a number of privacy controls that allow users to select how much of their information is shared with different friends. Communication between friends can take a variety of forms including messaging (similar to sending an email), chatting (instant messaging), posting comments on a user’s wall (publicly viewed space for each user), liking a post made by someone else (signaling that you have viewed and like their post), or commenting on a post (making a response to a statement, photo, or link).
In addition to personal profiles, Facebook also provides for the creation of pages and groups. Facebook pages are often associated with businesses, organizations, or institutions. In this context, a common Facebook page might be affiliated with a university or an academic department. Pages are public and visible to all users on Facebook. Users can choose to like the page and will receive status updates that are posted by that organization. Pages are often used to communicate upcoming events and other news to large numbers of people who have an interest in the organization or institution. Groups are designed to create communities of people who share a common connection, allowing them to organize, discuss issues, post photos, and share related content. Group settings might be open, allowing anyone to join, or closed, requiring an invitation from the group administrator. Settings also allow the administrator to determine whether postings to the group page are private, to be seen only by group members, or public. Groups have slightly more functionality in terms of sharing information. Members can create and share files and pose survey questions to the group. All posts made on the group page appear in the members’ newsfeed. More discussion about how to use these different Facebook tools is found in the section “Using Facebook in the Classroom (and Beyond).”
Brief Overview of Scholarly Literature
A number of studies have been done by scholars in different disciplines regarding the use of Facebook (in general and in academia). Sources include studies by scholars in library science, education, media and communication, psychology, management information systems, business, political science, marketing, instructional technology, and commerce and accounting. One unexpected discovery was that a large number of librarians seem to be exploring the possibilities of Facebook and other social network sites. Many studies are based on surveys of students and faculty regarding their usage of and attitudes toward Facebook. One of the most comprehensive reviews of these recent studies is by Hew (2011), who looks at 36 separate empirical studies that include surveys as well as content analyses. Drawing on all of these sources, he divides his findings into two categories: (1) a Student Facebook Usage Profile, which includes motivations for usage, usage patterns, and privacy settings, and (2) the Effects of Using Facebook, which includes self-disclosure effects, online discussions, academic performance, and student attitudes. Based on data from these 36 studies, the results reveal that students mostly use Facebook for social interaction to maintain existing offline relationships (77% reported none of their Facebook friends originated online). Very little content is related to education (4% of total postings). A large majority (91%) reported that they had never contacted academic staff using Facebook. On average, students spend about 40 minutes per day on Facebook and have between 150 and 350 friends in their network. Disclosure and privacy settings varied, with students more willingly sharing their birthdays, hometowns, and email addresses than their phone numbers and physical addresses.
One of the challenges in drawing on the insights of Hew and other studies is that statistical survey data rapidly becomes outdated when discussing technologies such as social networking sites (SNS). There has been a rapid evolution in societal perceptions and uses of the Internet since the early 2000s (Roblyer, McDaniel, Webb, Herman, & Witty, 2010). In addition, many of the experiments that have been conducted have had a fairly narrow scope and thus cannot answer all of the questions raised about usage of social networking sites. For example, one study tested student attitudes about an instructor’s Facebook profile with the instructor being a female under 40. It seems likely that were this repeated with a male faculty member over 40 the results might vary notably (Mazer, Murphy, & Simonds, 2009). There is thus room for many more studies in order to gain a more complete understanding, as well as to follow the most recent trends in usage and social attitudes. It is also important to look at the data results specifically, not just the author’s interpretations, because some draw negative conclusions from data that others view as positive. For example, one study indicates that over 60% of students are willing to “friend” teachers (Sturgeon & Walker, 2009). This could be characterized as “a majority” of students are willing to friend their instructors, or could be framed as “barely half” are willing to do so. People must draw their own conclusions about whether a glass is “half empty” or “half full” based on the data available.
Overall, the numerous studies that have been conducted provide useful insights to instructors for moving forward and considering the potentials for incorporating Facebook into the classroom.
Potential Benefits to Using Facebook as an Educational Tool
With the widespread use of Facebook in society, it simply makes sense to look into ways it might be used in the classroom. Roblyer, McDaniel, Webb, Herman, and Witty argue students come to school wired and are willing and eager to use technology, but “higher education has a well-established trend toward non-adoption of new technologies” (2010, p. 134). A variety of studies on the use of Facebook, however, indicates that there are a wide number of potential benefits to using Facebook as an educational tool. Four inter-related potential benefits: (1) creating a sense of community and promoting collaboration, (2) enhancing communication between instructors and students, (3) developing computer literacy and language skills, and (4) incorporating current student culture into the learning environment are explored. Facebook is particularly well suited for sharing and discussion of current events in the news. Note that these benefits do not imply that Facebook should be used primarily to deliver content, but it could be used supplementally to promote student reflection on content delivered through other teaching methods.
Creating Community/Promoting Collaboration
Some of the most obvious potential benefits to incorporating the use of Facebook into the classroom stem from the basis that Facebook is designed as a social networking site (SNS). For instructors who see teaching as establishing a relationship with students, Facebook may be an effective way to connect (Roblyer et al., 2010). There are many challenges to building relationships with students, including constraints that limit students’ discretionary time on campus due to part-time work, children, or long commutes, as well as online courses that limit face-to-face time (Schwartz, 2009). With decreased time on campus, Facebook has the potential to be a “new commons . . . a place where the diverse parts of a community . . . come together and hold a conversation with a shared sense of participation and responsibility” (Dales et al. as cited in Schwartz, 2009).
The most common reason Facebook users state for using the site is to connect with friends (Hew, 2011). Although users interact most frequently with those whom they already know, Facebook can be used to extend their network to people in their classes whom they have not met previously. Schwartz (2009) also writes about the potential for Facebook to create space for mentoring between instructors and students. She cites a model developed by Jean Baker Miller that describes “mentoring episodes,” brief interactions that build relationships. Five factors that strengthen mentoring relationships are episodes that increase energy and well-being, increase potential to take action, increase knowledge of self and others, give a boost to self esteem, and promote an interest in more connection. Not all Facebook interactions meet these criteria, but sometimes they can.
Facebook can create a sense of community among users, which can lead to greater collaboration and sharing of ideas that promote learning. Muñoz and Towner (2011) refer to social constructivist learning theory, noting that learning is actively constructed by comparing material to what individuals already know. Thus the more opportunity for dialogue and sharing of ideas, the more learning can take place. This can be done through formal learning with clear curricular structure, or through informal learning with fewer or no guidelines.
Similarly, Ractham and Firpo discuss learning within “communities of practice.” These are “a method for helping create the authentic situations, activities, and contexts for generating and sharing tacit knowledge. Communities of practice are groups of people who share a common concern or passion and seek to learn it better through interaction with others within the group. Communities of practice help foster a culture of learning in which learners share their prior experience and learn from the experience of others” (2011, p. 2).
Creating a learning community is particularly challenging and important for hybrid or online courses where students don’t have the opportunity to meet face-to-face often or at all. The online format can also benefit socially shy students who find it difficult to engage in person, but who are willing to make contributions in an online venue. (This has been recognized through the use of discussion boards in course management tools such as Blackboard.) Developing technologies (Web 2.0) allow students who might be less involved, introverted, or simply unable to show up to class, to be engaged. If only 20% of students in a given classroom are willing to participate, technologies can be used to break down the participation barriers for the other 80% (Ractham & Firpo, 2011). This is described as the “long tail” phenomenon, with the head being the 20% of active students and the tail being the 80% of inactive students.
None of this is meant to suggest, however, that students will voluntarily engage in such social interactions without being required to do so for a grade. Although a few might take full advantage of such opportunities to interact, most will require a further incentive to engage in dialogue and an exchange of ideas with their peers.
A similar potential benefit to that of creating community is using Facebook to enhance communication. Any resource that helps instructors and students communicate more clearly or more frequently is likely to be beneficial to the educational experience. To the extent that Facebook can increase the quantity or quality of communications between instructors and students and between students and their peers, it should be considered as a possible teaching tool. A survey by Roblyer et al. (2010) indicates that students communicate as frequently with Facebook as they do with email, whereas instructors are far more likely to rely exclusively on email for communication. Libraries recognize that they need to connect to their patrons before they can offer services to them. Students often prefer to ask their reference questions online by email or Facebook (if offered) than face-to-face (Roblyer et al., 2010). In a survey by Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds (2007), students specifically suggested that instructors use Facebook as a way of communicating with their students. Similarly, Sturgeon and Walker (2009) note that students appear more willing to communicate with instructors if they already know them through Facebook. More students agreed that they communicate more often with instructors if they have a Facebook account, and that they have an additional connectedness in the classroom as a result of Facebook connections (Sturgeon & Walker, 2009). Facebook also has a high convenience factor, as a student at one institution noted “I usually use my mobile phone to answer the question in the discussion forum . . . I can do it on the go” (Ractham & Firpo, 2011, p. 9). With email usage by students falling in recent years and use of social networking sites (SNS) and text messaging increasing, the potential for increased communication through Facebook seems high. Facebook can be used by instructors to enhance their accessibility to students by placing themselves in the space where students are: online with SNS.
Some studies show that instructors can even enhance their own credibility and connection with students through their use of Facebook. Muñoz and Towner (2011) note that Facebook profiles can increase a user’s social presence and facilitate more personalized interactions, making instructors more accessible and relatable. Mazer et al. (2007) further reveal that Facebook profiles that are high in self-disclosure have the potential to increase students’ motivation and affective learning, based on a survey of students who viewed instructor profiles that were more or less revealing. A follow-up study revealed that students tended to perceive instructors with high disclosure profiles as more caring and trustworthy (Mazer, Murphy, & Simonds, 2009).
Facebook can also be used by students to communicate with their classmates about their courses. Lampe, Wohn, Vitak, Ellison, and Wash (2011) note the potential for students to collaborate on Facebook in order to “reduce ambiguity” in a class, in other words, to seek clarification on assignments and class expectations. Facebook and similar technologies can also be used by students working in groups to engage in “collaborative sense making,” using technology to build on each other’s knowledge and search for additional information (Lampe et al., 2011). Beyond simply clarifying assignments, collaboration might also include arranging to meet for a group project, to study for an exam, or to get help on an assignment. Lampe et al. (2011) conducted two studies examining which factors influenced student propensity to use Facebook for classroom collaboration. They discovered that intensity of personal usage and the willingness to contact an instructor through Facebook were both positively correlated with the likelihood of using Facebook for collaboration in a class. Some studies indicate that students prefer Facebook to other course management software (Chu & Meulemans, 2008). Schroeder and Greenbowe (2009) have discovered that students posted four times the number of posts in a Facebook discussion forum than they did in a WebCT site. A study by Karlin reports that 60% of students using social network sites talk about education online, and 50% talk about specific school work (2007, p. 7). Students indicate that Facebook would be “convenient” for classwork (Roblyer et al., 2010, p. 136). All of these studies suggest that Facebook is an effective medium for communication in the university setting.
Another potential benefit to employing Facebook in the classroom is to promote computer literacy skills. Muñoz and Towner (2011) note that literacy practices are “moving well beyond the printed medium to embrace the digital realm,” with new terms emerging such as “new media literacy,” “digital literacy,” and “twenty first century literacy.” They also note the need for students to learn “e-professionalism,” distinguishing between their personal and professional identities. When Facebook is incorporated into the educational setting, all of these skill areas can be developed.
In addition to teaching computer literacy skills, Facebook can also be used to help students develop their writing and communication skills. A study by Greenhow and Robelia (2009) indicates that students using social networking sites are creative in their self expression and consciously differentiate their communication choices based on audience, thus using many of the same editing and proofreading skills emphasized in the classroom. There is also considerable potential with regard to developing language skills for non-native English speakers. Kabilan, Ahmad, and Abidin (2010) conducted a survey of 300 undergraduate students at a university in Malaysia in 2008 inquiring about the suitability of Facebook as a tool for improving students’ English-language skills. Reflecting on their personal use of Facebook for socializing, over 70% of students agreed that Facebook enhanced their confidence in reading and writing in English. It also increased their motivation to learn English (pp. 183–184). Open-ended questions revealed that student interactions on Facebook were effective at building new vocabulary. When students saw new words, they would look them up and often use them later themselves. Kabilan et al. emphasize that Facebook allows for incidental learning, learning that occurs as an unplanned result of engaging in other activities (academic or non-academic). They note that learning can take place in informal settings as long as there are meaningful interactions between learners that lead to knowledge construction (p. 181). Facebook allows for authentic communication, where users are focused on meaningful communication, not the formal mechanics of language learning. The casual writing in Facebook allows creativity and expression without as much pressure for perfection sometimes demanded in the classroom. Kabilan et al.’s study notes the potential, but does not actually examine how Facebook might be deliberately incorporated into an educational setting.
A final potential benefit of using Facebook is the opportunity to incorporate contemporary student culture into the classroom. By being online with Facebook, teachers become more aware of the current pop culture references to which their students are exposed. This awareness can be used to incorporate current events and culture as examples to help students connect with the course materials (Sturgeon & Walker, 2009). Placing abstract concepts in a real-life context can deepen students’ understanding of difficult course material. Teachers may also enhance their credibility with students by showing how they understand current cultural contexts.
Challenges and Limitations to the Use of Facebook
Despite the many potential benefits of using Facebook, there are also some challenges and limitations to be considered. Many of these concerns are manageable if one is aware of the limits and seeks to proactively address them.
One of the concerns raised most frequently by both instructors and students when considering the use of Facebook in an educational setting is the potential erosion of professional boundaries (Mazer, Murphy, & Simonds, 2007; Muñoz & Towner, 2011). It is important that instructors understand how to interact with students in a way that promotes a positive perception of the teacher and classroom environment while not engaging in behaviors that might be perceived as harmful. The term “creepy tree house” has been used to describe an environment where students feel insecure because instructors are encroaching on their online space (Muñoz & Towner, 2011). Several scholars have conducted surveys asking student opinions about the appropriateness of instructors using Facebook. The results are ambiguous, varying from survey to survey. Mazer et al. find that 33% of students report that teacher use of Facebook is somewhat inappropriate, 35% report somewhat appropriate, 4% agree that it is very inappropriate, and 6% report very appropriate (2007, p. 10). Roblyer, McDaniel, Webb, Herman, and Witty found that 26% would “welcome the opportunity to connect with teachers on Facebook” and 22% felt that “Facebook is personal/social—not for education” (2010, p. 138).
In an effort to identify which types of interactive behaviors are considered most appropriate, Teclehaimanot and Hickman (2011) conducted a survey of 52 undergraduate and graduate education students at the University of Toledo. They categorized interactions as passive (reading profile information, viewing photos, watching videos that someone else has posted) or as active (sending a message, commenting on photos, sending a “poke” to engage another user). Surprisingly, Teclehaimanot and Hickman (2011) do not include the action of “liking” another user’s post in their category of behaviors to analyze. “Liking” a post is obviously an active behavior, but is perhaps not as intrusive as posting a comment. “Liking” also seems to be the most common response to many posts, so it would be useful to understand how this action is perceived by students and instructors. Teclehaimanot and Hickman also categorized interactions as student-initiated or teacher-initiated. The most accepted behaviors were student/passive behaviors, followed by teacher/passive, student/active, and teacher/active engagements. Students tend to want to be in control of online interactions with instructors. For example, instructors are not as welcome to “friend” students as students are to “friend” their instructors. There are boundaries to be drawn between being a professor and being a student’s friend. Analysis also indicated a gendered result, with more men agreeing that student-teacher interaction on Facebook was appropriate than women. Teclehaimanot and Hickman (2011) conclude that engaging in passive Facebook usage may be the safest practice, allowing students and instructors to get to know each other better, but to let that translate into more positive learning outcomes in the classroom rather than in an online environment.
Students have also offered advice to instructors with regard to their Facebook content, suggesting that teachers be cautious about what others say on their wall, and recommending that they avoid putting anything about politics on their pages. This recommendation with regard to politics might be more challenging in some disciplines than others. Students even recommended that instructors avoid posting content that students might make fun of them about (Mazer et al., 2007, p. 12).
A similar concern to the issue of professionalism is addressing concerns about privacy and security. This is true on the part of both instructors and students. There are both instructors and students who refuse to create a Facebook account because they simply don’t want to expose themselves to the risks of having an online profile. For those instructors who do have Facebook accounts, they often do not want to share too much of their personal lives with students; and similarly, students do not want teachers to spy on them, or lecture them about what they find on the students’ Facebook pages (Mazer et al., 2007, p. 12). Although popular media sometimes portray that young people do not care about privacy and are not careful about what they post, some studies have shown that students are well aware of the need to limit what they post to avoid negative impacts on future employment. Facebook does have specific privacy settings that allow users to distinguish between different groups of “friends” in terms of what content is shared. Younger users, in fact, make more adjustments to their privacy settings than do older users. However, not all users are familiar or comfortable with the privacy settings in Facebook. Those who are less confident are less likely to impose privacy restrictions on their account (boyd & Hargittai, 2010). One way to address privacy issues for the most cautious students is to allow them to create special accounts for class usage only that contain minimal information. A recommendation similar to this is suggested for instructors: that they create a simple professional profile that is used academically but not as their personal Facebook page. The one drawback to this minimalist solution is that self-disclosure is lower, which may affect some of the other potential benefits previously noted.
As with any online environment, users need to be aware of the potential for meanness, bullying and harassment. Students do not tend to encounter this type of behavior often, however, reporting instead that negative experiences most frequently include information that is misinterpreted, people trying to communicate with others who are not interested in doing so, and inappropriate pictures or messages posted on walls. Twenty percent of students reported that they were stalked (constantly messaged by an individual) once or twice a year, and that sexually provocative messages or references to partying were rare (Hew, 2011, p. 667).
Facebook as a Distraction
Anecdotally, instructors believe that Facebook is a serious distraction to their students and can harm their academic performance. Hew’s (2011) review of the literature is inconclusive on this concern. If students’ average daily time online is between 10 and 60 minutes, then this suggests that students should still have plenty of time for their academic studies. A study by Kirschner and Karpinski (2010), however, shows a correlation between lower GPAs and high Facebook usage. Facebook users report spending fewer hours studying per week (1–5 hours) than non-users (11–15 hours). This study does not show causation but does indicate a need to be aware of potential problems.
Access and Navigation Skills
The use of technology in education is constantly evolving, and instructors need to be aware of the level of access students have to it, as well as their skill levels in using technology. One of the reasons that Facebook is a relatively easy technology to adopt is because a majority of students already use it. It can place students at a disadvantage, however, if they have limited Internet access, or have not previously established a Facebook account. (This is true for other online tools as well, such as Blackboard or Moodle.) In some developing countries, such as Brazil, the government has spearheaded a progressive push to extend Internet access across the country, putting nearly 100 million Brazilians online, even in the remote rainforests (Holmes, 2013). If individuals do not have Internet access at home, it is important that the university provide computers for student use so that using this technology in the classroom does not widen the digital divide.
Students who do not have a high sense of self-efficacy with regard to technological skills may not collaborate as frequently using Facebook for communication. In particular, students who are not confident about managing their privacy settings on Facebook are less likely to collaborate in this setting (Lampe, Wohn, Vitak, Ellison, & Wash, 2011, p. 342).
Another challenge related to access is that Facebook is not integrated with other educational platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle. This means that students and instructors must log in to at least two different platforms in order to access course content and communication software. This is less of a challenge for students than faculty because they are on Facebook more frequently (Roblyer et al., 2010).
Assessing Student Performance in Facebook
Assigning grades based on student use of Facebook for course work can also be difficult. Because Facebook does not provide a word count function, or any kind of automated grading system, instructors must consider how to assess work done in the Facebook environment in a way that will not take excessive time. One simple way is to provide points based on participation. Facebook groups can be searched by name and will list all of the postings by one person together for a simple tally. If an instructor wants to grade based on quality of content, this would take more time to read all of the posts, but this is true for discussion board postings within university course software as well.
University Culture/Administrative Restrictions
One last challenge worth noting is the possibility of restrictive university administration policies regarding the use of Facebook. Before incorporating any aspect of Facebook into the classroom, instructors should be aware of what policies are in place at their institution regarding the use of social networking sites.
It is also important to recognize the culture of the university where an instructor is teaching. Some institutions place a much higher value on connectedness, availability, and openness to students than others do (Sturgeon & Walker, 2009). If such values are not part of the institutional culture, an instructor might be stepping beyond the norms of university community by incorporating Facebook into the classroom and should do so cautiously.
Using Facebook in the Classroom (and Beyond)
Given the variety of potential benefits as well as possible challenges to using Facebook in the higher education setting, instructors should give careful consideration as to why they want to use Facebook as an educational tool and how they will incorporate it into the structure of a class. Very basic ideas for use of Facebook are presented, as well as some more extensive possibilities, depending on the identified goals of the instructor.
Creating a Professional Facebook Profile
If one of the instructor’s goals is to connect effectively with students beyond the classroom, the most basic strategy is for the instructor to create a Facebook profile that his or her students can view at their own discretion. Studies show that students respond positively to instructors who provide some degree of self-disclosure (either in the classroom or online) (Mazer, Murphy, & Simonds, 2007). This is a passive strategy that may make a small positive difference in the way that instructors are perceived by their students.
A further step that can be taken that still places students fully in control of the interaction is for instructors to hold online office hours on Facebook, letting students know that they will be available. Students can either message or chat with a professor synchronously rather than relying on asynchronous emailing. In addition, students can initiate these communications without taking the step of becoming a Facebook friend with the instructor. Schwartz (2009) notes that “students appreciate my accessibility and without question, respect my boundaries . . . even this surface level contact is important, helping us maintain and strengthen our connection until the next big question arises.”
Creating a Facebook Page for Classroom Management
Facebook pages are often used by institutions to communicate campus events and activities to students and to try to promote campus engagement, but they can also be used in individual classes as a classroom management tool. Students use Facebook more consistently than they access course management software such as Blackboard, so it makes sense to provide online content in a location that students access frequently (Loving & Ochoa, 2011). Instructors can create a class Facebook page and invite students to “like” the page so that they receive announcements, current events news, and updates on class projects, etc. Students can engage with the instructor or with their peers through posting comments and replies on the page. Librarians have experimented with this option to a greater extent than many instructors, seeking to push out helpful library resource information to students (Loving & Ochoa, 2011). It should be noted that pages are publicly viewable, so while the content may be class specific, others can still view it. This can pose a problem if the goal is to encourage students to participate candidly in an online discussion.
Creating a Facebook Group
For greater functionality, an instructor can create a Facebook group for the class, allowing students to share documents and engage in discussions in a less public setting. This option could be particularly beneficial for fully online or hybrid classes (part online/part face to face). Trying to get students to feel connected to each other when in an online environment can be a challenge, but increased engagement does help with learning. For online or face-to-face classes, students could be encouraged to simply use Facebook as a discussion board on a regular basis, commenting on assigned topics or current events through the group page, or engaging in live chat sessions. A Facebook group might include all members of a class, or it might consist of subgroups within the class who are perhaps assigned to work together on a course project. The document sharing function for groups is helpful in organizing a group project. One drawback is that Facebook groups do not have the grading or online testing features that course management software does.
One example of how a Facebook group was used is described by Ractham and Firpo (2011). They sought to form a “community of practice” as a supplement to their university course in 2009. For their Introduction to Management Information Systems (MIS) class, Ractham and Firpo created a Facebook group of 69 students with two goals in mind: (1) enable instructors to build and maintain strong connections with and among the first-year students and (2) create an informal learning environment where students collaborate and learn from each other. The instructors adopted a pedagogy that invited students to fully participate during class discussions, and then encouraged these discussions to continue online through Facebook. Students were expected to provide content on the group Facebook page through wall posts, by posting videos and photos, and by commenting on each other’s posts of course topic–related news. Students were encouraged to ask questions and to answer the questions that were posed by others. Discussion was mandatory and linked to weekly assignments. The authors’ content analysis, following the conclusion of the class, was based on a total of 2,640 posts in the Facebook group as well as surveys completed by the students. Students posted on average twice a week and were most likely to use comments, followed by discussion postings. Posting photos was also a popular activity. The survey indicated that 78% of students believed that Facebook was useful as a supplemental learning tool for class. They thought the discussion and photo features were most useful for learning, while comments and private messages were more useful for communication. Videos, fun quizzes, and tagging were viewed simply as fun activities (p. 8). One variation to this structure would be to assign a “lead” role to different group members throughout the semester to post relevant content for viewing and discussion.
Groups might even include members beyond a single class, perhaps bringing together multiple course sections on campus for a greater peer to peer exchange, or even connecting with students from other institutions. In one experiment, students from Japan, Canada, the United States, and Brazil were connected via a Facebook group to share postings on their understandings of common terms in international politics (Shaw, 2013). The purpose of this collaboration was to expose students to the perspectives of their peers in other countries in order to understand that not all terms are understood in the same way around the world. In this international collaboration, over 100 students were assigned six key concepts, such as “development,” “globalization,” and “peace,” and were instructed to come up with an image that illustrated that concept to them personally. They were told to post the image as well as a brief explanation for why they thought that image was illustrative of the key concept. For example, one student posted a picture of a McDonald’s in Japan to illustrate globalization and explained that globalization meant that multinational corporations sold their products all around the world. On some topics postings were quite similar by students from different countries, but on others there were clear cultural or regional differences. The topic of development, in particular, led to postings that were clearly from the “Global North” or the “Global South” (developed vs. developing countries).
Another international collaborative project used Facebook groups to simulate peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine (Ben-Yehuda, Naveh, & Levin-Banchik, 2014). The facilitator recruited teachers from schools around the world to participate in an experimental Facebook simulation. They were each assigned different key actors in the Israeli-Palestinian talks and placed in regional blocks (EU group, U.S. group, Palestinian group, etc.) The regional blocks were instructed to come up with their own priorities and strategies for the talks (this was done asynchronously several weeks in advance by posting on the subgroup’s page). Then, all of the players logged in for two hours for a synchronous negotiation session. The facilitator created several thematic threads for the negotiations (e.g., Status of Jerusalem, settlements, etc.) and participants began posting their positions and trying to work out compromises. The project faced one challenge that is very real with students, not just teachers: not everyone participated at a high level (or at all). This led to some awkward negotiations (Hamas spoke for all Palestinians because Fatah was not present) and was a little bit frustrating. The other challenge that was perhaps unique is that the participants were from many time zones, so the synchronous negotiations required some participants to be up very early and others to be up very late. Overall, Facebook provided a simple, functional platform for this collaborative experiment.
Connecting with Students Abroad and with Alumni
An additional suggestion regarding the use of Facebook for education is to use it to link with students studying abroad as well as alumni (Roblyer, McDaniel, Webb, Herman, & Witty, 2010). Students who are studying abroad gain a wealth of experience through their travels that could be very valuable to share with students at home. By encouraging them to post their experiences on Facebook to share, many others can benefit. This might also have a positive side effect of helping students abroad cope with homesickness by connecting them to their peers through sharing their experiences. By using Facebook to connect with alumni, universities are able to maintain a network of relationships with former students. Many alumni are willing to assist current students or recent graduates with internship opportunities, job hunting, and career development. Institutional Facebook pages or groups can provide a useful platform for these interactions to take place.
There is clear evidence that Facebook is not a North American phenomenon but has been widely adopted around the world. International usage data from 2013 shows that 75% of Facebook users are outside of the United States, with 250 million in Europe, 254 million in Asia, and 200 million in Central and South America (compared to 184 million in North America) (Internet World Stats). Facebook is now available in 70+ languages. A review of the existing literature regarding Facebook usage in the classroom, however, reveals a clear North American bias. Most of the studies that involve survey data focus almost exclusively on U.S. university settings and students. Hew (2011) in fact argues that future research should be conducted with students and teachers from different countries in order to better understand whether and how different sociocultural and geographical contexts may influence the use of Facebook compared to the Anglo-American focus of research to date.
Countries with the greatest potential might include Brazil, India, and Russia, where Facebook usage is increasing significantly. Commentators have suggested, in fact, that Brazil, with over 70 million Facebook users, has become the “social media capital of the universe” (Chao, 2013). Facebook vice president Alexandre Hohagen suggests that Brazilians are inherently social people, finding usage of social network sites quite attractive (Holmes, 2013). He notes that this is not a uniquely Brazilian trait, but that other conditions have come together to make Brazil a particularly dynamic market for social networking sites such as Facebook. Both Horst (2011) and Holmes (2013) note that social media has a true democratic quality in Brazil, where there is growing access to mobile phone service. Through digital inclusion efforts such as LAN houses (Internet café–like settings) and digital inclusion points (DIPs), Brazil is managing to bridge the digital divide between the rich and poor with regard to Internet and SNS access. In addition, use of Facebook seems to extend beyond a mere social pastime, to serve as a professional connective network (similar to LinkedIn). This may make the use of Facebook even more beneficial in education, allowing connections between current and former students, and potentially developing mentoring or employment opportunities.
Given the wide range of uses for Facebook in an academic setting, and the balance that individuals have to find with regard to professionalism and privacy, there are not many guidelines that fit all situations. However, there are some suggestions that emerge based on the survey data and experiments noted. One recommendation is that instructors provide clear instructions for using Facebook, especially the privacy settings, before incorporating it into the classroom. Instructors should also give clear guidelines regarding boundaries of use (when they will respond, types of postings that are acceptable within a group, etc.). This addresses some concerns about professionalism as well as navigation skills. It is also a good practice to share with the students the reasons for selecting Facebook as a classroom tool and what learning objectives the instructor hopes to accomplish through its use.
Another recommendation that also seeks to address concerns about navigation skills and access, as well as privacy concerns, is that use of Facebook in the classroom should be made optional or supplemental, not mandatory. This is a trade-off, however; if the purpose is to build community, then having some members who don’t participate weakens attainment of that objective. Also, given students’ busy lives, they may choose to opt out of anything that does not have a graded component. One compromise would be to make Facebook engagement one of several graded alternatives, thus letting students self-select into the activity that is most comfortable for them.
Conclusions/a Look to the Future
The literature on Facebook usage in educational settings has been presented, recognizing that there is still research to be done in a non–North American context. This literature points to a number of potential educational benefits, including: creating community and promoting collaboration, enhancing communication, developing computer literacy as well as language skills, and incorporating pop as well as foreign cultures into the classroom. Some of the recognized challenges include privacy concerns, maintaining professionalism, guaranteeing access, preventing distractions to learning, and operating under university restrictions. Depending on the instructor’s specific pedagogical goals, Facebook can provide a setting where students can get to know their instructor better, receive clarification on assignments and engage in discussions with their classmates, and even connect with students beyond the campus (in study abroad and from other institutions). It can even be used as a platform for negotiations in a simulation. Facebook clearly provides room for flexibility and creativity in the classroom.
Given the ever-evolving state of technology, however, it is unlikely that Facebook will remain the predominate social network site forever. Surveys of teens reveal a global decline in usage of Facebook as a “one-stop” site (GlobalWebIndex) and wider usage of multiple apps with more narrow functions (such as Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest). There are also competitive regional apps such as Qzone (in Chinese) (Smith, 2013). Despite challenges from these other apps, Facebook is far from obsolete and remains a useful platform for use in the classroom. In addition, many of the benefits and lessons noted here in reference to Facebook can also apply to using other online social apps. Students will likely have the same concerns about privacy and professionalism if Google+ is incorporated into a class as they do with Facebook. This constant shifting usage of social apps presents a real challenge to instructors who tend to be slow to incorporate technologies into the classroom in the first place. Faculty need to continue to be open to experimenting with new things at the margins to see what brings value to the educational experience and what does not.
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