Tuesday, December 11, 2007

ECAR: Facebook as a teaching tool?

Last week the folks at ECAR were kind enough to have me speak at their annual research symposium. I will post a link when the slides are available.
For my presentation, I gave an overview of SNSs (drawing on danah's and my overview article), a review of research on Facebook (such as Eszter's and Scott's work), and then talked a lot about our research on Facebook use and social capital. I did want to tailor it a bit for the audience at hand, so I included some discussion of Facebook as a teaching tool. Although there is no research that I've seen that explicitly discusses pedagogical applications of Facebook, recently I was able to speak with Fred Stutzman and BJ Fogg, both of whom have incorporated Facebook into their classes.
Fred used Facebook as a communication forum for his class, much the way others use ANGEL or BlackBoard. He felt that conversations among students were improved by the addition of the identity information provided by Facebook. Knowing what we know about the impact of anonymity on communication, this makes sense. BJ Fogg recently devoted an entire class at Stanford to the development of Facebook applications. A few of the applications created by students have been wildly successful - in a couple of cases, garnering more than one million downloads and substantial revenues for their creators.
In my talk, I discussed what I saw as some potential benefits and drawbacks to Facebook as a deeply embedded teaching tool. Overall, I conclude that Facebook has real potential to be used in limited contexts but I believe institutions of higher education should exercise caution when it comes to using Facebook for graded assignments and the like.

Some potential benefits of the site in regards to teaching and learning with Facebook:
  • Facebook is already integrated into students’ daily practices - students don't like having another password to remember or URL to bookmark, and using Facebook as an instructor-to-student communication forum might be appreciated by some students. Sending students reminders about assignments using Facebook might be perceived as a convenience by students - and they might be more likely to see these announcements (versus those sent by email or CMSs)
  • Higher level of engagement? There's a question mark by this one, but if my findings on blogging in the classroom are any indication, a new context is often more engaging and interesting (at least initially) for students
  • Potential to make identity information more salient during class discussions
  • Adds “social” peer-to-peer component
  • Facebook use has the potential to help students hone their digital literacy skills, an increasingly important skill for students to have in order to be successful digital citizens and professionals once they leave the university
On the other hand, there are reasons to be cautious. They are:
  • Facebook's (lack of) accountability to the University. Facebook is a private company and essentially can do whatever it likes in regards to changing its Terms Of Service and intellectual property and privacy policies. This puts any instructor or institution that is relying on their environment at a disadvantage. Additionally, relying on a third party to host student material (which will be graded) is awkward, given that it may or not be archived and could disappear at any time
  • Exposure to advertising messages - Is it ethical to mandate that students engage with a system exposes them to marketing materials
  • Non-users: what about the 5-21% of students without Facebook accounts?
  • FERPA considerations: using Facebook as a discussion board might be problematic vis a vis FERPA in that the student class list is publicly available. For an elective course in which Facebook participation is optional, it's probably not a problem.
  • Reshaping of instructor-student relationship: As a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed pointed out, "friending" between instructors and students is uncharted territory. Some instructors fear it leads to problematic familiarity; some students think it's creepy
  • Student resistance: Probably the primary reason to tread slowly. Students have a specific vision of the ways in which they enjoy using Facebook. For many, it is a playful environment distinct from their academic pursuits. Reminding them about a final exam via Facebook may be the equivalent of showing up at a frat party on a Saturday night with some calculus problems to solve -- and just as unwelcome.
In short, I think there are reasons to explore the use of Facebook and other SNSs for certain kinds of educational experiences, but only the ones that make sense from a pedagogical and a technical perspective. Some uses that seem particularly effective to me: Alumni outreach, discrete applications (like the one that allows students to search U of M's library holdings from within FB), event publicity, and matching students as mentors or roommates.

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