• August 28, 2015

How Social Networking Helps Teaching (and Worries Some Professors)

Professors crowded into conference rooms here this week to learn how to use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in their classrooms, though some attendees raised privacy issues related to the hypersocial technologies.

About 750 professors and administrators attended the conference on "Emerging Technologies for Online Learning," run jointly by the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit group to support teaching with technology, and two other educational software and resource providers.

A session on Facebook held Thursday morning attracted a standing-room-only crowd, with people packed into the room and huddled in the doorway. One benefit of the popular social network is that, unlike course-management systems such as Blackboard, students already know how to use it, said the presenter, Denise Knowles, a Web-application specialist at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, Calif. She encouraged professors to use Facebook to send out announcements for their courses and to design assignments where students post responses using the service.

But she also recommended that professors set up two Facebook accounts—one for communicating with students and another for personal connections. That way, professors can clearly keep their professional identities walled off from other important aspects of their lives. "We need our privacy," she said. "I don't want people seeing pictures of my children, and I don't want people seeing pictures of my life."

Not everyone is so cautious, however. Tanya M. Joosten, a lecturer in the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee's department of communication, gave out her Facebook address during her session. She said she uses privacy settings in the service to control what various "friends" can see, and she suggested that professors set up a separate page on Facebook for a course, which allows students to connect to the page without seeing the personal information of the professor or others who have "liked" the page. Then professors can post updates to the course Facebook page, which are automatically pushed to the pages of students who follow it.

"It's coming right down to them in a medium that they're already using anyway," she said. A survey she did of her own students showed that 83 percent approved of professors pushing class updates via Facebook. "I've never seen ratings so high in any emerging technology project I've done," she said.

3 Unusual Ideas

This year's conference dealt with three themes: the use of mobile technologies like iPhones; online video and other high-bandwidth tools; and social-networking platforms such as Facebook, said Jeremy W. Kemp, co-chair for the conference and a lecturer at San Jose State University.

Among the more unusual suggestions during presentations:

  • Ask students to do role-playing exercises on Facebook or Twitter. For instance, students in an American-history course could each be required to set up a Facebook page for a historical figure and periodically post "status updates" of things the famous people did. Similarly, Utah State University organized a Civil War re-enactment on Twitter.
  • Learn how to use the tracking feature of YouTube to see how many students tune in to videos of lectures that professors post. Sam McGuire, an assistant professor of music at the University of Colorado at Denver, said by doing so, he learned that some students came back months later to watch his videos.
  • Send students one-minute video reminders about class assignments using a free service called Eyejot. Traci LaBarbera Stromie, an instructional designer at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, said video messages, rather than e-mail reminders, could "keep students more engaged" in the class.

Technology Does Not Equal Learning

Some attendees stressed that there is a danger that professors would use new technologies just because they seemed cool, rather than for any specific learning goal.

"Everybody talks about using technology, but what is the effect on learning?" said Shari McCurdy Smith, associate director of the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service at the University of Illinois at Springfield, in an interview after the Facebook session. "I think this is a great concern I hear a lot."

She said she has seen some evidence that technology is improving learning, but more research should be done.

The attendance and interest in Facebook surprised her, though. After all, just a few years ago, it seemed that most professors complained about how much time their students frittered away on the service, she said.


1. chedept - July 23, 2010 at 08:33 am

Meeting the students where they are in terms of skills and knowledge is one thing--some call that the essence of teaching--but this other impulse should be resisted.

How exactly does it serve the students who hope to succeed in the working world?--assuming that an employer eventually seeks them out on facebook or twitters them a job offer.

2. interface - July 23, 2010 at 09:09 am

Technology is a good servant and a bad master; there's no substitute for excellence in teaching. At one end you have the professors who still have to have a student come up and show them how to get that image or video up on the screen, and who don't use email; at the other, the professors who really only see the technology and who are willing to spend most of their work time fiddling with it.

Somewhere inbetween are the professors who really stop to ask whether any given technology will actually enhance their teaching goals - and be honest about the answer.

. . . and Professor Joosten's faith in the ability of Facebook to actually keep the information she chooses private is touching but naive.

3. pknupfer - July 23, 2010 at 10:00 am

A few years ago I had students in my Civil War class creating historical figure pages at Myspace and Facebook; they created blogs, albums of photos and artwork, even networked with their historical "friends." They thoroughly enjoyed doing it and many of the sites were wonderfully imaginative and creative, but Facebook was not happy. The Facebook security people took down any such sites they found because the sites violated their firm rules against imposters. I told them that Abraham Lincoln and Clara Barton hardly fit the profile of an online stalker, but that didn't matter. I couldn't even get Facebook to let us print the sites to PDF so that the students could get them graded.

4. ebarney - July 23, 2010 at 10:29 am

Setting up accounts for a historical person or setting up duplicate personal accounts are violating the facebook terms of service. Setting up a page for a historical person or a course is not a problem.

Using facebook in creative ways is great, but if you go directly against the terms of service, you run the risk of getting your account deleted (especially if you state what you're doing in a public forum).

Early on, many libraries set up facebook accounts as personal profiles because they saw students using it so much in computer labs and wanted to send out announcements that way. Many of these accounts were deleted for violating the terms of service and facebook eventually created groups and pages as an alternate way for institutions to establish a presence.

Yet using facebook the way its intended without thinking about privacy controls (for the professors or for the students - who may not want you to see everything they do) risks the creepy treehouse effect. Having a clear understanding of what it's intended to do and how to set up controls properly is worth the effort and can be a valuable learning tool. But you need to train both the professors and the students.

5. koufax33 - July 23, 2010 at 10:41 am

Blogs may be more of an effective use for setting up such historical pages. These days, you can link them up to other social networking services as well as post video's, pics, etc. Certainly seems like an engaging, creative approach. Measuring learning objectives however, is another challenge and one that needs more consideration.

6. ltcuwm - July 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Glad to hear I am "touching but naive" -- the point was that if you create a fan page for your course rather than having your students "friend" you, you can maintain your privacy.

There needs to be a bigger discussion about privacy. Anything I post on facebook isn't really private with my 300 friends anyway, right? The dialectic between private and public has changed for many due to social media.

I think the desire to have privacy and expectations of privacy are "different" for many. When I did an informal poll on concern for privacy, I received lots of comments like "it's the Internet, nothing is private" and "who cares."

7. robertwgehl - July 23, 2010 at 04:24 pm

"One benefit of the popular social network is that, unlike course-management systems such as Blackboard, students already know how to use it..."

Not that I'm a big fan of Blackboard, but I get very nervous when we push students into a service like Facebook. Facebook has steadily changed their terms of service and made some pretty disturbing claims on the intellectual property of users. I'd rather hear about course that teach students about IP, privacy, and the production of value on the Web (and how user-generated value is captured by these firms) than hear about courses that use FB as a content-management system.

8. history_student1 - July 23, 2010 at 05:48 pm

The medium is the message. If professors treat their classes like entertainment, so will students. It seems to me one of the goals of a liberal education is to teach students the difference between trivia, albeit harmless (facebook, twitter, texting, etc.) and material of lasting value.

9. derekbruff - July 24, 2010 at 05:39 pm

@robertgwehl: You make a good point about being cautious about pushing students into Facebook. I see Facebook fan pages for my courses (as Tanya Joosten uses them, described above) as an *optional* way for students to stay up-to-date on course information. Most of my students are already on Facebook, so giving them to option to "like" a Facebook page in order to receive course updates is a easy way for me to help them stay connected in the course.

Of course, even those most of my students are already on Facebook, a few of them aren't. (After all, Facebook "only" has 500 million users. That leaves several billion people not on there!) I wouldn't want to *require* a student to create a Facebook account for my course. But given them more than one option (the standard campus email option) to stay connected to a course is a nice gesture.

There are also potential FERPA concerns. Requiring students to join your Facebook fan page means essentially forcing them to tell Facebook that they're enrolled in your course. That runs counter to FERPA which says that students should get to decide whom to tell about their course enrollments.

@history_student1: If you really think of Twitter as "trivia," then you should probably do some reading about Twitter.

10. jlmatson - July 24, 2010 at 06:55 pm

"Then professors can post updates to the course Facebook page, which are automatically pushed to the pages of students who follow it."

This was not my experience, and so I quit using Facebook for a class. That is, when using a group page for a course, messages were NOT pushed out automatically to the students. Rather, the group page was a "pull" page, meaning students had to go to it specifically. This limited its value to me because students didn't go to the course page because the new posts were not in their feeds.

Does anyone have a different experience?

11. dschummer - July 26, 2010 at 09:38 am

Effective online courses should introduce instructional content solely on the merit of its value in aiding the learning process. Just because you "can" link/add social media, doesn't mean you should. I look to see if the activity contributes to student learning and relates to a particular learning objective.Otherwise it can be distracting or viewed as busywork.

On the other hand, social media has a capacity to connect different attitudes and views on topics, and I think this is important for real collaborative learning. Peer-to-peer contact and collaboration is essential in online learning environments.

As the director of an online learning program, I prefer linking our student community through a campus portal as well as Google sites.

12. derekbruff - July 26, 2010 at 11:15 am

@jlmatson: The Facebook pages to which I belong definitely "push" info to me. I wonder, however, if I notice that because I "only" have 250 or so friends on Facebook. If I had 1000+ friends (like a lot of students seem to have), the info from pages might get lost in my news feed.

13. jpetit - July 26, 2010 at 03:06 pm

JL, there are two things under discussion here: groups and Pages. Groups won't push information out. Pages do, until the user opts out.

Students would still need to check the course page to make sure they didn't miss any important updates.

14. formica56 - July 26, 2010 at 11:15 pm

I understand the need to protect the instructors' personal information and thus, the need to create separate facebook pages. However, what about the students' privacy? I imagine there are many students who would not want their professors, instructors, etc., to see the same things they post for friends. And as already mentioned, some students might object to people outside of their educational realm to know about their courses.

15. ltcuwm - July 27, 2010 at 06:54 am


The data indicated that students reported higher feelings of connectedness after the implementation of facebook/twitter. I did a pre-post administration of the survey.

@tjoosten ;)

16. goandychurch - July 27, 2010 at 10:10 am

Learning management systems have not delivered colloborative, sharing capabilities that students have become accustom to. This void has been filled with all kinds of creative uses of new tech including FB, Twitter, Ning and purpose built learning networks. Make no mistake, there are trade-offs when you opt-in and use free tools.

A great and transparent example is the Discovery Channel's Full disclose on what you are giving up by joining "The Colony", does a nice job highlight exactly what you are giving up. http://ht.ly/2h8RF

Keep in mind what the founder of FB said about his users. Read more: http://www.newser.com/story/88716/zuckerberg-once-mocked-dumb-users-over-trust.html#ixzz0utKpF3eW

School administrators are likely grabbling with this right now. When we introduced a low-cost personal branding program to use through post-secondary, we did so with user data and privacy in mind. We sell it like a textbook and user data is owned by the student.

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