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Why This Professor Is Encouraging Facebook Use in His Classroom

Facebook and academe aren’t exactly friends. Over the years, the social-media company has been the source of ethically questionable research, the purveyor of uncomfortable teacher-student interactions, and, of course, the consummate classroom distraction, scourge of lecture halls the world over.

At least on that last note, however, one researcher says higher education has unfairly maligned the social-media behemoth. Kevin D. Dougherty, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, has spent the last two and a half years measuring how the Facebook group he created for his introduction-to-sociology course affected student performance. He found that students who participated in the online group enjoyed the course more, felt a stronger sense of belonging, and got better grades than those who did not participate.

In short, Mr. Dougherty says, the class’s Facebook group helped “turn 250 strangers that happen to sit in a class together into a community.”

Academics, including Mr. Dougherty, have long used Facebook and other digital forums to facilitate classroom discussion. The professor formed his first course Facebook group four years ago. But it wasn’t until a teaching assistant with experience in social-media management took over that the strategy bore fruit.

“Not only was she a digital native, she had experience in a former work setting using Facebook for her company,” says Mr. Dougherty. “She quickly realized we have to have content on here that piques students’ interest from the beginning.”

Mr. Dougherty now designates one of his teaching assistants as a “social-media director.” That person is responsible for moderating online conversations and renewing the Facebook group’s content. There are pictures, videos, and a regular question-of-the-day series. Students can even win small prizes, such as a Starbucks gift card, based on the number of likes they receive on a post.

That all of this is happening on Facebook—as opposed to, say, the university’s course-management system—is a key point for Mr. Dougherty. “This is where students are spending their time already,” he says. “Let’s make use of it.”

In the past, conversations about Facebook in the college classroom have often highlighted its attention-sapping qualities—a perception the company appears eager to correct.

Mr. Dougherty says representatives of Facebook contacted him in April, the same month he published his findings in the journal Teaching Sociology, in a paper written with Brita Andercheck, the teaching assistant with the social-media savvy.

Mr. Dougherty believes company officials saw him as someone who might help them “gain some legitimacy in academic settings,” although he notes between chuckles that he “has not been on the Facebook jet or received any compensation from Facebook.”

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