Sunday, August 24, 2008

Facebook: Changing The Way Faculty And Students Interact

Facebook: Changing The Way Faculty And Students Interact

The vast majority of undergraduate students and many graduate students at the University of Maryland have accounts on the social networking site Facebook. The site provides support for maintaining social connections, even very casual ones, and for browsing friends of friends. It also has the capability to support community groups with discussion boards, shared links, videos and photos, and a public comment space.

All of these features can be useful tools for supporting classes at the university. Facebook is not affiliated with the university; this allows it to be a forum for students to have more casual social interactions in a virtual space just like they can have causal social interactions outside of the classroom that support learning.

Dr. [Jen] Golbeck uses Facebook for all of her classes. She created a group for her class and requires all the students to join it. This creates a place where students can see basic information about one another; for example, a Facebook group shows the photo and name of all its members There are several benefits to this, starting with the very simple.

For faculty, this allows us to learn names and faces more quickly. In larger undergraduate classes, this is a very useful tool. For students who have made details of their profile available, we can also find information about their major and their interests. Dr. Golbeck has found this to be really helpful when students ask for advice on finding ideas for class projects; a better understanding their background allows faculty to suggest topics that they will be passionate about.

Dr. Golbeck has also found that about a quarter of her class adds her to their friend list in their profile. While that does not provide direct benefits for the class, it maintains a relationship between faculty and the students once the class ends. That, in turn, allows information communication through the Facebook interface. This type of communication feels less intrusive to social network users than email or a phone call, and thus students are more likely to contact faculty this way. After class ends, this has been useful when students want advice on other classes, or if they are asking for recommendation letters for internships or jobs. Facebook maintains the social context for my relationship with the student, so that is made apparent with their message instead of requiring a long reminder from a student who I may have taught a couple years ago.

For students, this low barrier to communication is also useful. Since Facebook is not associated with the university, student might feel more comfortable engaging in open discussion there than on blackboard or other official websites. Facebook also facilitates contact between students. For example, when building groups for a project, students may have had discussions with one another, but not have each others email addresses (and sometimes may not even know each others' names). Since Facebook provides a list of students through the class group, students can find one another here and communicate directly through Facebook.

It is important to keep in mind that since Facebook is unofficial, it is not a space faculty can or should police. The freedom students have there to connect with faculty and other students in an informal way is precisely why it can be a successful communication tool. When properly understood and used as it’s intended, Facebook can be an excellent virtual medium for building and maintaining real world social connections within a class.

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