Sunday, 29 April 2012

Facebook and educators- "There be dragons!"

Do students use Facebook for social learning? YES! 

Yesterday was interesting. I listened to an interview with Jon Scott, a researcher/educator in Cardiff University about the need for social academic platforms- that would support collaborative learning, for example students working on group projects together, annotating documents, question and answer forums. Theoretically VLEs like Blackboard can support this. But either they aren't used this way or attempts to use them this way fail. The discussion that followed on Twitter considered that whatever platform was developed should be like Facebook. It should seem as easy to use. It should be somewhere that students wants to be and were anyway. Afterall as a student your social and academic life do often collide in any case. But then it was suggested that Facebook wasn't that easy to use. Most people didn't understand the privacy settings. They probably were not using it for academic work.

So I wrote a blog post asking students if they 'used' Facebook for learning and lo and behold they do!
The uses cover:
1. Private messages (as an email replacement?)- to ask close friends questions and to work on projects in a groups as documents can be attached.
2. The use of peer-led academic content groups where students can ask each other questions particularly in the run-up to exams.
3. Following pages from BMJ learning, eMedicine, medrevise to help with revision
4.The use of private (even secret) groups to work on group collaborative tasks by sharing documents. The notifications side-bar is particularly useful for letting students know when something new has happened.
5. For sharing information from face-to-face small group activities. There is no additional task to be shared but the content is useful to others.
6. Instant messaging! If VLEs were set up with instant messaging this would be a big win. It is one of the features that students like most about Facebook.

And why are people using Facebook?
-Privacy - this is a space that does not belong to the university so the chances that what is being said will be seen by a member of staff are reduced
-Accessibility- there is a lot less clicking on Facebook than in the VLE and it is faster than the VLE
-People are there- most people go in to Facebook every day. There is every likelihood that you will get a fast response to a query. This is in contrast to asking a question in a discussion forum to support learning on the VLE. As one student said; " if I asked a question on there, it would be as useful as talking to a brick wall as there's no one else on there!"

I also asked students if they felt pressure to be on Facebook in order to be able to keep up with peers. Would students miss out if they didn't have a Facebook account?
One student described how a colleague stopped using Facebook whilst they were in the middle of working on a project. That meant a lot more to-ing and fro-ing for the others in the group. Another student said that they weren't aware of anyone objecting to Facebook but if they did then they could manage as long as someone else kept them in the loop by sharing what was on Facebook.

There was also an interesting point made that some students thought that there university might not approve of the sharing of notes within these communities. The same might go for the sharing of exam questions. This reminded me of a post by Dave White on the Learning Black Market. 

Did students worry about their privacy using Facebook? Some did mention disliking the fact that they had to use Facebook but it worked. It was a trade-off they were prepared to make. 

If students use Facebook for social learning then should educators be there too?

Remember yesterday's blog post had emerged out of a discussion about whether an additional social academic platform was necessary and whether Facebook was already acting as that platform. It appeared that to a certain extent it is. The next question is should educators be there too in order to support the social learning that is taking place?

That conversation had been progressing rapidly in tandem! Alan Cann had started a discussion on google + about my post. His opinion " Allow Facebook to be a student owned space. if you want to set up groups to support learning, do it elsewhere". Now in ways this is a little surprising from Alan. His general mantra is "Build networks, not destinations." In Facebook the network is there! The students are there! Trying to take them to another destination that isn't about their network seems slightly doomed.

I'd come across a post by Cristina Costa titled "Why Facebook and teaching don't go together". She makes a few points here. Her strongest contention is that Facebook is not a pleasant organisation and that we don't know how or can not understand how they are using our data. If students wish to organise themselves there then that is up to them, but if educators have a presence on Facebook then they could be seen as giving tacit approval to Facebook. They might also be seen as encouraging students to set up a Facebook account. 

On the other hand, Natalie Lafferty shared a post that Donald Clark had written earlier this year giving 7 reasons why Facebook was posed to become THE social learning platform. But as Natalie pointed out, in a survey in Dundee University, there was a 50:50 split when students were asked if they wanted an institutional presence on Facebook. So the university held back.

At this stage I'd like to state that my attitude to Facebook is pragmatic. I have an account. It is personal. Nearly everyone that I am friends with are people who I have went to school with, worked with, met on holiday, met at university. Oh and family! We have a secret group where we can share pictures and videos and updates that we don't wan't to share with others.

But I have also used Facebook as an academic. I have been involved in using a Facebook group to help recruitment to a student research project. I've set up a Facebook page in the past to share content that I was already posting to Blackboard. A few hundred students liked the page. No one asked to become by Facebook friend and I didn't ask them to become mine. These uses of Facebook did not seem to present any kind of boundary confusion. It didn't stop students using Facebook to support their learning in the ways that they had already been doing.

"There be dragons!"

My fear is that as educators we have ended up demonising Facebook. And we've done this in a few different ways. 
Particularly in medicine, Facebook has been presented as a place where bad things happen and a challenge to professionalism. Have a look at the references on Pubmed. In the piece I wrote for the GMC in advance of the publication of their social media guidance I made the point that the reactions to Facebook seem to approach moral panic, when in fact most people are using it in very civilised ways.
All of this has meant that some, maybe many, students do not trust us to be anywhere near them on Facebook. Jon Hilton has left a great comment which illustrates that the very accessibility that makes Facebook great (2 clicks and you're there!) is also what makes it feel risky. What if a student posts a drunken photo to the wrong group? What if they say something about a lecturer that they wouldn't have said otherwise? Can educators be trusted to respond responsibly to those events? Can we? I would hope that we could. Mistakes are made. People learn. Students and educators both need to learn about digital literacy and digital professionalism, and I think it would be great if we started as we meant to go on and learnt together.

But what about the accusations that it is irresponsible to lead students to Facebook, or to give tacit approval to the organisation. This is a decision that educators need to make themselves. My instinct is that students have decided that they know they are the product. This is a free service and they are paying for it by handing over their information. But it is a trade-off that has value for them. They are prepared to put up with ads for topics they mention in passing. Being off the grid isn't really an option for them. Yes, we don't know how all this information will be tied together and made sense of in the future. 

I also sense that there is a fear amongst educators that their presence on Facebook will be desperately uncool. Private groups that an educator might set up in Facebook might be seen as 'creepy treehouses'. The concept of the creepy treehouse emerged in 2008 just as people were starting to explore the possibilities of social media for learning. But 4 years later how has our understanding shifted? Is it time to explore the opportunities of Facebook in a mature and confident way? Actually, Melanie McBride was arguing that we should do this back then:
"If we do not all venture into these spaces together – as a guided and pedagogically relevant tour – we will become even further disconnected from a student population who are being corporatized at every turn."

We have to be clear to not ask too much of any platform. Can Facebook work with the VLE? Could it be used to support specific pieces of work or just for a big private year group to answer student queries in the way that students are already using it? Any new uses of Facebook by educators shouldn't step on the toes of students who are already doing a great job. 

And because I like to put my money where my mouth is, I decided last night to start a Facebook group to try and learn together with Cardiff University students how we could use technology/elearning better in the course. This could have been done through the VLE. I could have set up different forums for each year group. The students would have been less certain about who was reading their posts. The first thing I posted was the YouTube above which gives quite a very negative view of Facebook. The next item I posted was this screencast about how to check how your timeline looks to members of the public.

Is it time that educators started making timid expeditions into the scary land that is Facebook? What do you think?


  1. I'm surprised you're surprised at my comment. Build networks not destinations means don't try to control student behaviour by driving them into an institutionally-approved ghetto, be that Blackboard or Facebook.

    1. Ok... so tell me, what is not an institutionally-approved ghetto? How is a google circle different? How was friend feed different?

    2. The point is is if you say "On this course you are required to use facebook", you are invading a social space, rather like students barging into your house whenever they want to ask you "When is my essay due" and "Will this be on the exam?".
      We used friendfeed precisely because no student used it socially.
      I use facebook in a private way - that's why I'm not "friends" with you there though I talk to you on twitter. If you forced me to use facebook in the way you wanted to use it, you would have lost my trust.

    3. Ok- this is a different point that you are making. Now the issue is not that Facebook is an instututionally-approved ghetto... which is what friendfeed was, but that is actually a social space.

      Is Facebook one big homogeneous space? Can't it be broken up and used in different ways. I'm not FB friends with you but I did like your Microbiology bytes page... I think. So we're already proving that there are more ways than one to use FB.

      I know my post is very long and there is the possibility that I have not been clear but how do you think I am forcing anyone to use Facebook? I'm not.

    4. But if you're using Facebook to support learning and students opt out, then they are disadvantaging themselves. Some of my students choose to like the MicrobiologyBytes page on Facebook, but that is unrelated to any course I teach and the same information is also available though other channels - I'm not supporting learning on their courses directly.

    5. Ok! So the issue wouldn't be that Facebook was an institutionally approved ghetto, or that it was a social space, just that it was Facebook. I can respect that educators are reluctant about legitimising Facebook. I'll let you know how this works out for me.

  2. I like the idea of engaging students, but my experience suggests that students are wary about mixing their personal and professional lives. This is especially apparent in higher level courses, when students are considering graduate careers. Every Fall, thousands of students use the "scorched earth" approach to their online persona. For more, check out:

    WebCT, Blackboard etc *should* provide what you're looking for - an interactive space for students to work together collaboratively. But they're so poorly coded and designed, plus instructors don't know how to use them. So their usefulness is limited.

    In short, I like the idea, but I don't think Facebook is the right platform for it personally.

    1. Thank you Mr. Epidemiology,

      This is why global perspectives are great! There is lots of evidence that in the UK, students are happy to mix their personal and professional lives online, just as they do offline. But they expect the same boundaries to be maintained by educators in the online space as they would in the offline. If I was out in Cardiff last night and saw a student drunk would I take disciplinary action? If not, then why would I if I saw the same thing on Facebook.

      My point is that we have succeeded in convincing students that we are not fit to be trusted in online spaces.

      Have a look back through the comments on yesterday's post. I don't think that the blog posts you have linked to are actually about the sophisticated use of Facebook that the students here are describing.

      And we can go on for a very ling time discussing how VLEs should be better. They are not. They might get better. In 2 years this blog post may be redundant. But students are not using them now.

  3. I'm not going to add to the length of an already very long post but I feel I should respond to some suggestions on Twitter that educators using Facebook should have a professional and a personal account. Is this true? What are the risks of using the one account?
    I don't expect that students will join my group with a different account to that that they use for their personal interactions (including those with other medical students) so why should I set up a second account for this purpose.
    To me it is more important that we set boundaries. I don't intent to invite any students to become my Facebook friends and I would refuse invitations from them.
    Although I am not searchable on Facebook it is easy enough to come across my Facebook account. You can see it on the side-bar of this blog even! Apart from anything else if I had to log-in with a second 'work' Facebook account I'd very likely not use it as much and it would end up being just one more place for me to log-in to too.

    1. I'm interested in this too, because although I can see the importance of separating activity within a complex and multi-faceted social space, I don't understand the why it is necessary to have a second account to do this. If there were no other way to control visibility/privacy, then fine, but there are plenty of tools in Facebook (pages, groups, lists) etc. Even in Google+ where there are circles, some people in my circles have two profiles. Why?

    2. Thanks Simon, I'm hoping that some of the people who put forward this view in Twitter will help explain. So watch this space!

    3. A quick thought on this - it strikes me (at first glance, at least) that creating a personal and a professional account, separately, has distinctly unprofessional undertones. It is as though unprofessional activities are acceptable, so long as they are unseen.

      I think I prefer your language of boundaries. I create boundaries between my personal life and my work life, but it's still the same me. If I am (hypothetically) to use Facebook in a formal capacity - for example, participating in an educational group which includes professors etc. as well as other students - I will modify my behaviour and language for that setting, but I won't pretend to be someone else.

    4. Well. I have watched and read with intrigue the dialogue here and on your earlier post about the use of Facebook in learning activities, be they student-led or faculty or institution-supported. I wanted to comment on the thread here about setting up two profiles and why one would do this. Well I do. I have a personal account for "family and close-friends" and I have a professional account, I use to connect with "professional peers, students, business professionals etc."

      A question of Trust! To respond to the question from Simone and Anne Marie "why" when the digital social context that is Facebook provides the functionality and settings to filter, sort and list "connections?" ... I don't trust Facebook to maintain those settings and functionality as the platform is developed. I see them and use them as spaces with different purposes, uses and types of member interaction ... Like I see the "university cafeteria" and "my own dinning room at home" as different social spaces, although I eat and entertain in both.

      A question of user-choice! To respond to Benedict Warner about this having "unprofessional undertones" ... a personal account doesn't = unprofessional, nor does it mean one 'pretends to be someone else. Our identities are naturally fluid as based on who we are interacting with, where, why, and through what means. This is Goffman 101. For some (such as me) this translates to a users choice in how they set their own boundaries between a personal/private social self versus as a professional/public social self in digital social contexts. It is also a users-choice in how, where and why they connect to me (if they so wish).

      A question of respect! I think what is of utmost importance in all discussions about how "people" use and consider the use of digital social contexts - in work, learning and living, that we respect user-choice and wherein variability in access occurs, "we" adapt ourselves to accommodate. For example, my parents don't use Facebook, and are those not connected on my personal-family profile. But they doesn't mean I stop calling or sharing the same information with them, I just do it in a different way to meet their needs.

      After all, the only thing any of us can ever control ... is ourselves and our interactions with others. :-)

    5. Hi Kelly,
      Thanks for your comment though I suspect we are talking about using Facebbok with students in quite different ways.
      Do you encourage students to set up second accounts to connect with you as well? I understand that is against FB's terms and conditions to have two separate personal profiles, although a personal profile and professional page would be acceptable of course.
      I want to explore how a personal profile on Facebook can be used in semi-professional ways. After all the self-organising students are not, as far as I know, setting up several profiles. I've used the face that I'm using my own personal profile to explore with students how their own personal profile appears through others through the use of screencasts.
      Thanks again,

    6. Hi Kelly - that's most interesting. Although I haven't felt the need to go as far as creating a separate profile, my trust in Facebook has been eroded by privacy changes which have been confusing and quite opaque. But I hadn't really seen the "profile" in FB as analogous to a physical space, more as an identity that I bring to those spaces, eg. a group, an event, etc. Of course, to some degree it fulfils both of the things about these tools is I never stop discovering people using them in ways that simply hadn't occurred to me. Your point about the fluidity of identity strikes a chord; again this is not something Facebook does well but the developments in Google+ with circle-level granularity for profile elements are an improvement. This reflects that there are common elements in my online identity, as well as some aspects of myself that I share only with one group or another. There's still room for improvement... But this is of interest to me because I want to present more than just two "identities" (or rather, facets of my identity) with lots of overlaps.

      Trust is perhaps the key in this. However well developed a multi-faceted profile might be, if Facebook or Google can't be trusted, of course complete separation is the only route.

    7. Thanks Simon,

      I think Facebook does have different social spaces. A group is a space. A page is a space. My friend's or my wall are spaces. The only part of me that I bring to a public page or a group is that which is my public profile. That's available to anyone with a Facebook account so I don't see the logic of setting up a separate FB profile to bring to those spaces.
      Even if I were to set up a 'professional' Facebook profile (and I mean profile here not a page) I would feel uncomfortable connecting with students using it. Why would I want to be FB friends with a student no matter what account I was using?
      I disagree that Facebook lacks granularity. It's just that many of us don't use it. This student suggests that setting up a 'limited' profile is one of the options to use when a teacher requests that you use FB for educational purposes.

      I think that Benedict and Kelly's interaction about 'pretending to be someone else' is very interesting. What Benedict writes about modifying behaviour and language, fits with 'Goffman 101'. But he see setting up another profile altogether as being a step beyond this, as 'pretending to be someone else'.

      It's fascinating. I completely respect other people's choices n how to use any tool. But I think it is worthwhile trying to tease out what lies behind different choices- especially if we want to talk through these issues with others who might be taking first steps.

      Thanks both,

  4. I mainly teach mature students (qualified nurses) and as a rule most do not use Facebook and I have yet to find one who uses Twitter. I am happy to go to where my students are if it serves a purpose but if it creates yet another environment for them to become accustomed to then my experience is that they simply get stressed. I did a small piece of qualititative research which identified the anxiety many feel as they have to learn both the subject content and the technology we deliver it through. I like to think I am using technology to develop useful ways for them to learn without creating massive obstacles. Using Facebook will work for some and not for others. My international students are different, they love having an academic page to 'speak to' and do therefore we do have a presence in facebook for them. I will try to allow my teaching to develop according to the differing needs of the students. On a personal note, I am suspicious of it, you are either in or you are out which bothers me. However, I am determined not to let my personal views prevent me from trying new ways of interacting with my stundents! Personal and professional views can sometimes both be valid.

    1. Thanks Julie,
      That's very interesting. Facebook is the network of a particular time and place. To a younger generation it is already not the place to be! It's somewhere were old people are.
      As an EdD student there was a suggestion that we try and set up a space for people to connect as well. Quite a few people didn't have FB accounts or weren't sure about using it that way. We thought about LinkedIn but that is new to many people too.
      Thank you for thinking about this with me:)

  5. Have you looked at Adobe Connect as a potential platform for collaborative eLearning?

    1. Hi Andrew,
      The university will be exploring several options if a need is determined. As we use Blackboard then Blackboard Collaborate might be a more obvious choice for us.

  6. Then, is it not up to the students themselves to decide if, when and how to collaborate between themselves outside the learning platform, be that via Facebook, Linked In etc?
    What is the benefit of having the educational institution trying to mandate where this is done?

    1. It would be impossibly and foolish and really stupid for any organisation to try and mandate which platforms students use. That is exactly my point. Did you think that I was making or a different point or are you replying to someone else?

    2. If you are replying to my comment to Julie then you might have misunderstood. I am a student! The university wasn't trying to determine we do anything. I was just trying to link together with my fellow students.

  7. Hi Anne-Marie
    Thanks for making that clear! The comment was responding to "If students use Facebook for social learning then should educators be there too?"

    You might also like this Wired article on a student's experience of MITx, and use of social platforms for student study groups.

    1. Ok... but suggesting that we make use of a space isn't the same as mandating that students use it surely?

      Yes, I've seen that article but had not read to the end. The thoughts of the student on trying to make sense of distributed comments etc fits with this comment by another student yesterday

      New challenges... new solutions!

  8. Dear Anne Marie (Sorry don't know how to storify our earlier tweets)

    Read this BBC article with interest ( - essentially the Magic Middle are a group of non-celebrity or learned institution bloggers and tweeters who have amassed large followings due to the quality of their blogs/tweets. Their 'endorsements' are in high demand from companies due to the positive effect this has on their products or ideology.

    I wondered if it was likely in Social Network Academic Groups (SNAGs) whether a few individuals would adopt these rules which may be have a positive or negative effect on others learning. I then reflected on the active listeners or non-engagers in SNAGs. How would their learning be affected. Would they miss on on core material or discussion or just gain it in the fashion they always have done. Essentially will SNAGs benefit those whose learning needs have not been previously met or disadvantage those who (maybe quite rightly) don't feel they should have to 'socially' network in this way.

    All the best


    1. Hello Damian,

      The short answer is that I can't answer your question about whether students using Facebook to networks disadvantages those students who don't have accounts. But if it does then what can we do? Try and make everyone use another space? We certain;y can't stop Facebook being used.

      Perhaps we can have (as @heloukee says below) open and honest conversations with students and help them to make their own informed decisions.

      Thanks for the summary!

  9. Hi Anne-Marie
    Very interesting post/comments. As somebody who has studiously avoided FB in any kind of L+T situation (same reasons as those outlined by Alan, Cristina etc.), I've recently found myself having to use it as I'm involved in a couple of international collaborations where it's the preferred communication tool of the students (from UK, NZ, FR). For the purposes of these projects, where students who have never met (and never will meet) are collaborating on rapid-development film projects, it works particularly well as it's a space that's familiar to all of them - and because everything else about the project is new/strange/unfamiliar, it's definitely served a purpose. They have been able to contact one another quickly, and perform various tie-strengthening activities (as simple as liking one another's posts in some cases) that are already part of their every day online socialisation.
    As the projects have developed and they've gained confidence they've moved away from FB to GoogleDocs/Twitter/Email - but I do think FB was valuable in the initial stages. It's about context I suppose, and acknowledging the fact that we can't please everybody. Some students prefer Twitter, some FB, others may even prefer the VLE (gasp! ;), but as long as we have these conversations out in the open, with our students, then issues around pros and cons of platforms/privacy become part of their broader learning around digital literacies and citizenship.

    1. Many thanks @heloukee :)

      You've said much better in a few hundred words what I attempted to say in nearly 1800!

      Here's to open conversations!


  10. Great post Anne Marie.
    I have a Facebook page for my class:
    I didn't use FB "Groups" bc with FB Page students don't have to be my "Friend" to receive the News Feed,
    All the course related info is also discussed in class and/or emailed to them. (So having FB is NOT mandatory)
    I also use it to post interesting articles, videos, photos, polls, etc. which have nothing to do with the class but may interest them.

  11. Thank you @arjalali for sharing your page. I wish you all the very best with this. Just for your information, you don't have to be friends with someone to receive group notifications.

    I have used a page in similar way to you in the past. The group is a new experience and I will be sure to share how it works out.


    1. Thanks for the info on Group. Looking forward to see how you like it comparing to a page.

  12. Anne-Marie, this is an exciting topic. The aspect I'm most interested in at the moment is the faculty concern that we're "invading students' space" by using Facebook (or other unofficial social media) for academic purposes. Apparently that used to be true in the early days of Facebook/MySpace, but now the expectation is that everybody's on Facebook. So you're not invading just by showing up and being yourself (a teacher). There was some research from UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, around 2009 I believe. But it escapes me so if anyone knows for sure, that's better than my anecdotal version. It may have been from their surveys of new freshmen. All that said, people aren't as privacy-savvy as they could be and Facebook's bobbles don't help allay those concerns, so being clear with students as to what you will or won't do is important.

    Thanks for clarifying that faculty and students do NOT have to be Friends to interact on Facebook. I found in the old version of Groups (a couple of semesters back) that students just needed to request to join my Group and no other interaction was necessary to participate. This mistaken belief about friending is a show-stopper for some. BTW I only friend former students, and then only after they graduate, and it has to come from them. I am aware that some are FB friends with active students so I do temper my personal presence a little, but not much.

    (George Station on Google+)

    1. Hello George,
      Thanks for your comment and the google + discussion. I agree that the characterisation of Facebook as student social space is interesting. Students are signing up to the Facebook group I set up at the weekend pretty quickly so they don't seem to be so worried about this. I think in general that students are a lot more sophisticated than we often seem to suppose they are. I love learning from them!

  13. Yes, it is possible to set up a group on facebook, it can be a private group, invite only, invisible to everyone else.

    But, and it is a big but. Would you wish to be connected to the people in the real world, have access to all your personal information, why then in the virtual world?

    Facebook is a walled garden. Yes, you can have access to the delights within, but to gain access there is a price to pay, you gain entry by selling your digital soul at the gate.

    cont ...

  14. Thanks Keith. As I say I think that the group I've set up will be a great area to explore these topics with students.

  15. Hi Anne,

    I am fully agree with you that facebook is not only for making friend and having chatting with them. We can use Facebook for learning purpose too. We can set a group in facebooks and share or knowledge with each other.We can also like the most of educational pages from where we can get information and educate ourself with that..

    Michigan DUI

  16. Thank you Anne Marie for this article, very thought-provoking.
    At the risk of sounding harsh, my view is that students don't use VLEs for anything that they don't absolutely need simply because most VLEs are badly designed and are not adapted to the students' needs. And that needs to change, because education is increasingly going to happen online.

    More on that here:

  17. Thanks Anne Marie. Great discussion for this post. I agree with you in that social platforms understand better how the student mind works even ours. I also prefer to be a resident in the social learning space than in a bore VLE. I have experimented with my pre and postgraduated courses facebook pages and google communities. and also twitter interaction. My conclusions; 1. They like it 2. The prefer google plus (searching features and multimedia posts) 3. It works better combining formats (Multimodal use of social learning platforms) 4. Pregrad students much better than postgrad students ( we have more residents now) 5.Minimall skills needed from students and of course teachers. Understanding new language.


I am reintroducing word verification to cut back on spam posts. I'm sorry if you find it frustrating,