Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Get Out of Our Facebooks!

It is surely almost impossible not to have noticed the rise of social networking over the last three years or so and, in particular, the recent dominance of Facebook over competitors such as MySpace and Bebo. This has been accompanied by a number of high-profile headlines in the press - concerning issues of privacy, libellous content, identity theft and online safety - and more general discourse about all aspects of social networking has helped maintain the typically elevated levels of hot air up in the blogosphere.

As we have seen many times in learning and teaching circles, the rise of a new technology results in an initial miasma of experimentation, excitement, confusion and fear as educators look for ways of embracing these new ideas into their teaching. In the case of Facebook, this process appears to have started some time 2006 and, since then, initial results and feedback from early adopters are appearing with increasing regularity.

Recently, we have started to think about whether we could (or should) add Facebook to the mix of technologies offered in Physics 1A. Some of our initial observations and questions were:
  • Are students using Facebook to learn or as a break from learning?
  • We've seen examples where students have created their own informal "support networks" (via Facebook Groups) around certain courses. What should our involvement be with these? Should we encourage them or not?
  • Could a centrally-managed Facebook Group be used as an alternative to some or all aspects of a WebCT Course? Is that even a good idea?
As a quick and dirty attempt at getting some insight into some of these issues, we decided to ask the class about Facebook (and a number of other e-Learning ideas) during a lecture using our electronic voting system. This was followed by a focus group session with a number of student volunteers. The Facebook question we posed was as follows:
If we were to integrate the online course material with social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, Bebo etc.) would you be...
  1. All for it, great idea
  2. Fine with it
  3. Pretty neutral
  4. Against it
  5. Dead against it; keep social and academic things separate
The response to this question is shown in the bar chart below:

Interestingly, the results were noticeably skewed in the direction of "keep out!". This was perhaps not entirely unexpected!

The follow-up discussion that took place as part of the focus group was also quite revealing:
  • Most (4 out of 5) of the focus group sample use Social Networking (mainly Facebook).
  • They could not see the benefit of integrating Social Networking with the course - Social Networking was very much seen as a place for "friends".
  • Nobody uses Facebook to explictly connect with fellow students on the course.
The idea of creating a student-run "unofficial" Facebook group to complement the official WebCT Course was quite popular and was seen as a good way of helping everyone in such a large class get to know each other. However, it became very evident that more thought would be needed on all sides to address issues such as who initiates the group (us or them?) and who gets access to the group (open? closed? should we agree to stay out?).

Food for thought, indeed!

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