Although it is often said that the academy moves slowly, very slowly, I never really thought about myself as a "slow mover" with regard to pedagogy in the classroom. But when the idea of using social media (e.g., Facebook) as part of my face-to-face classes was suggested to me about two years ago, I found myself in the slow lane.
I remember thinking that a professor like me, with 24 years of experience, was not going to use social media just to impress my students. As I talked to colleagues about the social media possibility, I grew more determined to hold the line against these newfangled "teaching tools" and to continue to teach my classes, especially the largest one (Introduction to Psychology, with 500 students, mostly freshmen), as I had done in the past.
Luckily, about a year ago I saw the proverbial light. It was then that I had a frank conversation with a colleague about the value of using Facebook (Fb) in my classes. I approached her partly because I knew that she was an avid Fb user, but also because I was looking to do more with the hundreds of students I teach in Introduction to Psychology. After all the years of teaching these “mega-sections” and with the tough financial situation of my state university it was clear that this type of class was not going away. I had success with my classes over the years, but I had become increasingly dismayed by the lack of meaningful interpersonal communication I had with my students, and that the students themselves did not get to know each other very well.
Although it sounds trite, I was hoping to include something that would add a greater sense of community to the class, something that everyone in the class could use to better connect to one another. I was not looking to use Facebook in a "formal" sense, as a platform to present specific course content. Instead, my goal was to use Fb in an "informal" manner, encouraging each member of the class to see him or herself as a part of the whole. Interaction was encouraged 24/7, and it was made clear that the Fb group page was everyone’s responsibility -- I was not to be the only person writing posts and comments.
Like all experiments, I had no idea if things would work. I knew the data about how many college students were on Fb, but would students be willing to spend some of their valuable Fb time communicating within a Fb group for a college course? Also, would I be willing to become an avid Fb user, following the flow of communication several times a day? It did not take long to learn that the answers to these questions was “Yes,” and that I had reached my goal of facilitating a sense of community. Although joining the Fb group for the course was not required, a little over 80 percent of the class became members of the group.
Moreover, the students essentially ran the group. Although I wrote posts and comments, students wrote over 90 percent of the posts and over 80 percent of the comments. These included everything from asking for notes, getting clarification on points made in lecture, posting videos and images that pertained to class material, forming study groups, noting relevant events on campus, and congratulating class members on specific accomplishments. Sometimes these posts were made during class, right after I discussed something. I thought that this behavior would bother me, but it simply added to the value of the group and reinforced the spontaneity of interaction.
The post that really convinced me of the power of Fb for my large class was when a student offered his classmates the link for the flashcards he had made for an exam (others did the same after this initial post). When he posted the link to these flashcards, he stated that he really saw no need to keep the flashcards to himself. I was overwhelmed by this offer because it showed the power of Fb to bring the class together as a group, and that the size of the class was not going to be an obstacle to working together.
The success of Fb described above, as well as survey data I collected showing positive reactions to the Fb group, will lead to my continued use of this technology. I always had the feeling that students wanted to communicate with others in my large class, but there was simply not a clear path to this goal. Students may have interacted with a chosen few among the hundreds enrolled, but contact between most students (and me) was typically limited or nonexistent.
I believe that Fb changes the rule of communication in this class. It facilitates interaction within the large class and allows each student to feel part of the whole. This technology may even help retain students, especially those who leave the university because they “feel like a number” in such classes. For those who say that Fb cuts down on face-to-face communication between students and faculty I would argue that with this many students and the demands for research and service there is almost no time for such contact.
Facebook gave me something I had been lacking all these years, a direct conduit to my students even when we were not together in class. I enjoyed this feeling of being united with my students. Also, for the first time with my large class, I had a similar sense of community as I have enjoyed when teaching a small class.
Although it is unclear at this time whether the use of Fb is linked to improved student performance, I hope others will see the value of using Fb as described above. It is definitely not for everyone -- you must be committed (especially time-wise) to using it. But knowing that you and your hundreds of students are finally seeing eye-to-eye is worth the effort!
Jonathan Golding is a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky.