Once upon a time (way back in 2004), you could only join Facebook if you had an .edu email address -- and the "right" .edu email address at that. Even with its Harvard University roots, I'm not sure you could ever call Facebook an academic network. It was always a social network.
And even when students did share information about their college experiences -- classes, activities, assignments, teams, parties and so on -- the impetus to do so (particularly information about parties) might have been diminished by the expansion of the Facebook membership beyond just the university campus. (Not to mention, of course, the ongoing concerns with Facebook privacy.)
But according toTechcrunch's Josh Constine, Facebook is piloting a new feature at a couple of universities that might serve to bring some of that ol' college life appeal back to the website.
Called "Groups at [University]," the new feature allows users to create Groups that are visible only to those with a university's .edu email address. Students are encouraged to create groups for their dorms, classes, clubs, intramural activities, parties and so on.
"Groups at Universities" functions much like other Facebook Groups do. That feature was rolled out late last year in an attempt to add more granular controls over sharing on the site. In other words, rather than inviting all your Facebook friends to a party or to a discussion about your History 101 Final Exam, you can just communicate with those in a specific group. As with the standard Groups functionality, students will be able to make these groups open or closed or secret, and they'll be able to invite other students (with the right .edu email address on file, of course) to join.
Constine reports that Groups at Universities is being piloted at Brown and Vanderbilt. He notes that these universities were chosen in part because the schools use different email addresses for students versus alumni. "Only those with current student addresses can gain access, which keeps sketchy recent grads from crashing the party." (No word how the system keeps sketchy professors from crashing the party.)
I've asked Facebook to comment on the pilot program, but I haven't a response at the time of publishing. So there's no word if the company plans on expanding its higher ed efforts.
Doing so might put the company at odds with several education startups (such as Inigral, for example) that have built Facebook apps to help boost campus communication. And considering the recent decision at George Tech to restrict open access to the school's course-based wikis, Facebook might find itself on the receiving end of some FERPA complaints with this effort, a new twist on its privacy problems perhaps.
While some universities have adopted social media tools like Facebook to help with retention and recruitment, the Groups at Universities features could add another layer of interactivity for students. But will universities support students' ability to create their own campus-affiliated groups on Facebook? And will students choose to use the site this way?