Mixing Work and Play on Facebook

Purdue U. creates a learning-management system that meets students on their turf and puts them in charge.
October 6, 2010

Learning management is frequently thought of as a top-down activity, with professors setting the agenda and presiding over e-learning environments like they do a traditional classroom.

Facebook, meanwhile, has been thought of more as a distraction from schoolwork than a place where students engage with it.

Now, a technology team at Purdue University has created a new application that seeks to upend both of those assumptions. The application, called Mixable, is positioned as an e-learning environment that empowers students, and can be used as a little study room and course library inside Facebook.

Drawing on course registration data, Mixable invites students in virtual rooms with classmates in each of their courses. Once there, it lets them post and start comment threads about links, files, and other materials that might be relevant to the course — or not. The point is, there is no administrative authority determining what should (or must) be posted or discussed, and students are free to abstain from participating — just like on Facebook. Professors can join in, but they don’t run the show. And students can choose to make posts viewable by some classmates and not others. “In essence, the conversation is owned by the student,” says Kyle Bowen, the director of informatics at Purdue.

Mixable is currently being piloted in four courses at Purdue, soon to be seven. The I.T. officials there would not let Inside Higher Ed into any of the rooms, citing privacy concerns. But a screenshot of recent activity in the Mixable room for a communications course that focuses on emerging technologies (with student names redacted) shows students posting tutorials on blogging and website design. One student posted a guide on turning a personal computer into a Web server. Another shared a link to tips on designing avatars. There was not any casual banter, but students seemed to be passing around resources.

A screenshot from the Mixable site

The application can be accessed through a stand-alone site outside of Facebook. But since Mixable is supposed to operate on similarly free-form principles as the popular social networking site, Purdue CIO Gerry McCartney says it made sense to position it as an application within Facebook. He cites the quote attributed to the bank robber Willie Sutton who, asked why he robbed banks, said "because that’s where the money is." Says McCartney: “So why go to Facebook? Because that’s where the students are.”

In this way, Mixable encourages users to, well, mix work and play on Facebook — something students have not tended to do. Some faculty have advocated for using Facebook as a pedagogical tool, noting that students’ familiarity with that environment might make them more enthusiastic about engaging with coursework there. But Facebook has not really caught on as a learning tool like some other Web 2.0 tools have.

Purdue thinks this reflects, not a lack of interest, but the absence of an application that cordons off and organizes a study space inside Facebook. Mixable saves students the legwork of organizing groups or pages and inviting everybody in the class; it pipes in students’ course schedules from the university’s student information system and invites everyone automatically.

Mixable also sorts and stores all the images, videos, links, podcasts, and documents that students post to the course page into little libraries, so students can find them more easily. Students can listen to podcasts and captured lectures right through Mixable, instead of going through iTunesU or Echo360, Purdue’s lecture capture agent.

In short, it is a learning-management system — though not the kind that is likely to supplant existing learning-management systems, its creators say. Mixable is a different breed: more an optional study group than a classroom. It lacks a grade book as well as other administrative tools or privileges, at least so far. “I think the faculty are almost irrelevant from a Mixable perspective,” says McCartney.

Mixable was “not created to be a Blackboard replacement,” says Kevin Van Dyke, a computer and information science student who helped build the application. “It was created to bring academia into social media, if that’s where students or professors want to take it.”

Whether they actually do remains to be seen. By the end of the month, 500 Purdue students are expected to be using Mixable. McCartney, the CIO, says Purdue plans to study closely the ways in which Mixable is used and whether it seems to be having a measurable effect on learning. If it does not, McCartney says he will pull the plug. But it is too early to know anything yet, he says.

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