Thursday, 5 February 2015

An Education in Facebook?

Mike Kent & Tama Leaver (Eds.)
An Education in Facebook? Higher Education and the World's Largest Social Network (Routledge, 2014)



Just a quick glance at the figures shows how ubiquitous Facebook has become. Even though it has only just celebrated it's 10th birthday the last figures show that it has over one billion members who use it at least one a month. At least 10% access Facebook through a mobile device and (no surprise here) the largest user group by age are 18-25 year olds.

Given the all-pervasive nature of Facebook it's little wonder that universities have had to find ways of dealing with it in as a useful and positive way as they can. Of course Facebook started life on university campuses in the United States but it was not created as a tool for learning but as (and I feel I'm stating the obvious here) as a "social network". The one thing that universities (and by extension all involved in life-long learning) cannot do is ignore it.

The first section of the book explores how Facebook can be used as a successful transition tool for students who are starting their new lives at university. The chapters draw on UK and US examples to show how Facebook can help to build communities within and between universities. One chapter uses a case study to explore how a university uses Facebook to link together past, present and potential students to create a form of bulletin board and support network. Another chapter explores how students set up their own groups and discussions outside of whatever the university has supplied. 

I was interested in this because several of the most recent online courses that I have taken through MIT Media Lab, FutureLearn and Coursera have not jumped onto the Facebook bandwagon. These platforms encourage students to connect with each other through bulletin boards integrated into their websites or hashtags on Twitter. Nevertheless, on several of these courses I have noticed that students have set up their own 'unofficial' Facebook pages in order to continue peer-to-peer learning outside of the boundaries set up the course providers. If the plan was to ignore or somehow circumnavigate Facebook then they were not entirely successful.

Section 2 is all about Facebook being used as a teaching and learning tool - in both a formal and informal sense. There are interesting chapters on how one university in Sweden uses Facebook for supervisory purposes and another on how the creation of learning communities on Facebook have helped to develop the social capital of both students and teaching staff. The first fly in the ointment appears in this section. Two authors from the University of South Australia explore the cultural clash between the ethos of universities as a whole and the social etiquette that has developed amongst users of Facebook. This has led many university teachers to develop what is called an academic armour in which they find ways to protect themselves from the demands of students in a social media environment. The informal style of communication used on Facebook may also be at odds with the way that universities would prefer students to interact with each other and with their teachers.

For those working outside of universities and are more involved with open, informal learning (i.e. through peer-to-peer learning) this may be less of an issue. This kind of learning has a strong social media presence built into it right from when the course is constructed. This means that the social etiquette used on social media then becomes the etiquette used on the course.

The next section address some of the more practical and philosophical issues that arise as Facebook becomes a replacement for more established Learning Management Systems. The most interesting chapter explores how Facebook has quickened the collapse in the boundaries between the private and public spheres through the ideas of Hannah Arendt. There are also comparisons between Facebook and LMSs such as Blackboard and Moodle. Many students appear to be resisting using these platforms because they are already familiar with Facebook and are unwilling to learn a new system when they already have a platform that they are familiar and comfortable with. However, even when university departments do start using Facebook it does not follow that students engage with them. The chapter on how university libraries are using Facebook perhaps shows that it is not the panacea that some feel it may be.

The last sections of the book where for me the most useful as it looks at some of the actual and potential problems that extensive use of Facebook can bring. Much of this revolves around the issues of privacy (which appears to be a greater concern for the universities than for the students); how Facebook creates an environment in which students regard their tutors as being available to them 24/7; the thorny issue of whether staff and students can be 'friends' on Facebook and the fact that Facebook is a commercial entity with shareholders to please and revenue to be raised through advertising. Facebook is also under scrutiny because of their habit of 'data mining' details about their users that they pass onto their advertisers. For anybody involved in education these are real issues that need to be thought about before using Facebook either as LMS or as a way for students to connect with each other. From this book it is clear that this is an issue that does not seem to worry students so educational bodies will probably have to do the worrying for them.

At the moment (leaving aside some evidence of Facebook fatigue and the rise of other social media platforms such as Tumblr and Instagram) Facebook is still growing, is here to stay and has become part of the learning and social environments of students. For anybody working with those students this book is invaluable in helping to navigate your way through that environment.

If you want to buy a copy of this book then here is the link.









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