The Peer Mentor "Monday Crew" and I recently enjoyed a visit from a faculty member who is researching the integration of Facebook into some of our classes at SJSU. Our guest admitted that, as is often the case, she herself is still learning about this social networking site, and that most of her students know more about the topic than she does. She therefore focused her presentation around questions posed to our students (posed, actually, by one of our students who is working with her). The conversation stimulated my own thinking about Facebook's potential role in the classroom, reminding me of the days when computer-mediated communication was my primary research emphasis. I found myself thinking that Facebook might appear somewhere in my post-omnitopia research agenda. Maybe.
Facebook fascinates me. I have used it for a couple of years now, but I've only recently begun delving into its many applications. Current favorites include Flair, an Office Space-inspired corkboard where users can post buttons, and the Album feature, where I'm uploading pictures that show me growing up (my earliest pic is from 1970, when I was two). For me, Facebook is a combination personal network-newspaper, blog-extension, image repository, and doorway to several communities. As its designers intended, this site has become a part of my daily online.
Even so, Facebook raises interesting questions and challenges to me as a faculty member. When I walk by the computer lab in Clark Hall, I see dozens of students typing away, but many of them are not doing homework; they are checking their Facebook pages. And I am certain that an increasingly large percentage of students who bring laptops to class are hardly limiting themselves to notetaking; many are updating their Facebooks ("OMG! I am soooo bored!"). That's OK, actually. All of us -- faculty, students, staff, and administrators -- are becoming adept at multitasking. Frankly, as long as one student's extracurricular browsing in class isn't distracting to her or his colleagues (or obvious to me), I don't really mind. Adult students, after all, are responsible for their own learning.
Yet what about "friend" requests? Frequently (most often at the beginning of a semester) I receive requests from my students to accept shared links between our Facebook pages, making us "friends" in the terminology of the site. What exactly does that mean? It's interesting that while Facebook started as a social networking site for college students, "taking a class from…" is not one of the options for Facebook-friend descriptions. As I recall, we might be identified as "taking a class together," but that doesn't quite summarize the nature of the student-faculty relationship (to my thinking, at least). Given the ambiguous nature of the meaning of Facebook "friend," I don't make such requests of my students, even when I'd really like to. I am always happy to receive these requests, but I don't feel that it's appropriate for me to impose myself in that manner.
Accepting a friend request from one of my students raises still more issues to consider, particularly when I receive updates about that person on my Facebook News Feed. Becoming a Facebook "friend" can mean that if a student uploads a toilet-crouch pic from a drunken party, I see it. And if a student uploads a barely clothed "look at ME" photo, I see that too. I often see far more than I wish. Sure, students can place limits on who receives these updates and (to some extent) isolate some parts of their Facebook-identities to selected "friends," but few take such precautions. I suppose part of the reason is lack of expertise on the various Facebook settings, but I suspect that many students see no meaningful reason to reserve their doings from the eyes of others. We live in an age of exhibitionism. Sure, older folks from all generations have likely made similar complaints. But the global extent to which a person can embarrass her- or himself today is mind-boggling. So I warn students to be aware of the personal and professional implications of their Facebook posts.
What remains is some investigation into the uses of Facebook for teaching purposes. Many faculty members are gravitating (warily in some cases) to online course management tools such as Blackboard. These sorts of learning resources offer online quizzes, live chats, threaded conversations, and other ways to extend the classroom beyond brick and mortar. And many students report general satisfaction with tools like Blackboard. Yet I'd imagine that they spend much more time in Facebook than they do Blackboard, devoting more time to these sites than they spend engaged in rapt attention to some scintillating lecture (note the emphasis here is on engagement, not mere time). Does that mean that we should move some or even all of our teaching/learning to Facebook, since so many of our students are there all the time anyway?
At this point I don't know. Facebook complicates the distinction between "higher learning" and the other myriad realities of student life, bringing to sharp relief the fact that many students aren't nearly as interested in their formal educations as their professors wish. Students learn more things of value, they might even claim, from their friends' Facebook postings than from their professors' ethereal musings. But what happens when their profs become their friends? One approach is to advocate that professors go where the students are. If students are hanging out on Facebook, then I should hang out there too. Another approach, though, is to reaffirm the sacrosanct nature of the college classroom, a site that privileges oral discourse over other forms of human interaction. Sure, I can use Facebook for some purposes, but I ought not abandon the classroom. That's a pretty neat distinction. But defining the debate this way risks oversimplifying a complex truth: faculty and students will create all manner of strange hybrids, forming mashups of form and substance that will often fail and sometimes produce brilliance. It just doesn't make sense to imagine a solely on-ground or online learning experience.
That being said, I continue to value the in-person experience of live interaction. The classroom still matters to me, if only because I've never yet been able to replicate the moment when strangers can amaze themselves with their individual and collective wisdom as I've experienced in the class. The dingy walls, the broken clock, even the presence of some folks who'd rather be anywhere than here, become tolerable when a critical mass of people slip into the same mainline and jam to shared knowledge, all agreeing with the feeling that, "something is happening here, something no one quite anticipated." For that reason I will experiment with Facebook and other social networking and learning management sites as ways to augment my "on-ground" teaching, but not to replace it. Not yet, anyway. Will I never teach solely online? I wouldn't make such a hasty promise. Changes in my personal circumstances or growing awareness of teaching modes that I've not yet encountered will surely challenge me to try a strictly online class one day. I'm kind of excited about the chances to stretch myself in new directions. And teaching solely online will be a stretch for a forensics-trained public speaker. But for now, I'm happy to gather all the tools at my disposal -- in person and online -- to the singular goal of helping students learn something meaningful.
Convincing them that what I have to teach is meaningful, well, that's an entirely different challenge.