Friday, April 18, 2008

Facebook and Forums and Feeds, oh my!

Facebook and Forums and Feeds, oh my. (Upon seeing Lance Fortnow's facebook post Bill Gasarch asked Evan Golub, who does research in Human-Computer Interaction and educational technologies (though his Ph.D. involved Expander Graphs) to do a guest post on facebook. This is that post.)

Lance recently wrote wondering how he would use a Facebook page with his course. I should start by saying that although I have a Facebook account, I don't really use it - I signed up for it to look around and to decide whether I wanted to start using it and haven't decided on "yes" yet.

In thinking about Lance's question, my first question was whether he would create a Facebook group for his class, or create an actual user and name it after his class. Depending on what notification options work on a group -vs- work on a user might guide this decision. For example, if one of these allows other Facebook users to receive a notification when the wall is written on, then it might become the better choice.

My next thoughts on this relate to Internet-based course management ideas that could be done via other technologies, but might be possible using Facebook instead. So, what could Lance do with a Facebook account/group for his class that could already be done with forums? He could provide a way for students in the class to:

  • ...get in touch with each other and find out about each other outside of the classroom
  • ...from study groups during the semester
  • links to useful resources related to class topics
  • Next, what could Lance do with a Facebook account/group for his class that could be already be done with an RSS feed? He could have a way to let students know when he has:

  • ...posted a new assignment
  • ...posted additional notes
  • ...updated the grades posted online
  • Assuming that anything that could be done via Facebook could also be done using forums or feeds or other technologies, why use Facebook rather than web forums or RSS feeds or other tools at our disposal? To borrow an idea from Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, one reason might be "because that's where the students are, so if we want to guide them, that's where we should be".

    However, the above is more the reason why I have not used Facebook with my courses yet. I see Facebook as a place where students go to socialize, not to do classwork. I recall reading when I was a student that you shouldn't do homework in bed or your brain might have more trouble turning off thoughts of schoolwork when you are trying to go to sleep. I don't know whether there is research to back up this perception that I picked up somewhere along the way, but if so, then perhaps we should ask whether it would be better to keep our courses off of Facebook (unless we are teaching a course that covers social networking as a topic). If this is meant to be a social space for students, would we be infringing upon this by bringing our courses there?

    As an (essentially) non-Facebook user, there might be some uses that would be unique to Facebook (or similar social networking sites) of which I am unaware. This "reply" to Lance (prompted by Bill) is meant more to open what I see as a central question raised by Lance's question of "what to put up there" (see his original post).


    1. Please do checkout Google Sites

      It's much more appropriate for a class.

    2. I do use the blackboard system that integrates with the registrar at Northwestern (U. Chicago had the same software). It's not the prettiest interface but I can distribute course information, students can upload their assignment solutions and students can view their grades (and no one else's grades) online. Still it lacks any serious social networking features.

    3. As an undergrad without Facebook, I'd be put off by a professor requiring me to join and use a social networking site just to view essential information for a class.

    4. And honestly, I don't understand why the interactions between students and a professor need to be done in a social network. It is just silly.

    5. Amusingly, I managed (through a series of contortions) to get a hold of my Facebook friend graph (the friendship graph among my Facebook friends) and performed some various analyses. My facebook graph is 21-colorable and not 20-colorable; the maximum separation within any connected component is 7 degrees of separation.

    6. I get the personal feeling that there is not a great all-around solution for putting courses online. E.g. my school uses "ACE/ANGEL" which is probably similar to the blackboard software, but it's annoying to use (whereas the Facebook interface is a little more, one might say, sexy).

      It would be really great if some academics or software people were to create a new online tool for academic purposes that incorporated announcements, communication, etc without a big ugly interface. Although many schools do not permit you to keep grades off-site, which would hamper things a bit.

    7. What can't an instructor do, with RSS or forums, reach a student that will shot themselves in the foot and not use those technologies, cause they are not part of their mastered tool set.

      People are already using facebook for class related activities, and they find it useful which is why when other tools appear to fail them, they feel like they would be better served if those tools were replaced with the tool that is already working for them.

      An important thing to look at with any information tool, is what is the mean time between updates, what is the mean time between an update being posted and that information no longer being useful, and how does the user get notified of an update. If a student has to go through a cumbersome process to see that a sight hasn't been updated, and when there is update (like about a class being canceled), doesn't get in a timely enough fashion to be useful, then they'll stop checking, and maybe lose faith in that system for the future.

      Ultimately how effective any person finds one information distribution tool relative to another will vary greatly, so the ideal solution for an instructor is one that without extra effort on the part of the instructor will dispense information to each student through the channel they find most effective.