I attended a session at Wolverhampton this last week on ‘Teaching with Facebook’ run by Jon Bernardes, the Technology-Supported Learning Coordinator in my School, and Emma Purnell, Blended Learning Advisor. Jon had attempted to run one of his Sociology modules last term using Facebook (not our VLE) as the online platform where students would engage in discussion. Whilst this was an interesting session, and I was curious as to how, precisely, FB could be used as a platform to teach in, I kept hearing them say that they were trying to replicate the kind of conditions that are automatically set up in a VLE in Facebook. In a VLE a ‘safe’, ‘closed’ space is set up for any given module cohort. Both tutor and students on a module know that this is a space for their module community. The closed nature of the online space is important if significant work is going to be undertaken in the online space (particularly if it is going to be assessed, perhaps). Neither tutor or students want other people ‘wandering in’ to a class cohort from outside. To replicate this a certain number of manoeuvres had had to be made in FB — including starting an entirely new FB group, asking all students to set up an entirely new email account and then getting them to use that email address to create a new FB persona, which was to be used solely for this group. What the tutors were trying to avoid was precisely having anyone and everyone’s FB friends joining in and also seeing the personal/social stuff of the involved students that will be running on their usual FB pages.
Whilst it appeared that the students had responded quite well, and arguments were also made about students already being familiar with FB as a technology whereas they had to ‘learn’ how to manoeuvre around the VLE (not, in my experience, something students find difficult if given clear instructions) I’m not persuaded for my own purposes to give this a go. My colleague Aidan Byrne also raised the rightful concern that people are increasingly having with FB as to the way it is creaming off information about you, based on all sorts of things you might say about yourself, and using them for advertising purposes (i.e adverts will target you on FB based on the information you put on it). Do we want our students to be working in such a space? We are all so bombarded with consumer information so much of the time (and increasingly so online) that it’s actually a breath of fresh air to be able to go into a VLE discussion space and know it is solely a place for focussed learning free from market demands.
I’m not entirely anti-FB — I have a FB account myself — but there are all sorts of reasons why I think trying to teach with it is a bit of a minefield. Here’s just one recent article in the New York Times raising concerns about just what info FB is taking about you (based on image recognition). A university education (to me) should be about critiquing and exposing such covert use of personal information within our culture, not just buying into it without being fully aware of what we are doing.