Go Where the Students Are: Facebook

Keith Negley for The Chronicle

April 29, 2013

As I look back on those days when online discussion became part of classes, I long for the easy engagement it seemed to generate among students. In 1999, the Internet was cool. Adding online interaction to traditional courses got students excited and motivated them to perform better. Today, though, the Internet is no longer inherently cool, and is even a little boring. I can use the coercive power of grading to require online participation, but I cannot force the organic buy-in that seemed so promising in the late 1990s. When using learning-management systems like Blackboard, I constantly have to remind students to log in, to check the boards, and, especially, to talk to one another rather than just answer my questions.

Frustrated by this artificial dynamic, I have rethought my approach to using the Internet for teaching. I call my new philosophy "Go Where the Students Are."

Right now, my students are on Facebook. When I first thought about using Facebook for teaching, I hesitated. Facebook isn't perfect. It treats its subscribers as products for sale. Its privacy settings are deliberately confusing. It's the place where students post inappropriate pictures that get them into trouble. And yet my students go there every day. Some of them, through their mobile devices, never log out. I decided to try to leverage their comfort with social media for the benefit of my class.

When I started using the Internet in the classroom, back in the late 1990s, mostly just by building Web sites and creating discussion boards, engagement seemed to come so easily. Once students learned how to click on a link or use the "back" button on a browser, the class took off. Students started posting late at night. They showed online discussions of primary sources to friends in their dorms. They seemed to be thinking about the course all the time. As a result, they came to class more prepared, wrote better papers, and did better on tests.

Many of my fellow graduate students and professors found similar results, especially in the big introductory classes. Online discussion provided a means for individual students to connect with their professors, TAs, and fellow students. Sometimes the results were extraordinary. In one course, my students spent countless hours using WebCT, our learning-management system, to build a short film called The Opium Wars. They presented it to the entire 350-person class. Not only did it feature a light-saber duel, but it also intelligently dissected the political and economic issues behind the 19th-century conflict. I thought I was witnessing the bright future of education.

I was, of course, wrong. I am now embracing my philosophy of "Go Where the Students Are" to recapture that magic. I invite all my students to a private Facebook group for each course. The privacy settings for groups are fairly simple and clear, and so far the students seem to feel safe. I also give them the option of creating a second profile instead of using an existing account, even though that undermines my goal of linking course discussion to their daily online activity. So far, no light sabers. But for the first time in over a decade, I am seeing students engage in online discussions that are student-driven and multidirectional.

Every week students must link to articles that relate to course themes, and they must comment regularly on one another's posts. At the end of the semester, each student writes a paper based on our online discussion and their specific contributions. I sometimes stay out of the conversations and watch my students collectively wrestle with issues and expand the scope of the class. Not only do they bring in resources and topics that I might never have found, but they do it at 2 a.m. on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. And when that little red number appears on the Facebook page indicating that someone has posted a message or responded to a comment, the students (and I) have a Pavlovian response to click and check out the new posting or comment. The discussion ebbs and flows over the course of the semester, but it never really stops.

Some caveats: Although I am a medieval historian, I have mostly used Facebook in a liberal-arts-and-sciences seminar on "Evolution, Eugenics, and Disability." I have also just begun a Facebook page for a class on the history of Jerusalem, with the online component providing a forum for discussion of contemporary events. These topics are easy to locate online, so students can use the Internet to generate content. My classes are relatively small, with a maximum enrollment of 25. Having seen online discussion forums work in big classes in the late 1990s, I believe my approach would work in much larger classes. But Twitter could also be used to encourage student engagement with course material.

As the semester draws to a close, I've been thinking about ways to go where the students are beyond choosing Internet platforms. Students often enroll in medieval-subject classes out of a love of fantasy books and gaming. That's where many of them are. I use the television show Game of Thrones to talk about Orientalism, even though I still don't understand the difference between the fictitious cities of Vaes Dothrak and Meereen. The Hobbit, written by a medievalist and recently playing in a theater near you, naturally lends itself to opening discussions about medieval culture, power, myth, and narrative. More seriously, when the events of 9/11 dominated American discourse about Islam, I used them as a foil to talk about the complexities of medieval interfaith relations and the shifting meanings of the words "crusade" and "jihad." I cannot change students' entry points to a class, but maybe by meeting them there, I can better influence where they finish.

I don't know where your students are. I don't know where my students will be five years from now. When they leave Facebook, I'll probably fail to notice at first. Tweens today may use Facebook, but studies suggest that already they think of it as their parents' social-media site. The easy buy-in that today's students have for Facebook will surely fade. Compared with their predecessors of just a few years ago, my students are savvier about not sharing personal information online. This is useful, as it takes away some of the risk of using Facebook in the classroom.

The day is coming when students won't naturally check Facebook constantly. There will, however, be some form of virtual social space, which I will try to identify and adapt for teaching.

Perhaps if I go where my students are, they will move closer to where I'd like them to be.

David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University, in Illinois.