Professor Says Facebook Can Help Informal Learning

Who says Facebook is always a distraction? A new study suggests that if engaged in online debate, college students can use the popular social network to learn and develop a variety of skills.

In a paper released on Monday, Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor of education at Michigan State University, argues that using informal social-media settings to carry on debates about science can help students refine their argumentative skills, increase their scientific literacy, and supplement learning in the classroom. Past studies have shown that informal settings, like conversations with friends, can facilitate learning, but according to Ms. Greenhow, very little has been studied about informal online contexts and social networks, like Facebook applications.

Ms. Greenhow and her research partners studied a group of nearly 350 students — some in high school and most in college — using a Facebook application about climate change called Hot Dish. Within the open-source application, students could post articles and start comment threads. Unlike discussion forums that professors might require students to use, using the Facebook application was voluntary, not connected to a particular course, and driven by interest in the topic.

Ms. Greenhow and her group developed codes to determine the presence of different types of argumentative skills in comment threads. “We did see argumentation, we did see that debate was on-topic and on-task,” she said. “It wasn’t purely social, it wasn’t off-topic.”

Of the 346 people in the group, only about 30 started their own comment threads or participated regularly, however, suggesting that those who benefited from the discussion were already very interested in the topic. “It may be that such social-media applications will be most effective with a core group of highly interested niche users rather than broadly applicable to all learners,” the paper says.

In the future, Ms. Greenhow said, she would be interested in studying the levels of engagement in similar Facebook applications, and how to encourage other participants to join in discussion more regularly.

In order to improve in-class discussion, Ms. Greenhow said, she would advise professors to point students to specific forums within social-media platforms. Informal learning, she said, “informs the kinds of authentic learning that takes place in the classroom.”

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