by Alexander Monea
Why Use Facebook?
When I was first asked to come and speak with you today on using Facebook in college classrooms, I was at a bit of a loss for how to present a technology and medium that is on the verge of becoming ubiquitous.
Facebook has 1.35 billion active monthly users as I write, 1.12 billion of which access Facebook via mobile interfaces. These numbers have been steadily increasing at an average rate of 14 percent per year, and show few signs of slowing. With such a widespread and frequently interacted with technology, it is difficult to come up with anything that hasn’t already been said. Yet, perhaps it is this very same ubiquity that makes such a presentation difficult that makes Facebook a useful pedagogical tool.
I have been using Facebook Groups in my classes to aggregate content in a more coherent and consistent aesthetic, and to allow students to communicate with one another and with me more freely, immediately, and in an interface that they are more familiar with than platforms like Moodle, Blackboard, Sakai, etc.
I usually begin my courses by asking whether or not students use Facebook and whether they would be opposed to me maintaining a casual, ongoing Facebook Group for the class. Throughout the years I have had only one student that I can remember that did not maintain a Facebook account. I have never had anyone contest the use of a Facebook Group in one of my courses nor have I had anyone complain about having used a Facebook Group at the close of my courses. This is not to say that all students will agree to or enjoy this course structure, but, I would argue that Facebook is on the verge of being ubiquitous enough that its use in most settings has become a non-issue for a lot of people.
That being said, let me offer you a bit of my rationale behind going through the trouble to set up and maintain a Facebook Group for my courses:
- Usability: Facebook is a platform that most students are already familiar with and already use quite frequently. It’s interface is, for the most part, sleek, smart, and intuitive, which allows students to easily interact with and communicate through it. Perhaps the most important aspect of Facebook’s usability though is its notification system. I’ve found that because students are already using the platform, and because the notifications are pushed to them through Facebook, they often are more aware of and responsive to my course communications. This aspect is only heightened by the increasingly large number of users that access Facebook via mobile devices. (That being said, I always have to take care not to spam my students or I risk them turning off notifications for my communications.)
- Aesthetics: For the most part, Facebook presents its contents in a way that is much more pleasing, navigable, and dynamic than software like Moodle, Blackboard, Sakai, etc. With little to no work from an instructor or professor, a Facebook page will look good. Conversations will be organized into ongoing threads. Shared content in threads will automatically be categorized and an appropriate preview of things like links, photos, and videos will be generated for the content. These threads have near zero latency, such that conversations can happen synchronously. And these threads are arranged in a schema that is already familiar to most students, so they can navigate it more easily.
- Centralization and Synergy: Facebook’s file architecture is very intuitive, and, as such, it serves as a perfect tool for centralizing course content, especially when portions of that course content are hosted online. Facebook can support the sharing of text, photos, videos, polls, events, and a large variety of files, all of which can be aggregated over the course of a semester under a single Facebook Group. Further, Facebook interacts well with a large number of other web platforms that can themselves serve as great pedagogical tools. Facebook seamlessly integrates with sites like Twitter, Tumblr, Youtube, Pinterest, Doodle, and Medium. And finally, any content that does not play well with Facebook’s platform can be placed into Google Drive – n.b., NC State recently was upgraded and now offers us unlimited cloud-based storage space – and shared with students via a simple link posted to a Facebook group.
- Privacy: Facebook’s Group function allows you to interact with students without needing to be Facebook Friends with them. Some students and professors or instructors might be less comfortable being Facebook Friends with one another, so affording them the option to interact without sharing all of their Facebook content with one another is an accommodating option.
Creating a Facebook Group
You can create a new Facebook Group by navigating to the ‘More’ button next to your preexisting groups, which can be found in the left column of your Facebook homepage. Once there, just click the green ‘+ Create Group’ in the upper righthand corner of the screen. Once you’ve clicked the green ‘+ Create Group’ button, the following dialog box will pop up:
There are three steps to completing this dialog box:
- Naming Your Group: The first step here is to input a name for your Facebook Group.
- Adding Initial Members: Second, you can add members to the group that you are already ‘Friends’ with on Facebook. It is important to note here that you have to add at least one of your Facebook friends in order to successfully create the group. I frequently add a colleague that I have notified in advance and then remove them from the group once it is established and my students have joined.
- Choosing Privacy Settings: Third, you have to select the privacy settings for your new Facebook Group. You can choose from a public group in which anyone on Facebook can locate, browse, and request to join the group, a private group, which can be located but not browsed by anyone on Facebook, or a secret group, which is invisible to anyone that is not a member. I would recommend using a private group, as it still protects the privacy of students’ posts, but makes it much easier for students to locate and request access to the Facebook Group. This is important because you can get students that you are not Facebook Friends with into the group much more easily under this setting.
Once you have filled out this first dialog box and clicked the blue ‘Create’ button in the bottom righthand corner, you will be prompted with this secondary box:
Here you can choose to either select an icon that will appear to the left of your Facebook Group on all of its members’ homepages or you can skip selecting an icon (you can always come back and select one later). One important thing to note here though is that Facebook really encourages selecting an icon, so much so that your group will register as incomplete until you do so. This will not impair any of its functions, but it can be a bit annoying, so I usually select an icon immediately.
Once you have clicked the blue ‘OK’ button at the bottom righthand corner you will be redirected to the homepage for your newly created Facebook Group.
Managing Your Facebook Group
Your new Facebook Group homepage will look like the image below. In order to finish setting up your group and get it ready for your students, you’ll need to click on the ellipses (see below) and navigate to the ‘Manage Your Group’ page.
Clicking on ‘Manage Your Group’ will redirect you to the following page:
In order to complete your group, you will need to do the following three things:
- Add a Description: By clicking on the ‘Add a Description’ link you will be prompted to fill out a basic description of your Facebook Group. This will be displayed in the righthand column of your Facebook Group’s homepage, and will also be visible when and if people see your group show up in search results. I often just use the shortest version of my course description here. I have yet to determine the word limit for these descriptions, but I can tell you that it is greater than 500 words.
- Add an Icon: If you already did this when you set up the group, as I did, then your group will already be 33% complete and you won’t need to do anything else here. If you did not already choose an icon or would like to change your icon, you can do so here. Keep in mind that Facebook will continually register your group as only partially complete until you’ve selected an icon for it.
- Add a Cover Photo: Here you can add a cover photo or banner that will be displayed at the top of your Facebook Group’s page. The size of the bounding box that will contain your cover photo is 801 pixels by 250 pixels, so images larger than that will be cropped to fit. However, you will be able to drag larger images around to select which part of the image is displayed and which parts are cropped. I’d recommend a cover photo that is slightly larger (e.g., 810 pixels by 260 pixels) so that you have some room to center the image however you’d like. Keep in mind that there will be buttons covering some of the upper and lower righthand corners of your cover image, so you don’t want any important content there that will get covered over. Finally, Facebook will accept images in the following formats: jpg, gif, and png. I’d recommend using the jpg format for more photorealistic images, and using the png or gif formats for things like logos, icons, or any images resembling vector graphics.
Once you have completed these three steps, Facebook will register your group as being 100% complete. However, there is one more page of group settings that you’ll need to complete in order to fully take advantage of your new Facebook Group.
Editing Your Facebook Group Settings
If you return to your Facebook Group’s homepage and again click on the ellipses on the righthand side, you will see the ‘Edit Group Settings’ option.
Clicking on ‘Edit Group Settings’ will redirect you to the following page where you can finish setting up your Facebook group:
Here you change a number of more or less important settings that will change the way your Facebook Group will function.
- Group Name: Here you can change the name of your Facebook Group.
- Privacy: Here you can alter the privacy settings for your Facebook Group.
- Membership Approval: Here you can determine who is allowed to add and approve new members to your Facebook Group. You have two options, one in which anyone can add/approve new members, and one in which only admins – which, by default, is only the group’s creator – can add/approve new members. I’d recommend allowing anyone to add/approve new members. This option speeds up the process of getting all of your students into your Facebook Group. I also tend to use Facebook Groups as a free space for students, and thus try to give them permissions to interact with and modify as many aspects of the group as possible.
- Group Address: Here you can select an address for your group that will allow people to email the entire group through a single email address and navigate directly to the group’s homepage. I often use the group’s name for the address unless that address is already taken. Once you have input your chosen address, your entire group can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and your group can be found via the web address www.facebook.com/groups/groupaddress. The best way to get all of your students into your Facebook Group is to set up a Group Address, provide the direct web link to all of your students, and then to request that they navigate to the Facebook Group and request to join. Then you can simply accept their requests, rather than needing to locate and add each of them individually.
- Description: This yet another place where you can edit the description you input in the previous section of this article.
- Tags: Tags help to categorize groups and improve search results. They are relatively unimportant unless you want your group to be found by people outside the classroom.
- Posting Permissions: Here you can determine whether or not members need to be admins in order to post new threads to the Facebook Group. Again, I use Facebook Groups as a free space, so barring students from creating new threads seems entirely counterintuitive to me. I thus always go with the first option (i.e., ‘members and admins can post to the group’).
- Post Approval: If you select this option, then you will be prompted to approve all new posts before they are displayed on the group’s homepage. Again, this is counterintuitive to me, and also totally disrupts the sites capacity for synchronous communications. I would highly recommend not requiring new posts to be approved.
Once you have completed your group settings, your group is now fully ready for use in (and out) of the classroom.
Using Your Facebook Group
Once you have completed setting up your Facebook Group, you are ready to start using it in (and out) of the classroom. You can now easily communicate with all the members of your group (and they with one another) using Facebook’s interface. Here are some of the things you can now do through your Facebook Group:
- Message: By selecting the ‘Message’ link in the righthand column of your group’s homepage, you can quickly send a Facebook message to all of your group’s members. Facebook’s messaging system is, in my opinion, less functional for classroom purposes than posting thread’s to the group homepage. As such, I don’t use this feature very often when I teach.
- Write Post: Here you can post as you normally would on Facebook with the only caveat being that the post will only be visible to group members. By default, writing a new post will trigger a notification for all members. I find this to be the most useful feature of a Facebook Group. It allows you to share content with your class in a medium that will automatically generate a preview for and link to the content. It also notifies students of the new content through a channel that they are often already accessing regularly, and thus students see new content more quickly and reliably than through other channels such as email or course software like Moodle, Blackboard, Sakai, etc. Finally, posting content here also allows members to comment and registers members’ comments quickly enough to facilitate synchronous conversation amongst all group members.
- Add Photo/Video: Here you can upload new photos and videos directly to your Facebook Group. All photos/videos that you upload this way will be hosted by and aggregated under your Facebook group, so members will be able to quickly and easily relocate them at any point in the future.
- Ask Question: Here you can ask your members a question and even add options for them to select from in answering. You can even allow members to add more options in answering, which is useful for polling your students about things like optimal office hours, adjustments to the schedule, etc.
- Add File: Here you can upload new files that will be hosted by and aggregated under your Facebook Group, so members will be able to quickly and easily relocate them at any point in the future. This is a great way to share course documents with students. Although, I often also maintain a Google Doc for my schedule so that I can alter it throughout the semester without needing to send new files to my students.
- Events: Here you can create events as you normally would in Facebook, but they will be visible only to group members, all of whom will by default be invited to the event. I don’t use this feature very often, but it is a good way to schedule any events occurring outside the class, or even to notify students of optional extracurricular events you might want to put on or host.
While none of these features are very unique in and of themselves, the platform that they are aggregated under and its increasing ubiquity have helped increase student engagement with course content in the past for me. All content is aggregated under a single channel, presented under a coherent and simple aesthetic, can be interacted with in a very intuitive and usable way by all participants, and is directly pushed to students through notifications in a medium that they access much more frequently and comfortably.
For even more details on Facebook Groups, please visit the Facebook Help Center’s Page on Groups.
Integrating Medium Into Your Curriculum
In fear that I may only have relayed information to you that you were already aware of, I would like to redirect your attention now to one specific peripheral platform that integrates particularly well with Facebook and often flies under people’s radar. That platform, as you might guess because this article is written in and hosted by it, is Medium.
Medium combines contemporary CSS – esp. transitions – with an intuitive interface to allow people to easily publish web articles that look extremely polished and professional. Writing in Medium takes about the same amount of time as writing in a more traditional word processor, but the results are much better suited to digital viewing.
Just this semester I have started to incorporate Medium into my courses and have already found that the more professional and web centered aesthetic seems to encourage students to engage more deeply with their content, and also to produce more polished and elaborate pieces of writing. In just this short time, I have already been persuaded to employ in as many courses and as frequently as possible.
Medium offers a number of unique features to its writers:
- Medium plays well with images. You can add background images that scroll with the window and that may contain text over top of them. You can also easily integrate images into your writing.
- While Medium is constrained in the number of ways you can modify your text, it maintains the essentials and also allows you to focus more on other aspects of your writing (the biggest for me being the incorporation of other media, like images, videos, etc.).
- Each item, be it a block of text or an image, in a Medium article has a small chat box containing a plus symbol to its right that can be used to comment on that particular part of the article. This commenting function is a great way to generate marginal conversation on a text.
- Medium articles can be saved as drafts, shared with others, and commented on or collaboratively written by those that have access to them before they are published and made readily available to anyone on the web.
- Medium maintains a history of edits to its articles so that you can go back and view revisions and additions as they occurred. This is a great tool for collaborative writing, as well as for recovering previous version of a text.
- And once more, Medium looks good.
Medium is a relatively intuitive interface that I’ve found students can figure out without needing much instruction. As there is only so much time for this presentation, I’d like to leave you with some links to Medium’s tutorials, walkthroughs, and general help pages so that you might get better acquainted with it:
- Welcome to Medium: Click here for a basic introduction to the site.
- Writing: Perhaps counterintuitively, click here to get the basics on all of the things you can incorporate into a Medium article.
- Writing in Medium: Click here for more specific information on the typographic or textual components of writing in Medium.
- Images: Click here for more information on all the ways that you can incorporate images into your Medium articles.
- Titles and Title Images: Click here for more information on getting your titles and title images just the way you want them in Medium.
- Medium’s CSS: If you feel comfortable with things like HTML5 and CSS3 and are interested in a detailed history of Medium’s CSS implementation, then this is the article for you.
In closing, I’d like to thank you all for taking the time to participate in this Brown Bag Lunch with me and for reviewing this document. I can only hope that it is of some help to you in the future and wish you well!