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Facebook: Online Discussion Tool?

Teaching Strategies and Techniques Teaching with Technology

Facebook: Online Discussion Tool?

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Online discussion has become another strategy faculty use to engage students with each other and with course content. This method offers a safer way for students to participate, as they are able to prepare responses ahead of time and deliver them in writing. But online discussion tends to lack spontaneity. The exchanges are linear and do not reflect the give and take of a face-to-face conversation. Some research evidence is emerging (referenced in the article highlighted here) that students aren't all that enamored with online discussion. Only 7.9 percent agreed that “online discussion should be a part of college courses” (p. 85), and they reported that online discussions were not helping them learn.

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Online discussion has become another strategy faculty use to engage students with each other and with course content. This method offers a safer way for students to participate, as they are able to prepare responses ahead of time and deliver them in writing. But online discussion tends to lack spontaneity. The exchanges are linear and do not reflect the give and take of a face-to-face conversation. Some research evidence is emerging (referenced in the article highlighted here) that students aren't all that enamored with online discussion. Only 7.9 percent agreed that “online discussion should be a part of college courses” (p. 85), and they reported that online discussions were not helping them learn. Perhaps Facebook might be better than traditional learning management systems (LMS) “at encouraging student participation, fostering student learning, and increasing students' course performance” (p. 84). The authors of this study cite multiple references documenting that more than 95 percent of students have Facebook accounts. In September 2014, Facebook itself reported that 864 million of its more than one billion members access their accounts at least once a day. But Facebook has not often been used as an educational tool and is certainly not perceived that way by students. It also has design features that offer some challenges to its use for online discussion; the authors specifically mention file incompatibility issues and privacy concerns as potential limitations. However, this research team found ways around the challenges they describe in the article and were able to compare “online discussions that took place on Facebook with those occurring on a traditional LMS. . . . ” (p. 85). Online discussions in two different courses, Women's Studies and Introduction to Philosophy, were studied, with comparisons across two sections of each course. The courses enrolled non-majors, mostly freshmen and sophomores. In both courses, the instructor posted prompts that encouraged application of course content to current events and counted participation as 8 percent of students' grade. The researchers assessed student participation by looking at the total number of posts, the length of each post, and the type of post (e.g., a response to the instructor, a response to a fellow student, a response to a previous discussion thread, a response that prompted further discussion, etc.). To assess learning outcomes, they borrowed Fink's significant learning taxonomy, which includes dialog, application, and integration. Finally, they considered students' grades for participation in the online discussion and their final course grade. Results were mixed. In the Women's Studies course, students in the Facebook section posted far more often—87.5 percent of the Facebook students posted 10 or more times, compared with 67.9 percent of the LMS students. Those using Facebook were more likely to make novel posts and to respond to other students, but they were also more likely to make “extracurricular” (unrelated to content) posts. Those in the LMS section of the Women's Studies course were more likely to respond to the instructor, write longer posts, and not post extracurricular content. In the Philosophy sections, students posted nearly equally on Facebook and the LMS (75 percent and 74.3 percent, respectively). Otherwise, the trends were similar. As for learning goals, patterns were the same for both courses. More Facebook posts demonstrated evidence of peer dialogue, but in LMS exchanges, more posts showed evidence of integration and application. When evaluating performance, Women's Studies students in the Facebook section earned higher participation grades and higher overall course grades. In the Philosophy sections, grades were about equal for participation and for the course overall. Unlike Women's Studies participants, “the linear regression model examining factors predicting overall course grades in PHIL [Philosophy] exhibited very poor fit . . .” (p. 90). Engagement in online discussion in the Philosophy course was not strongly linked to overall performance in the course. So, what's the better option for online discussions: traditional learning management systems or Facebook? “Put simply, the two environments are unique, each with its own features that encourage different norms of communication and behavior” (p. 90). The research team recommends that, “if the goal is to stimulate discussion and build community, Facebook is a good option. If the goal is to foster development of application and integration learning goals, then . . . LMS might be a slightly better choice” (p. 91). In choosing either, it's worth remembering what these results most clearly establish: “Different forums can affect classroom dynamics and student learning in different ways” (p. 84). Reference: Camus, Melinda, Nicole E. Hurt, Lincoln R. Larson, and Luanna Prevost. 2016. “Facebook as an Online Teaching Tool: Effects on Student Participation, Learning, and Overall Course Performance.” College Teaching 64 (2): 84–94.