Is Facebook Irrelevant to Schools?

Joshua Kim writes about the irrelevancy of Facebook for Inside Higher Ed, bringing up some salient points. Twitter is typically more useful for discovering information, he says, and students don’t really want their teachers in their Facebook business.

That may be true. I tried creating a Facebook account just for communicating with students this past semester, and it didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped, but that was entirely my own doing. I ran out of steam. I couldn’t keep up with multiple Facebook accounts, plus Blackboard, plus everything else. I did encounter some students who said they preferred not to friend a teacher or classmates on Facebook. I had others who used the Facebook chat function to ask me questions about class.

I don’t think Facebook is irrelevant. I do discover plenty of professional articles and ideas amongst the silliness. I also think there’s a way to make it work for teacher/student interactions. Like everything else, that’s probably a matter of trial and error.

What I do believe is that this isn’t a Facebook v. Twitter standoff in which one will rise clearly victorious over the other. Students use a variety of social media. Schools should too.

Everything depends on what you need the tool to do. Do you want to disseminate information? If so, you need both Facebook and Twitter. Think about using a service like Tumblr or a Twitter application like TweetDeck to simplify pushing the same information out to multiple accounts.

Do you want to help students build projects or portfolios? Think about using Twitter with a blog as I wrote about yesterday.

Do you want to hold virtual office hours? For me, Facebook works best for that, but I’ve seen it happen on Twitter.

Do you work in a situation where Facebook and Twitter are both blocked by your school? In that case, you might want to ask your IT people to unblock Ning so that you can make a social network just for your class. This way you won’t have to worry about whether you are intruding on the students’ social spaces.

We’re only just starting to think through the impact of social media on education. We’ll see a lot of shifts and turns along the way. Sometimes those turns will mean one phase is ending as another begins, but sometimes they just mean a particular phase is rearranging itself.

Facebook has not yet worked the way I wanted it to with students. I don’t think that means it doesn’t work. I just think it means I need to keep rearranging the way I approach it. I also think it means I need to see Facebook as “a” way to communicate with students, not “the” way. For the foreseeable future it seems we’re going to be broadcasting our classrooms in multiple directions at once. And that’s okay.

Teach them where you find them, I was told as a new teacher. They’re everywhere now, and that’s where we’ll reach them.

Twitter as Assignment

David Carr’s New York Times article, “Why Twitter Will Endure,” reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about classroom uses for Twitter. I found the article by way of Twitter, though by the time I read it and decided to write about it, I could no longer remember who linked to it. This memory lapse in itself brings up issues of how Twitter works, how attribution and documentation work in the digital world–all worthy of discussion in the classroom.

Because I wouldn’t accept “I don’t remember” from a student if attribution were required or even appropriate, I made myself scroll back through several pages of tweets until I found this:

For anyone interested in why Brian Williams is an idiot, here is the link to the Time article in question.

Williams’ dismissal of Twitter aside, Carr makes some great points. I don’t know if I agree that Twitter is really “plumbing” as he asserts. Something new always comes along, after all. I do think it is here for a long stretch, though, and I think Twitter represents a communications style and way of thinking about information flow that will endure for quite some time. That’s why it’s worth bringing to the classroom experience.

Daisy Pignetti, among others, has done quite a bit of research and experimenting with Twitter as a classroom tool. I’ve followed her work along with listserv discussions on the topic for as much as a couple of years. I’ve also seen some really interesting professional uses of Twitter through conference backchatter, article sharing, and real, helpful discussions of academic issues.

Still, I’ve struggled with how to make Twitter work for students. If it is nothing more than a way for me to communicate to them, I can use any of a number of other tools–Blackboard announcements, Facebook, blogs, and so forth. If it is a way for them to communicate with each other, it gets messy, difficult for me to even understand how to track and assess. As a research tool, Twitter is perhaps a little too random. It will lead you to information but not through the most direct path.

That has me thinking about why I use Twitter and why I think it is important. David Carr’s article does resonate with my own experience. Twitter is about who you follow, not about who follows you or even who responds to you. Twitter is a way to receive varied information in one place, to get a sense not only of what’s happening, but of how people are responding to it.

This morning, in addition to David Carr’s article, I read an article about dolphin intelligence (via @courosa), saw some animations of mathematical equations (via @web20classroom), and browsed through lists of iPhone apps (via @mashable) all while doing other things and only casually paying attention to Twitter. This is my equivalent of what my father has done for years in reading the morning paper over a cup of coffee. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I’m just browsing through whatever information is there.

I do know who I am following, though, in the same way my father knew why he subscribed to certain newspapers and news magazines. He prioritized based on the kind of information he most wanted to know–local, conservative, etc.

I find people to follow who are likely to tweet things I feel I need to know. Sometimes I follow people because I think they are clever, but mostly I follow for information.

This is the kind of Twitter use the classroom needs. Thus, I think the best use I could get out of Twitter in my particular classroom situation would be to assign Twitter journals. Students would find people to follow on topics of interest to them and keep a journal of the most interesting bits of news and ideas found.

The best way I think would be to do this through blogs. Then it becomes a circulatory process just as it is for many professional writers. Find information within the stream. Write about that information. Feed what you’ve written back into the stream. Watch for reactions. And so forth.

I can see teaching an entire composition class as a Twitter to blog to Twitter to blog to Twitter process. I think that would make for a truly vibrant learning experience for all. Even as just one aspect of the class or one project, though, it would be well worth doing.

Cool Tech Tool: Tumblr

Tumblr is possibly the coolest of cool.  It’s for blogging, micro-blogging, audio-blogging, video and photo sharing, pushing content to social networking sites, and possibly things I haven’t figured out yet given I’ve only just now joined.  It seems to be a wonderful option for keeping an audio journal.  It allows you to upload one mp3 of up to 10 mb per day.  Given that this is a free site and that’s the only restriction, this is a fantastic answer to audio blogging.  Most free blogs don’t allow enough file storage space to keep going all that terribly long at the rate of 10 mb per day.  And if you need life to be even simpler than an upload, you can phone in your voice recording.  Nice.

Tumblr doesn’t host videos, but it does provide an easy way to link to them in YouTube.  It does allow for uploading photos into posts.  With themes that show one post at a time with clickable arrows to scroll through to subsequent posts, it looks like a very promising place for gallery style photo-blogs.

The built-in Facebook and Twitter connections mean Tumblr could be used simply as a way to manage content being pushed out to other systems, but it might also serve as a space for a full blog.  Like I said…nice.

See me on Tumblr.

Featured Blog: Daisy Pignetti

Daisy Pignetti writes a blog I feel a special connection to because she and I blogged our way through Katrina together from different places and different perspectives.  A New Orleans native, she continues to write about Katrina and recovery issues.  She’s also very interested in social media and provides some great ideas for using Twitter and other social sites in the classroom.  She uses WordPress and has a gorgeous and aptly chosen WordPress theme.

Options for Digital Journaling

Journaling is an excellent idea for all sorts of reasons. It’s easy to agree to that. But how do we make it a digital age project? How can we approach it in a way that gives us and our students more techie confidence?

First, you don’t have to go digital to journal. Write with pen and paper to your heart’s content if that’s what you want. Just so you write.

Next, journaling digitally is a good idea because it is, once again, a low stakes way to approach a skill set. If you are struggling to find more ways to bring technology into your teaching, electronic journals might just be your answer. And the two most obvious answers to how are word processing and blogs. We’ll start with them, but there are other approaches to consider while we are at it.

(1) Word Processing: Simply typing a journal is a fine way to go. This allows for copying in links and photographs and other extras as you go. It also makes it easy to do things like double-entry reading logs or color-coded topics if that’s your thing. It’s also private writing until you choose to share, which is more appropriate than public blogging in some cases. It’s simple. It provides an opportunity to practice typing, formatting, and low-key editing skills. Typed journals can be submitted electronically to instructors, saving on paper costs. They can also be printed out and bound if preferred. And, unlike spiral notebooks or composition books, reorganizing content by topic is a very simple matter. If nothing else, neatness and readability give the typed journal an edge over the handwritten journal.

(2) Online Word Processing: Google Docs or other online word processors have all of the advantages of locally installed word processors plus the ability to easily share. An instructor can be added to a Google Doc as a viewer or editor. This makes for an easy way to submit work electronically. Google Docs can also be published as web pages if a student wants to share all or parts of a journal with the class.

(2) Blogging: My preferred method of journaling is through blogging because this is a social process as much as an individual process. Blogs can be set to either public or private. A student could keep a private blog but invite the instructor and the peer group to be viewers or even contributors. The degree of privacy is up to the individual, but there’s a lot to be said for low-stakes public writing. It’s a bit like karaoke. It’s okay if you make mistakes, and the act of trying builds confidence which inspires more effort which build more skills. Blogs can also be individual or group efforts. They can be topic specific or general, and if categories and tags are applied to the posts, they can produce a well-organized archive of materials. The most popular free blogging platforms can be found at and

(3) Facebook Notes: Facebook has its own built-in blog platform with the notes feature. Remember that a large part of the draw of blogging is that it is a social act. If you or your students already have a social network established in Facebook or another site, there’s no real reason not to use it. Consider posting your own thoughts about teaching through Facebook notes. You may be surprised by the response you get.

(4) Ning: Ning is a site that allows you to create your own social network and invite people to it. The networks can be public or private. They also come with blogs and discussion forums. The blogs are shared within the the Ning site in much the same way Facebook notes are shared within a friend stream.

(5) Discussion Forums: If you post discussion topics to a discussion forum and ask students to respond, you are essentially asking them to share a guided journal entry. This also gives students a change to respond to each other and to read opinions from a variety of people. There are forums built in to Blackboard and other course management systems. There are also free sites that allow you to create public or private discussion forums. Just Google it to find the one for you.

(6) Micro-blogging: The micro-blogging site Twitter is hugely popular and may be the answer for the busy person’s journal. If you don’t think you have time to sit down and write whole paragraphs, try writing just 140 characters at a time. Just make a single comment as it occurs to you or make note of a particular article that you think might be useful. Tweeting about research articles is an excellent plan for students. Also consider having students Tweet their way through textbook chapters. Figuring out how to paraphrase key points in 140 characters might be just what they need to really take ownership of new concepts.

(7) Mobile-blogging: When making decisions about digital journaling with students, remember that they tend to live by their cell phones. If it can be accessed by an iPhone, Blackberry, or equivalent, it’s much more convenient for students, and even for their teachers. The most popular of the blogging and micro-blogging sites are prepared for this, offering automated mobile services. Where possible, try to think of ways students can phone in work and/or access class information by phone. Consider sharing your own materials and journaling with students through a public blog with built in mobile services.

Multi-Media Approaches to Journaling

(1) Audio Journals: I have a friend who once had a very long commute to work. He took a voice recorder in the car with him, and when he had ideas along the drive that he wanted to remember, he just talked into his recorder. Another friend would call her home phone from her cell phone and leave a message to herself on her answering machine. Sometimes there’s a good reason for audio journaling. It’s dangerous to write and drive. But beyond that, audio can take journaling to a new level. The examples I cite are exceptions. Most people think and write before recording themselves. Thus, for you wordies, audio journaling takes nothing away from the writing component in journals. They can be approached in several ways: (1) private recordings saved to a computer or voice recorder; (2) mp3 recordings posted to audio blogs; (3) recordings phoned in or uploaded to podcasting sites; (4) an iTunes podcast. Again, to decide an approach you need to decide what level of privacy you require, and if you want to share your audio journal, you’ll also need to know the most convenient way for others to access it.

(2) Video Journals: Like audio, video can take journaling to another level. And it’s easier to do than ever before. Most laptops come with built in web cams now, and there is a whole array of products in the $200 and under range that offer video recording capabilities, including YouTube ready video cameras, point and shoot digital cameras, and even the latest version of the iPod Nano. If using a web cam, look into creating an account with a place like Seesmic TV. If using a digital camera or some other gadget, one of the simplest ways to keep a video journal is to create your own YouTube channel. On YouTube you get to decide whether to make your video public or to share it with only a few people. Video journals could be great assignments for speech students or students doing current events projects. They are also a good way for teachers to share thoughts and lesson ideas with other teachers.

(3) Photo Journals: One of the most enjoyable ways to get a little extra writing out of students is to have them take pictures and write descriptions or responses. This can be done easily in a photo-blog. But you don’t even need a blog. Use an online photo hosting service like Flickr and have the students type in annotations or comments. They could even make Facebook photo albums with comments. If they are working on descriptive writing or studying local history, photo journals make fine sense.

(4) Scrap-booking: There’s a huge craze of scrap-booking going on now that I admit has missed me entirely. When I was a student, we did make scrapbooks as class projects, though. I made a Mississippi History scrapbook in my history class and a Plants of Mississippi scrapbook in my biology class. I was probably 14 at the time, but I learned a lot and had fun doing it. There’s no reason that kind of project has to be for younger students. If grandmothers everywhere are spending hundreds of dollars on scrapbook supplies for family albums, it can’t hurt a college student to give it a go. Scrapbooks do call for creativity from multiple directions. You have to think about design and witty captions to really get the most out of them. Depending on your subject area, you may have cause to assign a scrapbook as a project. Be aware that sites exist now to aid in building digital scrapbooks. Commercial sites like Shutterfly allow you to upload photographs and create your own online scrapbooks out of them. Of course they also try to get you to order slick printed copies of the books once they are created. And that’s okay. Some of your students might actually want to do that. As long it’s offered as an option rather than a requirement, there’s probably nothing wrong with having students purchase completed copies of their work. As an alternative, though, they could try making a scrapbook style website using something like Google Sites. Or they could make a scrapbook presentation of digital artifacts using PowerPoint. The possibilities abound.