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.

Writing as Play

In a previous post, I talked about the need for more playtime in tech training for teachers. I think that goes for students as well. I was interested then to see this article about schoolchildren improving literacy through social networking. I found the article through @newsfromtengrrl on Twitter. I then ran across Alex Reid’s blog post responding to the same study. He says, “I don’t know that we are going down a good path if we really try to tie enjoyment to writing.”

I don’t even know what to say. On the one hand, I do appreciate his point. When I wrote my own teaching philosophy last spring, I said that writing and learning to write are constant struggles. So if we see it as all play and no work, we aren’t going to get very far. If we’re too easily satisfied with our writing, or indeed if we’re satisfied at all, we probably aren’t doing it right.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and productive at the same time. It doesn’t mean we’re off the tracks if we try to make it fun for students. It doesn’t even mean enjoyment on the part of our students shouldn’t be one of our primary concerns.

Alex Reid refers to students with an excess of self-esteem. Honestly, I don’t get too many of those at the open admissions two-year-college. I get a whole lot more who are struggling for even basic literacy and who have all but lost hope in their own capacity to learn.

I see other students who have talent and some belief in their own talent but who lack direction, focus, drive, or whatever it takes to believe their abilities matter enough to make something useful out of them and of their lives.

I see all kinds really, and with every kind of student I see that finding pleasure in writing does lead to better writing. I see that being socially engaged as writers leads to better writing.

The study that says Facebook improves literacy skills in kids doesn’t surprise me at all, and that is who it targets. It’s about kids. If we don’t make writing fun for them, we’ve lost them already. We’ve lost the chance to teach them when they’re at their most teachable.

Universities, especially graduate programs, operate under different assumptions. A grad program is preparing people to be part of a profession. A two-year college is more about preparing people to be productive members of a community, to live their lives the best way they can. A grad program weeds people out. A two-year college brings everyone in.

We have to have different philosophies. But I never got anywhere much by taking myself or what I do too seriously. Practicality humbles theory every time. It humbled Einstein. It humbles me.

I write this because I care about teachers and students. I write this because I believe I have something to say. I write this because I believe that writing for an audience makes me a better writer, and I want to always be in a process of improving. I write this because it is a way for me to have a voice in a profession from the perspective of the place and situation that is my own particular reality. I write this because I bore easily, and I feel bad about myself if I’m not reading, thinking, learning, writing. I write this because I want other people to care about issues in education as much as I do.

Most likely I don’t know or understand every motivation I have, but I do know this much. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t enjoyable to me. I have too many other things I could be doing.

I think about that when I think about student writing. Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that 10,000 hours of practice is required to become expert at any skill resonates with my own experience and observations as a writer and a teacher. I may not be a virtuoso, but what I do have is the confidence to try, which has stood me well time and again. I wasn’t born with that. I didn’t have it when I first when to college or even to graduate school. But in the last twenty years I’ve spent well more than 10,000 hours writing when I was just goofing around, just playing, just amusing myself and my friends.

That’s worth something.

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.

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.