Creating and Using Facebook Groups for Courses

This post was originally posted to Facebook on October 25, 2011, when I was an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Marymount Manhattan College.


In a recent status update, I mentioned that I have created Facebook groups for each of my courses. Many of my friends expressed interest in what I was doing, and a few of you asked that I write a note with more details. Never one to disappoint (or to pass up an opportunity to spend even MORE time on Facebook), I've put together the following. If you don't want to read any of my theoretical or historical musings, just scroll down to the "Technical Details" section.

Theory

Proving that I belong in the humanities, I'd like to begin with some theoretical considerations.

First, my teaching philosophy contends that most of the learning my students do takes place outside the classroom. This pedagogical approach is particularly important at the college level, where I am lucky if I get 40 hours with my students throughout the entire semester. While most of this out-of-class learning will occur while they read the texts I assign, I also think it important to encourage conversations about the material beyond the 40 hours they are with me each semester.

Moreover, as an undergraduate, I had a professor who required all of us to participate in an e-mail discussion list as part of our participation grade (this was *before* Blackboard discussion boards; yes, I am old), and these discussions were--hands down--some of the most challenging and engaging of my entire educational career (including those I had in graduate school).

So, when I began teaching, I wanted to integrate some sort of out-of-class discussion into my courses, but there was a problem with doing it exactly as he had: e-mail had taken off so much that we were all overwhelmed with messages in our inbox. To add yet another stream of e-mails to this overflow seemed to place an unreasonable burden on my students and, more importantly, was likely to be ineffective (the more they get, the more they ignore). Blackboard discussion boards were an option by this point, but when I tried them, I had very limited success. I was lucky if students would check these boards once a week, let alone every day like I wanted. When I *required* them to post, they would do so, but it always seemed forced and unnatural.

When social networking sites started to take off at the end of the decade, I hoped that I would eventually be able to use them for this purpose. Yet, for a variety of reasons I will outline below, these sites always fell short. What I needed was some mechanism for out-of-class discussion that would meet the following criteria:

  1. Ease of Access: Students should not have to do too much extra work to join these discussions. Ideally, these conversations would arise organically in the context of their daily lives (think of a student having a conversation with a roommate about some idea discussed in class; or, alternatively, think of the conversations students often have about the course material when hanging around after class).

  2. Immediate/Push Notifications: Related to the first criterion, I also realized that organic conversations required a way to notify participants of responses immediately. Part of the reason the Blackboard discussion boards were rarely "discussions" was that students would often post something and not get a response for another day or two, allowing the original poster to lose his or her original momentum/interest.

  3. Ability to Limit/Organize Notifications: While an e-mail discussion list solved the first two problems, it created the problem I already highlighted--too much information funneled through a medium that was already far too cluttered. Thus, I wanted whatever mechanism I would use to have the ability to 1) organize the notifications and 2) limit them to suit the needs of the individual participants.

  4. Ease of Posting: It was also important that this mechanism not be so advanced as to confuse students who were technologically challenged. Put differently, it seemed important to find some venue for discourse that was so natural to students that the focus would be on the conversation, rather than the system itself.

  5. Flexibility of Posting: At the same time, I wanted the mechanism to be sufficiently complex to allow for flexibility in the types of things students would post (beyond, say, 140 characters). Ideally, students would be able to have extended conversations, post documents, and share links, videos, pictures, songs, etc.

  6. No Privacy Issues: Finally, and I think most significantly, it was important to me that the mechanism I use not threaten the privacy of my students (for moral reasons, but now for legal reasons, as well). Two particular privacy issues concerned me. First, I didn't want anyone but the students in the particular class to be able to observe the conversations we were having. Second, I decided that I would not make use of any medium that would require my students to connect with me outside the context of the class and the group (I'll explain this point in a bit more detail shortly).

A History of Facebook

As I noted above, until now, most social networking sites have fallen short of these criteria. While Facebook has often come close, its various historical iterations have always had one major problem or another. Here are some of them:

  1. In the original days, groups were something like a Blackboard discussion board; you could join and post to a wall, but that was it. Fine, for what it was, but if you could do the same thing on Blackboard, you might as well use the school's site to do so.

  2. Eventually, once the "newsfeed" was introduced, group activity was actually included in one's newsfeed. Yet, for reasons that made sense, you could not invite people to join a group unless you were already their Facebook friend (Facebook didn't want people to be able to spam you with requests to join groups). Given my second privacy concern above, I refused to "friend" all of my students to make these groups work. I think requiring students to be our friends on Facebook is definitely crossing a line, and something I was unwilling to do.[For those who are curious, my official Facebook policy is that 1) I will never friend request students, 2) If a student friend requests me, I will accept it, but they will see a limited profile that only includes my work information until they graduate, at which point they can have more access. 2013 Update: This is based on the theory that learning is enhanced if we are willing to be *their* friends, but expecting (or allowing) students to be *our* friends gets in the way of learning.]

  3. Then fan pages were introduced, which people could search and join without being your friends. Yet, for this to work, the fan page had to be "public." This violated my first privacy concern.

  4. Last summer, group "pages" were introduced that had their own URLs. This was nice because even if you kept the group "closed" (i.e., private), you could still invite those who were not your friends to join by sending them the URL to the page. The problem was that, for some reason, when these changes were introduced, they stopped posting all the activity from the group to the newsfeed. The only time you would be notified about what was happening on the group page was when someone who was already a friend of yours posted to the group. Given that I wasn't friends with my students, and I didn't want to require them to be friends with each other, no one would ever be notified, turning the group pages into the Blackboard discussion board again.

  5. Yet, FINALLY, this fall (as a partial response to Google+), Facebook changed their group pages so that you could be notified about every update to the group, regardless of whether you were friends with the individuals in that group. At the moment, these notifications appear in your normal notifications menu, but there was a brief one-two week period where they actually showed up in your newsfeed (not sure why they dropped that, but as long as notifications come, it doesn't matter where they appear).

  6. Other cool features of the new groups are that:
  • Members have the option to tailor their notifications in very precise ways. You can indicate what types of posts you want to be notified about, you can indicate *how* you want to be notified, and you can choose to "follow" individual posts that interest you, so that you receive notifications about those posts even if you normally would not.

  • You can now upload all sorts of items to the group, instead of just posting words to the wall. The most important addition here is the ability to upload *documents* to the group pages, in addition to all the other standard options (pictures, youtube clips, spotify songs, etc.).

  • You can "ask a question" of all members of the group, which turns out to be really handy if, say, you're trying to organize a class field trip on a particular date.

  • You can create Facebook "events" relevant to your class. This allows you to invite all the members of your class to a particular event (say, for example, a lecture you want to encourage them to attend for extra credit) and keep track of RSVPs. Most importantly, your event then shows up in the THEIR Facebook calendar of events and they are reminded the week of the event that they have something to do that week (great for absent-minded students).

  • You can place the group page in your "favorites" so that it appears in the top left-hand menu on your Facebook homepage, reminding you to check it every time you log onto Facebook.

Technical Details [2013 Update: These details were from 2 years ago. So they’ll be close, but not perfect. If you decide you want to do this and need technical advice, send me a message.]

So, if you've decided you want to do this, how do you do it? Follow these steps:

  1. Click the "create a group" button on this page: http://www.Facebook.com/groups

  2. Pick a Group Name (I just used the title of my course) AND a group icon (by clicking the little arrow; there is an icon of a book, which works well for classes, I think)

  3. At the moment, you have to add at least one member to create a group, and this one member HAS to be one of your friends. However, once you create your group, you can invite others to join and delete that original person. This is kind of stupid, but just ask a friend to help you out by joining your group for 30 seconds.

  4. To ensure privacy for your students, keep your group "closed." This especially important given the new Facebook "ticker" which shows all activity your friends engage in on "public" pages/walls/posts. If you kept your page public, every single one of your students' friends would be notified of activity on your group page. Yikes!

  5. Click "create."

  6. You now see your group page. To add a picture to your group (I use the covers of one of the course texts), just click on the image next to your group name and upload the picture.

  7. To edit your group, look to the top of the right hand column. Next to the drop down menu that says "Notifications" is a a gear with an arrow. Click that arrow to do various things: create an event (remember that for later!), go on-line to chat with students (office hours?), or edit group (which is what you would want to do in this step). Note that you can set up a group e-mail address that you can use to e-mail all students in the group if you (or the students) are away from the Facebook interface.

  8. Click "Back to Wall" to get back to the group homepage.

  9. To change YOUR notifications, click on the arrow next to the Notifications drop down menu (note that your students will have the same options, and you can take the time to walk them through this if you want). The default setting for groups has notifications turned ON. You can turn them off completely, but that just turns these groups into Blackboard discussion boards, again. What you really want to do is customize your notifications, which you do by clicking on "settings." Here you can choose what sorts of content you want to be notified about (all posts, all posts and comments/likes, or just the posts of friends). You can also choose whether you want these notifications to be *e-mailed* to you, or whether you're simply happy to have them highlighted in your Facebook notifications menu (above the globe).

  10. Finally, your group name should be showing up in your left hand menu under the "GROUPS" heading. To ensure that this group always shows up in this menu, and that it gets moved to the top of that menu (under the "FAVORITES" heading), do the following: highlight the group, and click on the pencil to the right of the group name. Then click on "add to favorites." At this point it will always show up under your favorites throughout all of your Facebook surfing.

  11. Almost forgot: to invite your students, you simply need to send them all an e-mail with your group's URL. To find this, simply copy and paste the URL in your explorer bar. It should look something like this "www.Facebook.com/groups/123456789101112/" etc. That long number specifies your particular group. When students click on that link, they'll be directed to your group page. Yet, because it is a "closed" group, they have to "request to join" and you have to approve them. After they request to join, you (as the administrator) will get a notification. You simply have to make your way over to your group page and click the "add" button next to their picture in your right hand menu.

Finally, I thought I'd include a few screen shots of my group pages so that you can see how they've been working for me.

First, here is a conversation a student in my Religion and Sexuality class started after class one day:

Second, here are some pictures a student in my Introduction to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam class posted of a Sukkah she and her friends built when she celebrated the Jewish holiday of Sukkot:

Third, here are some pictures a student in my Religion and Sexuality class posted to follow up on some references he made in class:

Finally, here is an example of an event I created for an extra credit opportunity:

Too Good to be True?

This all sounds great (and it really is!), but there are two catches to all of this that still give me pause.

  1. I'm not sure how I feel about requiring students to join Facebook to participate in these discussion lists. Luckily, I have not had this become an issue this term. Literally every student in my class already has a Facebook account. If a student did not have such an account, however, I'd have to think about whether it was appropriate to ask him/her to create one. 2013 Update: I’ve now had courses where one student is not on Facebook. Instead of making them join, I give them an alternative assignment. They miss out on a great deal of class conversation, but if that is what they prefer, they are free to do so without penalty.
     
  2. With respect to privacy issue #1, it is important to note that even a "closed" group is not truly closed when you are using a third party provider like Facebook. Whereas the Blackboard discussion boards are run by administrators at our school, who already have access to student information, using Facebook means that I have to trust Facebook (a corporation) to not misuse this information. Given that these discussions are not about grades, and students who join have already chosen to use Facebook in other contexts, I am not too worried about this, but it is definitely something to think about.

I'd love to hear what the rest of you think about these two issues. Ideas?

Update:

This just happened. Immediate response by another student, before I had the chance. Awesome!

2013 Update: Since I began using Facebook groups, I’ve had many other positive things happen organically. Students have spent hours studying for exams together (in ways that I could observe and guide, if I decided that was appropriate), posted parts of their writing assignments to ask for feedback, and organized their own social events for the class without me present. All of these things contribute to learning the material for my class and, more importantly, their personal and intellectual development. Yes, it’s scary to rely on a big and evil corporation like Facebook for something like this, but the benefits are enormous.