The past decade has seen a growing popularity of social networking sites and out of all that is available, Facebook is the one that stands out for being unique and offering a range of user-friendly features. This site has frequently topped the ranks with record number of memberships and daily users. Facebook is often considered as a personal and informal space for sharing pictures, information, webpages, forming ‘Groups’, participating in discussions and debates, and providing comments on wall posts etc. The aim of this paper is to explore the use of Facebook as learning and teaching tool. It will highlight some of the theoretical debates and existing research to understand the effectiveness of this site as an informal and learner driven space, and ways in which it empowers students and stimulates their intellectual growth. The conclusion highlights the on-going contested nature of technological advances and its influences on traditional ideas of teaching and learning.
Keywords: Facebook; Situated Learning Theory; Community of Practice; Connectivist Approach; Personal Learning Environment; Informal Learning; Criticical Thinking; Creativity; Communicative Confidence; Collaborative Learning.
Over two decades ago, theorists Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger (1991) introduced a theory of learning called ‘situated learning’ and the concept of community of practice (CoP from here on), so as to describe learning through practice and participation. The CoP can be bracketed as a group of individuals who share a common interest and a desire to learn from and contribute to the community. Wenger (2010) elaborated the idea by stating that:
Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell: Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.
According to Wegner, the CoP needs to meet three essential characteristics i.e. domain, community and practice. The CoP has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Therefore, membership implies a commitment to that particular domain, and a shared competence that distinguishes members from other individuals (namely non-members). The community then becomes a way through which members can pursue interest in their domain, engage in collaborative activities and discussions, provide assistance to each other, and share or disseminate information. They build a co-operative relationship that enables them to learn from each other. Wegnner terms the members of a CoP as practitioners ‘ as they develop a shared repertoire of resources, experiences, stories, tools, and ways of addressing repetitive problems. This in short can be called a shared practice, which takes time and sustained interaction. It is the combination of these three components constitutes a CoP, and it is by developing these in parallel that one cultivates such a community (ibid).
Social networking sites are often seen as promoting CoP. In simple terms, these sites can be defined as: ‘web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.’ (Boyd and Ellison, 2008: 211). What makes social networking sites unique is not whether they allow individuals to meet new people, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make their social networks visible (ibid). Therefore, social networking can be seen as ‘the practice of expanding knowledge by making connections with individuals of similar interests’ (Gunawardena et al. 2009:4). Researchers have frequently concluded that social networking sites are at the core of what is described as online CoP (Watkins, and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).
According to Wong et al. (2011), growth in technology and social networking sites have contributed to an increase in the opportunity to operate in an improved learning environment through enhanced communication and incorporation of collaborative teaching and learning approaches. Amongst all the social networking sites, Facebook (FB from hereon) is the one that stands out the most. There are a number of reasons as to why FB can be used for building an online CoP and ways in which its features are considered as unique and suitable for Higher Education purposes:
1) Ability to create a ‘Group’: FB is equipped with dynamic features, such as, messaging, and ability to post videos, weblinks and pictures. However, Group is one of the most powerful features on the site, and it can encourage and enhance collaborative learning. Learners can create a Group or join an existing Group related to their interest, and they can use the site features for sharing information and performing variety of tasks. FB Group features can build an online CoP, as they meet the three fundamental components of communities (i.e. domain, community and practice). (ibid: 319)
2) Share information: FB features, such as, Groups, Chats and Docs enable sharing of information. Learners can form groups for a specific purpose, and post messages, have discussions/debates and share resources on a specific domain within the group. The members of a CoP are practitioners, and they can develop a shared repertoire of resources.(ibid:319)
3) Encourage collaborative tasks: ‘Docs’ feature on FB site can help with collaborative tasks, and it can allow Group members to work collectively (if required). Any/all group members can view, edit, add or remove sections of the ‘Doc’. (ibid:319)
While the above shows the ways in which FB can be useful in building an online CoP, a more careful analysis is required, in order to establish its usefulness as learning and teaching tool in Higher Education. Therefore, rest of this paper will draw upon theoretical debates and evidence from within the literature, so as to explain the ways in which FB could be a powerful tool ‘ one that could enhance learning and criticality amongst learners, and also boost their communicative confidence.
Created in 2004, by the end of 2013 FB was reported to have more than 1.23 billion monthly active users worldwide, and 24 million Britons logged on to the site each day (The Guardian, 2014). Due to its ease of use and availability in the form of mobile applications, FB has now become integral part of its users social lifestyle ‘ conventional estimates suggest that a typical user spends around 20 minutes a day on the site, and 2/3 of users log in at least once a day (Ellison et al. 2007). Since its creation, FB has been subjected to immense academic and scholarly scrutiny, especially for its uses within the educational settings. The initial literature largely focused on the negative aspects associated with its use, such as, identity presentation and lack of privacy (See Gross & Acquisti, 2005). It was argued that, amount of information FB users provide about themselves, (somewhat) open nature of the information, and the lack of privacy controls could put users at risk online and offline, for e.g. bullying, stalking and identity theft (Gross and Acquisti, 2005). However, constant changes made to the privacy settings have subsequently reversed these concerns. The users can control the release of information by changing the privacy settings. Issues surrounding student perceptions of lecturer presence and self-disclosure (Mazer, Murphy, & Simonds, 2007), and inconsistent patterns of use were also highlighted as potential causes of concern (Golder, Wilkinson, & Huberman, 2007). However, the positive effects of social networking tools in teaching and learning soon took precedence, as these computer-mediated communication modes are often seen as lowering barriers to interaction and encouraging communicative confidence amongst students. For instance, during a qualitative study at the Yale University, the members of staff praised FB for breaking the barriers between themselves and students, and it also encouraged students to feel part of the same academic community (mentioned in Bosch, 2009). Similarly, a study conducted by Ellison et al. (2007) explored maintained social capital, which assesses one’s ability to stay connected with members of a community. They concluded that FB usage amongst students is linked to psychological well-being, and it could especially be of benefit to students with lower self-esteem and low life satisfaction. It could also trigger a process, whereby goal attainment amongst students is significantly increased.
The above uses of FB in Higher Education and as a tool for enabling the maintenance of social capital, can be contrasted with its value as a learning environment. Selwyn (2009) has strongly cautioned against the use of FB for teaching and learning, as students might be reluctant to use it for learning purposes, shifting its focus away from being an academic tool and becoming considered purely as a site for socialisation and sharing mundane information. Selwyn presented an in-depth qualitative analysis of the FB ‘wall’ activity of nearly 1000 students in a British educational establishment, and his study offered a very pessimistic conclusion. He noted that students did not use this site for educational purposes and their interactions were limited to offering negative comments on learning/lecture/seminar experiences, casual comments about events, sharing factual about teaching and assessment requirements, seeking moral support for assessment or learning, and even boasting oneself as being academically incompetent and/or disengaged (2009:157). The evidence from this study suggests that, FB in Higher Education must be approached with severe caution and lecturers need to use it in a considered, strategic, logical and objective manner (ibid).
It is likely that FB could clash with traditional pedagogical models. Nevertheless, it can provide channels for informal and unstructured learning. For instance, Bugeja (2006:1) suggested that, social networking offers the opportunity to ‘re-engage’ individuals with learning, and promote ‘critical thinking’, which is one of the traditional objectives of education (explained further in subsequent paragraphs). Siemens (2005) connectivist approach also recognises these impacts of technology on learning and ways of knowing. According to him, learning in the digital age is no longer dependent on individual obtaining/storing/retrieving knowledge, but instead relies on the connected learning that occurs through interaction with various sources of knowledge and participation in communities of common interest, including social networks, and group tasks (Brindley et al. 2009). The shift of focus to group and network as the epicentre of learning relies on a concept of learning based on ‘exploration, connection, creation and evaluation within networks that connect people, digital artefacts and content’ (Manca and Ranieri, 2013:488). This type of learning through socialisation can foster student interest in the subject material. Duffy (2011) proposed that FB could be used for teaching and learning, as it enables students to share knowledge and information with the ‘Group’ members’ and the associations between them. Duffy (2011) further argued that FB provides a range of educational benefits by: Allowing students to demonstrate critical thinking, take creative risks, and make sophisticated use of language and digital literacy skills, and in doing so, the students acquire creative, critical, communicative, and collaborative skills that are useful in both educational and professional contexts. (p. 288). This in turn will also help to achieve the Abertay Graduate Attributes ‘ and encourage development of students’ intellectual and social capacity, give them tools to find creative solutions to real world problems, and work within a complex and interdisciplinary contexts. It could trigger intellectual, communicative and collaborative confidence amongst students, train them to take creative risks and help them broaden their knowledge base.
What is particularly fascinating about FB is the fact that it encourages a creation of Personal Learning Environment (PLE) ‘ which is an emerging pedagogical approach for both integrating formal and informal learning, supporting self-regulated learning, and empowering students intellectually (these values are also outlined in the Abertay Strategic Plan). According to Attwell (2010):
PLEs are made-up of a collection of loosely coupled tools, including Web 2.0 technologies, used for working, learning, reflection and collaboration with others. PLEs can be seen as the spaces in which people interact and communicate and whose ultimate result is learning and the development of collective know-how. A PLE can use social software for informal learning which is learner driven, problem-based and motivated by interest ‘ not as a process triggered by a single learning provider, but as a continuing activity.
PLEs are spaces for the modern learner to create, explore and communicate, and they are characterised as an approach to learning rather than a set of computer assisted applications (Dalsgaard 2006:2). The use of PLEs can help to reinforce classroom learning by extending communication outside of the classroom hours (but at the same time not creating classroom outside of the classroom), and thinking about topics beyond the weekly seminar sessions both individually and in collaboration with classmates through posting materials (like files, website links, notes etc.) and leaving comments. This type of engagement can result in the development of (informal) communities of learning. Whereas, collaborative learning can lead to deeper level learning, critical thinking, and shared understanding (Kreijns, Kirschner and Jochems, 2003). A study conducted by Churchill (2009) highlighted that ‘online-blogs’ can foster a learning community, and it makes learners feel as an important part of the classroom. The best is achieved from such blogs when they are designed to facilitate student access of course material, posting reflections on learning tasks and commenting on peer contribution. Taking into account that FB is one of the most popular network and method of community building, through which students today are communicating ‘ it can prove an useful tool in collaborative student-led learning (in prove equal or more beneficial than blogs). Downes (2007) argues that FB is distinctive when compared to other forms of computer-mediated communications because it has stronger roots in the academic community. One of the reports by the UK government body for technology in learning lists several potential uses of FB in education, and for developing communities of practice, communication skills, e-portfolios, and literacy ‘ all of which are essential aspects of the Abertay Graduate Attributes.
FB can be used not only to gain knowledge and information, but also to share information, as and when needed. McLoughlin and Lee (2007;2010) have pointed out that ‘learning on demand’ is becoming a type of lifestyle in modern society, and learners are constantly seeking information to solve a problem or to satisfy their curiosity. Learners should therefore not be considered as passive information consumers, but as active co-producers of content. This also makes learning highly independent, self-driven, informal and integral part of University life (ibid). Formal learning is described as highly structured (one that happens in classrooms), whereas informal learning happens through observation, listening to stories, communicating with others, asking questions, reflecting and seeking assistance. Informal learning rests primarily in hands of the learner and use of FB could allow learners to create and maintain a learning space that facilitates self-learning activities and connections with classmates and other academic/educational networks (ibid). However, informal learning outside of the classroom must be considered as a continuum, rather than either/or dichotomy (Attwell, 2007). The informal learning can be used to supplement formal learning (not substitute) and PLE as a pedagogical tool should be viewed as intentioned merger of formal and informal learning spaces.
PLEs are increasingly becoming effective in addressing issues of learner control and personalization that are often absent in the University Learning Management Systems, such as, Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or Blackboard ( Dabbagh and Kitsantas, 2011). VLEs do not accommodate social connectivity tools and personal profile spaces, and they tend to replicate traditional models of learning and teaching in online environments. They create a classroom outside of the classroom, which may explain as to why educators ‘can’t ‘ stop lecturing online’ (Sheely, 2006). Also, VLEs are largely considered as tutor dissemination tools (for lecture notes, readings and assessment related information), over student learning tools. The University faculty and administrators control VLEs, and learners cannot maintain learning space that facilitates their own learning activities, and connection with and fellow classmates (Dabbagh and Kitsantas, 2011:2). When FB is employed as a learning tool, it moves away from this very hierarchical form of learning and empowers students through designs that focus on collaboration, connections and social interactions. It is much more dynamic and evolved in this sense.
It has been long argued that VLEs have had only a relatively slight impact on pedagogy in higher education, despite their commercial success (Brown, 2010). However, FB has the potential not only to fundamentally change the nature of learning and teaching but, through the creation of learner-controlled devices, it may challenge the role of traditional institutions in a way that previous technologies could not. Brown (2010:8) imposes a crucial question regarding VLE (such as Blackboard), and that it is ‘reasonable to wonder how much longer the return on investment will stand up to scrutiny’ (Brown 2010:8).
FB is increasingly becoming a popular learning platform that has a true potential in HE. A FB ‘Group’ can facilitate learning, by increased interaction between students and staff. The research has so far (despite being plausible in nature) indicated FB can be used to enhance the literacy, critical thinking, and collaborative and communicative skills amongst students. Some researchers have argued that social networking sites, such as, FB could offer ‘the capacity to radically change the educational system’ to better motivate students as engaged learners rather than learners who are primarily passive observers of the educational process’ (Ziegler 2007, 69). However, this overly-optimistic view is strongly contested by others, who have raised grave concerns about heightened disengagement, alienation and disconnection of students from education and to the detrimental effect that FB may have on ‘traditional’ skills and literacies (Brabazon, 2007). Academics have feared that FB could lead to intellectual and scholarly ‘de-powering’ of students, incapable of independent critical thought. According to Ziegler (2007:69), sites such as FB could lead to ‘the mis-education of Generation M’ (cited in Selwyn, 2009), and despite of its popularity as innovative educational tool, studies have indicated that it may distract learners from their studies and purely become a tool for socialisation (ibid). The use of FB remains controversial and further research is needed in this area to establish its effectiveness in HE teaching and learning.