The Facebook dilemma, and the Facebook confusion

It’s been snowing again, and talking with peers over the past few days about how to continue engagement with learners in exceptional circumstances, I continue to encourage more use of the learning tools and facilities that are already available to us. Tools like our VLE. Most VLE’s include discussion, chat and messaging functions, but (in our case, at least) these are seldom used effectively, with activity being sporadic rather than ongoing. In almost all cases, conversation about these activities in a managed VLE stretch toward Facebook. Inevitably, some confusion follows.

I suspect it is the case in most educational organisations that many staff don’t necessarily get on with Facebook. Either it doesn’t fit with their lifestyle choices, or they have made the conscious decision to opt out from using it – perhaps having been influenced by negative media coverage. There are pockets of innovation though. I am aware of whole departments that encourage students to use Facebook – a tool with which they are already familiar and confident. In my view, this concept should be fairly obvious; where appropriate (and perhaps with the right type of learner) get students onboard and learning with a tool they enjoy using. And why shouldn’t some learning practices be able to accommodate a tool like Facebook?

It’s hard to believe, but much confusion remains about interactions in Facebook. It’s not Facebook that’s the problem. It’s the misunderstanding that most have about how you can establish meaningful connections with other users without being a ‘friend’. The Facebook team publish plenty of materials for educators, covering topics like privacy and security. There’s a myriad of resources in the help center and even more elsewhere on the web. But maybe this isn’t enough.

Once you get past the media hype, using Facebook for communication and engagement with learners is really simple. It’s just that single biggest misconception that sceptics need to move beyond: you don’t need to be ‘friends’ with anyone in order to communicate with them. I happen to ‘like’ Justin Nozuka, but I’m not his ‘friend’. I do want to know what he’s up to, so I subscribe to his page to read communication from him, and if I want to, I can leave a reply or join conversation with other fans. I happen to like Lomography products; I don’t have a direct connection to any individual, but I can let them know directly if I am particularly happy / unhappy with their products.

I really do believe that most teachers who may currently be a little uncertain or apprehensive would really warm to Facebook if their understanding of the application was broadened through good education – solid fact and hands on experience rather than media publicity. This, of course, being supported by quality advice and guidance from experienced practitioners and administrative teams. I think it unfortunate that whilst there has been so much media focus on the possible negative results of establishing personal connections on Facebook, none of the same focus has been applied to all the benefits that may emerge from using Facebook and the myriad of other social media applications.

We must carefully balance our focus on innovative practice with new media tools. Learners should be presented with the opportunity to experience, engage with and innovate using social media tools as these technologies continue to mature. We must find the right combination of cautiousness needed to protect those in our duty of care, whilst at the same time acknowledging changing communication cultures, ensuring that the benefits (and dangers) of each are clearly understood by our learners. Our learners are already using these tools today. Our learners will rely upon these tools in their future.

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