Facebook and Faculty: A Small Tale of Utility

A podcast by CHNM’s Digital Campus team and posts by Jerry Slezak and Jim Groom, stimulating an active conversation about the merits and weaknesses of Facebook in academic settings have prompted me to write about my own recent experiment with the social networking site. I’ve had a Facebook account and a growing number of mostly student friends (~65) for a couple of years now. I’ve used it mostly to keep in touch with recent grads, though current students have used it to look up my AIM account or converse with me about particular projects or their on-campus activities.

Recently, however, I set up a Facebook group for my History Department Alumni Book club and invited those of my Facebook friends who were alums. Thirty joined in 24 hours, and other alums joined as well (I left the group open) bringing the total close to 40. I’ve already organized the next meeting and book choice via the event system and people have already RSVPed (and explained to the group why they’re not coming, if they can’t make it). Not sure why I resisted tapping into that existing community before now, but I’m glad I have.

It doesn’t reach everyone; not everyone’s on Facebook, and not all of those who are on the site are my friends. [Though, as I noted, a number of unofficial friends have joined on their own .]* I have about 90 people on the email list for the book club and I still use that to contact most people. Facebook also won’t be the prime way we meet and discuss the books. [Face-to-face meetings are supplemented by a blog and comments at umwhistory.blogspot.com.] Still, Facebook allows an easy RSVP system and a convenient place to coordinate meetings and book choices and it will advertise the book club in a way that most alums wouldn’t have stumbled on before. [Not to mention the fact that current students can see it in my Groups and those of their friends who recently graduated, furthering the likelihood that they’ll join when they become alums.]

I’m not particularly interested in using it for classroom teaching at this point (though I’m open to the possibility if it made sense); rather I see Facebook as a way to engage students in larger (broader than one course) discussions and as a way of interacting with students and former students through a group channel that persists beyond their time in a particular class or in their collegiate career. I’ll post about Facebook’s relation to the book club in future posts.

UPDATE: A former student contacted me via Facebook after I created the book club group. He had wanted to be in the book club when he graduated two years ago, but had forgotten to contact me to sign up. He’d seen the book club group on Facebook and he’s excited to be able to join it now.

* “Unofficial” is an awkward, though brief, way to describe people who I know, but are not Facebook friends with; however, “non-friends” (an alternative I considered) makes it sound like I don’t like them….

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  1. This nicely highlights the social networking prowess of Facebook. It is so easy to create and manage groups and events that it makes total sense to organize them in this space. And while the UMW facebook community doesn’t include everyone, according to Alan Levine’s scanning of available statistics it may be almost everyone (somewhere in the vicinity of 85% for Penn State).

    The Alumni surveys we did for the English, Linguistics, and Speech department last year with PHP surveyor got over 200 responses (a banner year for that department). You alone might be able to generate at least half that number of responses in Facebook with little effort and no overhead. The possibilities for Facebook as a tool for reaching out to alumni has not yet been fully tapped. Although you have begun to blaze a trail, as other faculty might be doing as well in a one-off manner. The number of Facebook users tied to a UMW e-mail address is 150% more than our existing student population. As time goes by, and more and more students and faculty depend upon Facebook for networking beyond the college experience, this tool may become integral to fostering meaningful and lasting relationships for a long time to come.

  2. One of the interesting things your post made me think about is the kinds of relationships that are possible between faculty, departments, and alum. The phrase “life-long learning” comes to mind–investment beyond the diploma-garnering day.

    A very interesting model for ways in which whole departments could interact with students and alum. In a small dept. like my own, student engagement and enthusiasm is critical. As you point out, the social software does not replace the face-to-face interaction; it merely services it.

  3. Great post, and key comments all.

    I use Facebook almost daily to communicate with students and colleagues. There’s an interesting affective component in Facebook that’s kinda sneaky-cool. I can see why it’s so compulsive for many students.

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