University teaching is at its least intimate on large courses with one-way gatherings in lecture halls and little opportunity for individuals to get involved with in-depth discussion. Often students feel disconnected not just from their lecturers but from the course content.
As a result, more and more academics are trying to address this sense of distance by turning to Facebook to connect with their students.
For several years, Mete Akcaoglu, assistant professor of instructional technology at Georgia Southern University, has been conducting research into the impact of lecturers attempting to connect with their students in such a way.
His second and most recent study – published in the latest edition of Computers in Human Behavior – investigates what motivates students to join these groups, and whether these groups could be used by course instructors to break down the barriers of formality with their students, and in the process better engage them with their subject.
“We don’t look at technology as ‘silver bullets’ to fix education problems, but as tools to augment or support existing practices,” said Dr Akcaoglu.
“We wanted to look and see if a platform the students are already using would augment teacher-student and student-student interactions, and if this would have any impact on student motivation and learning.”
Dr Akcaoglu and his co-author Nicholas David Bowman, associate professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, surveyed students across 15 institutions who were using instructor-led Facebook groups not only to share and discuss course materials to prepare for exams, but also to socialise.
While the researchers found that joining these Facebook groups caused only the slightest of moves towards closer student-lecturer relationships, they identified a more strongly positive shift in how students perceived their instructor’s involvement. Students using the Facebook groups also showed more enthusiasm for taking future courses with the same instructors than the students who were not involved.
The most significant improvement, however, was in how students viewed the course content itself. Dr Akcaoglu and Dr Bowman found that students belonging to instructor-led Facebook groups felt more engaged, and perceived the course material as more interesting and valuable in the wider world.
“Students found themselves in a casual environment and received quick and personal feedback,” said Dr Akcaoglu.
Previous research has suggested that 97 per cent of US college students spend an average of approximately two hours a day on Facebook. Many may disparage this as time wasted, but the research suggests that the ubiquity of the platform could offer an opportunity for lecturers to engage students with their course outside the lecture hall.