Facebook Between Students & Profs: Necessary for Online Classes?

Posted by on Mar 29, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General | 9 comments

(Check out my first week on my new site! Can you believe? This is my third post! I haven’t responded to a news item in a while, and I see that the continued discussion regarding Facebook, students and profs is not going anywhere.

I covered this, myself, in this post called School Business on Facebook: Time for Some New Communication Rules. Here’s my response to a different idea on the subject… fresh from the Huffington Post.)

Who wouldn't want to do classwork this way?

I’ll just say up front. I don’t. And I won’t.

Friend current students on Facebook, that is.

I’m out of the classroom for a year working on the grant project I talked about earlier this week, and I’m finishing my book, but when I go back, I can promise you, I still won’t.

I certainly respect the opinion of the prof in this Huffington Post piece who spiritedly asserts that she does. And why does she? Because this prof says that knowing a little more about her students’ lives outside of the classroom helps her “fall in love with them” a little bit more. The prof states that given the nature of her work–having to offer harsh and often mundane critiques on papers (I get that, I have to do the same thing with speech outlines)–knowing more details about her students’ lives helps soften her toward them, making those critiques easier to execute.

My take? An open, engaging classroom environment can do the exact same thing. We don’t need Facebook to promote the type of therapeutic community that faculty can still create in a classroom. But I’ll digress from this particular point because there’s one far deeper I need to chew on:

Where the author makes her biggest argument about Facebook use with students is her online teaching. She says, and I quote directly, “There isn’t any good mechanism in Blackboard and other online systems for helping you become friends with someone.” And she purports that her online classes are less “easy” to teach if she can’t really “know” her students.

In my near-year of blogging, I don’t discuss my areas of specialization much, but meander over to my background if you have a minute. Although I am definitely a face-to-face prof, I have received a fair amount of recognition for online learning because it’s an unusual pairing with public speaking.

My awards matter little, but my reason for getting them matters a lot: I have not only built some unique pedagogical structures, but my students, on the whole, absolutely love the online community that we craft (and we’re talking over 10 years of me teaching these kinds of courses as part of my teaching load). I have years of student evaluations with specific comments that attest to this.

I have to disagree with the author: I know any course management system has a mechanism for the professor to build relationships with students: It’s all about the professor allowing himself/herself to let their personality shine online and giving students as many opportunities to engage with each other and with the professor as possible.

What do I do to generate these warm and fuzzy feelings… without Facebook:

-I send weekly newsletters to my students that are informative, yet fun to read. The tone of my words (paralanguage in nonverbal comm) tells the class that they, too, can express their personality in our open online spaces.

-My announcements/updates are always in the form of a letter, “Hi, all: How are you doing today? Wow! The sun is finally shining! Can you believe it? Did you watch American Idol? Can you believe what Simon said?” Then, I get down to business. This may not feel comfortable for every prof, but it feels comfortable for me.

-I use our discussion forum as a place to trigger interpersonal discussions, asking students both content questions, but also life questions–not ones that require skeleton bones to fall out of anyone’s closet, but those that bridge bonds and foster conversation.

(These are just a few ideas–I know other profs out there do some amazing things to generate and sustain a tight-knit online community, too. Want to share some of those ideas in the comments?).

I stand by that Facebook is social media and, unless a prof uses a dedicated class page, there is too much risk for inappropriate crossover and disclosure. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s not like you can’t put it back in… Plus that, if a major class issue erupts or a grade dispute arises, I sure as heck would not want that dialogued in a social media venue. I want it documented via an official school tool, such as college e-mail or the CMS e-mail.

Finally, while I know that so many students love, love, love (love!) Facebook, what are faculty saying when we don’t train students to use new and different professional technology tools? Will students one day say to their employers, “Sorry, I can’t use that particular program because it doesn’t work like Facebook?”

So what’s the communication lesson here?

Students, when I wrote about this subject back in August 2011, I said that you should find out about your prof’s Facebook policy before you initiate engagement. But I’ll twist this advice to focus on if your prof liberally uses Facebook like the prof in the Huffington Post piece:

-First, be very careful about what you disclose. Some things are just not meant to be public in a professional setting–and a college class is professional!

-Next, it’s okay to say to your prof, “What aspects of class are appropriate for us to discuss on Facebook, and which ones should we avoid?” Better to establish some boundaries early on.

-If your prof is also using a course management system and you are uncomfortable using Facebook (Yes! Some students set their own Facebook policies with profs–they don’t want the two to mix while in the classroom relationship!), you could say, “Could we shift some of these discussions to our discussion forum?” 

I realize I have some pretty strong feelings about this topic. When I wrote my previous post, there were numerous comments on both sides. Does the online aspect add a new dimension to the Facebook discussion? I’m interested to know what you think.




  1. I have struggled a lot with the question “Should I friend my students on Facebook”, and I think that I have come to a conclusion for my particular cirmcumstance. First, I will not ask my students to be my Facebook friend, they have to ask me. I’m also very boring, so I don’t worry about posting inappropriate content. FB has provided me with several opportunities to have teaching moments with my students outside of the classroom. I wear a variety of hats so I see students in several different contexts and FB provides me with opportunities to stay connected. FB is only a tool, and quality instruction and communication should still remain the primary focus of the instructor.

    That’s my 2 cents, great post.


    • Hi, Eric,
      Thanks for your thoughts on this, but not about the part that you are boring or that you post boring content :-) . So in the area where you say that FB provides opportunities for teaching outside of the classroom, I’d love to know more about that. Maybe I need to see things differently.

      @Scorebusters also noted: “FB okay for a class page, but not okay for friending.” My question is, what happens when students cross over and start discussing class problems there? Or, when they start messaging at inappropriate times (which has happened to me the one time I relented) because they are simply executing their “normal” FB behaviors.

      Do we need a new set of rules for students interacting with us on FB?


  2. I think Google plus presents a better place to engage with students online, outside of Blackboard, Facebook has positioned itself in our lives such that it is too personal. The advantage of Google plus is also the ability to have hangouts with students.

  3. Hi, Sherry,

    Thank you so much for your comment! I have heard this before about Google+ and I’m intrigued to check it out. So is Google+ used for chat? My campus is switching from Angel to Canvas in 2014, by the way. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.

    Too bad Facebook hasn’t caught on to the LMS game. They could possibly be the first to overtake the BB monopoly!


    • Google plus is another social network, except it also makes it super easy to keep conversations private and allows having a video conversation with your network, very easy to use. It is great for holding office hours, but you’d have to do it 9 students at a time, that is the limit of people you can have on a hangout.

      • I am intrigued and have heard about Google Plus from a few other folks. I seriously wonder why these platforms have not taken on the LMS market. Don’t you wonder that? Our system just signed on to yet a new LMS for 2014. Why not something created by Facebook or Google?

        Nice to meet you, Sherry :-) .

  4. There are multiple variables to consider when connecting with students via social media, and agree that setting some ground rules before engaging is important. I have connected with online students via Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+, all of which are accounts I decided from the beginning would be more professional in nature. And while I do have a Facebook account, it’s where I connect with a handful of friends and family. As Sherry mentioned, it seems too personal for use in a public way, however, I am contemplating the value of creating a separate Facebook account for more public/professional communication.

    • Hi, Melissa,

      I think what you said is the biggest point that educators need to think about: Setting the ground rules about using Facebook. When I wrote about this subject in August, I posed the question if anyone has a policy around its use. I have had some thoughtful conversations today around this topic. I know Facebook is where the students are. On our campus, we must use the LMS; the college won’t support another product. Therefore, adding FB to my repertoire means another step. But, you’ve given me more to think about. I appreciate your words!


  5. About a half-hour later, at the beginning of class, the prof announced to the entire group during the Zoom session, “ ‘I got this really weird email from a student stating she needed to do inappropriate things during lecture time,’ ’’ Mares wrote

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