When students decide of their own volition to get involved in a Facebook group specialising in a tough subject, this can usefully complement the academic learning process and also help them to choose a vocational path.

Facebook encouraging greater student engagement in the learning process?

Social networks such as Facebook have the potential to help secondary school pupils and university students to immerse themselves in science subjects – disciplines which it is often difficult to get youngsters interested in during school hours. This is the conclusion of a study  led by Dr Christine Greenhow, Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University, who specialises in social media and learning.  The research team observed the behaviour of students aged 16 to 25 who had decided to join a Facebook forum focusing on climate science-related topics and assessed the quality of their conversations.

Dr Greenhow describes those discussions as ‟pertinent and sophisticated”, which suggests that joining a specialised discussion group might well serve as a useful complement to traditional academic education. One important aspect is that this can help young people to forge links with professionals and experts in the fields they are interested in. It also has the potential to arouse passion, inspire a career choice or even encourage the youngsters to get involved in civic affairs. ‟One of the things we struggle with as educators is how to take students’ spark of interest in something and develop it in ways that can serve them,” explained Christine Greenhow, adding: “If students had these kinds of niche communities to be part of, in addition to their formal curriculum, that could really provide a rich environment for them.” 



In fact past studies have highlighted some reluctance on the part of pupils to take part in specialised forums run by teachers and faculty members. There is evidence that the control, constraints and even compulsion exercised by teachers can discourage students from putting in a lot of personal effort, even when they are really interested in the subject matter. So perhaps the social networks can really make a difference here as they are informal in character and allow a significant amount of freedom of expression.

Conversely, Facebook is often criticised for distracting schoolchildren during class time and for weakening the teacher-student relationship, but the Mark Zuckerberg-led social network might nevertheless provide a way to improve student learning. Meanwhile there are a growing number of initiatives underway designed to transcend e-learning through social networks. One example is a project coming out of the Autonomous University of Madrid, where researchers have developed an app called Sentbuk, which can detect Facebook users’ emotions from their posts. The goal is to optimise interaction between students and their teachers so that they can then adjust the content of their classes in line with the class mood. Professor Greenhow has also carried out another study which underscores the role of Twitter as a catalyst for student involvement in class.

Specialised Facebook groups can replace forums run by teachers and generate student engagement with complex scientific topics

Going forward, this kind of research could help to overcome resistance to using information and communication technologies in the classroom. ‟ While any social network site can be misused, there’s also a significant and underexplored opportunity to develop these spaces as forums for learning, healthy academic debate and career development,” argues Christine Greenhow.

By Pauline Canteneur