University and Facebook

Student communication channels was one of the areas investigated by the ‘Enhancing Student Engagement in Curriculum Development’ project undertaken here at Reading. The initiative, funded by the University’s Teaching & Learning Development Fund (TLDF), was directed by Matthew Almond, Director of Teaching & Learning in the School of Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy, and supported by a student working group, Student Engagement Champion Joy Collier, and Digitally Ready.

Matthew and two of the students working with him, Gemma Allen and Philip Smither, recently presented as part of our Teaching & Learning Showcase series. Matthew gave a brief overview of key findings and recommendations before handing over to the students. Gemma, a finalist in Classical Studies, provided examples of student-led module design from Archaeology and Classics. Philip, who studies for a BA in Ancient History & Archaelogy, focused on the use of Facebook as a tool for student engagement: ‘University and Facebook’. Here is an overview of Philip’s key points:

‘In 2011 Matthew Almond initiated a project that would investigate how effective student engagement in the curriculum was at the University of Reading. I was one of three students who studied three departments: Chemistry, Classics and Archaeology. One aspect of the project was to look at how digital communications were employed in student engagement.’

‘It soon became apparent that Blackboard and email were seen as either confusing and dated and that Facebook was beginning to provide students with a more flexible was to discuss and engage with their education. Over the course of the year in the Department of Classics, the use of Facebook took off in several forms bringing academics and students closer and allowing for the exchange of ideas to flow more freely and accessibly than it had before.’

‘The forms of communication we have at our fingertips have increased over the last few years. Among the biggest have been Facebook and Twitter. Universities have appeared to embrace Facebook as a means of communicating students at a university wide level. The University of Oxford has over 800,000 ‘likes’ for its Facebook page and our own University of Reading has multiple pages for the different aspects of student life. On a departmental level, I have found that Facebook can be a positive tool for student/staff interaction and learning. In the Classics department the academic staff participate as much or as little as they wish in discussions on the Classics Society page, which leads to some great discussions and also the ability for staff to help students with problems quickly. Many people now check their Facebook page more often than their email and having the staff participating or floating in the background has allowed them to help students more effectively often at crazy hours when doing nothing but chatting away on Facebook. Another advantage is the setup of module pages. The module convenor sets up a page where they invite the students on the module to join. One particular page, ‘Alcohol consumption and abuse in antiquity’, led by Professor Peter Kruschwitz, was incredibly popular and lead to a raft of discussions on the subject between students and staff adding to their education in the subject.’

‘Facebook is quick, interactive, and everyone spends time on there anyway. Using it for my module, has allowed my students and myself to discuss relevant matters, sometimes at insane hours, very quickly. It has allowed us to share knowledge, ask questions, find answers, and to do so in an intelligent, yet laid-back way.’ (Peter Kruschwitz)

Facebook has acted much like a student/staff common room. It has also provided a virtual space in which staff can see all their students at once rather than sending out an email that may or may not be picked up before it is needed. People chat freely about the subject and, with the privacy Facebook offers, revealing only as much of themselves as they want. Not used as an official channel for communications such as email and Blackboard, the format of these gets increasingly more complicated to students and staff. It also reduces the fear experienced by students when having to write an official email or set up an appointment before discussing a concern.’

What we have found is that having the free flow of ideas, ask questions, get answers and mix and mingle in an environment that everyone is familiar with has changed the was students and staff in the department interact for the better.’

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