I was sitting at a Biology meeting recently and started to talk about the success I have had using Facebook in my Anatomy & Physiology (AP) course. The group I was talking to acted like I just betrayed the teaching profession. The first comment was along the lines of, “They spend too much time on Facebook now.” That is right. The students spend a lot of time on Facebook but I always felt it was best to fish where the fish are. I reach them because they are already there.
When we made the move to extend my Anatomy and Physiology module online to meet demand I felt I had removed a lot of the critical student and teacher interaction. Our adjunct professors were essentially using a canned course. I wanted a format that the adjunct professors could use to share material and ideas with all of the students. My own IT staff did not think the students would become involved in a Facebook group. What occurred was not what I planned and it was not what I expected. It was so much better.
I developed a group that was independent of my own newsfeed. I do not feel that teachers and students should interact as ‘friends.’ I wanted the conversations that I have with my family to be separate from those that I would have with students and I did not want to have all of their newsfeeds in mine. I created a character called ‘AP On-Line,’ and AP On-Line created a group called ‘Anatomy and Physiology.’ To do that, I had to have a secondary e-mail and password. This is a closed group that the students have to ask to be invited in. The advantage is that I deal with issues faced by our classes and we do not deal with distracting posts or ‘trolls.’ Students rarely go off topic and the few times that they have I have messaged them and removed the post. At this moment, there are 360 members of the group. I do not drop students out when they complete the AP program; they sign out themselves. Many have opted to stay.
I started by inserting AP jokes and silliness because I wanted the students to feel comfortable. I have a collection of AP images that I save and recycle. We even do periodic caption contests just for fun. I have ‘liked’ a number of AP sites and I forward any interesting AP topics that I find on Facebook. I probably upload one or two things a day although sometimes I am on a roll and I come up with four or five things to upload. The format allows me to answer most questions within an hour since they appear in my e-mail as the students post them although sometimes it takes a day for me to respond. As the first semester continued students started uploading images from their microscopes and dissections looking for feedback. Many times when I would view these images, I would find that other students had already entered feedback. There were other times when students would post that they wanted to drop the class and a dozen other students would talk them into staying. A lot of these conversations would occur in the middle of the night because students that work, study in the middle of the night. Late at night, I find that students call out on the site to find out if anyone else is working on the lab or having problems with a concept. They begin to form close friendships with people they have never met.
Recently, I have noticed that the students that have completed both semesters of AP are still interacting and helping the new students with questions and problems. I am basically working with dozens of volunteer tutors.
The key to using any social media in your classes is your own comfort level with the format. I have talked to several teachers that have incorporated Twitter into their classes. I am not a fan of Twitter so I am more reluctant to use it. The other key has to be your students’ comfort with the format. There are several social media formats that are not commonly used and so the students are less likely to use it. For years, I included open forums on BlackBoard Discussion Boards but I have rarely had students use them.
Yes, it sometimes seems as if our students spend too much time on Facebook, but that is no reason to discount this as a great way to interact with students. Maybe you can even share your favorite cat videos.