February 27th, 2012

Should Professors Use Facebook to Communicate with Students?

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Nearly 85% of faculty have a Facebook account, two-thirds are on LinkedIn, and 50% are on Twitter according to research from Faculty Focus. But, professors’ use of social media shows we are behind the relationship curve when it comes to connecting with students. Only 32% have friended undergrad students and about half (55%) connect with some students after graduation.

Some faculty may be hesitant to friend students on Facebook. To do so on an isolated basis can send the wrong signals, and I know some faculty prefer to keep a clear line between the role of teacher and student. So, why might instructors want to connect with current students on Facebook?

First, it’s where students are. With the help of the students in our upper level marketing courses, we recently surveyed over 500 students regarding their social media use. Over two-thirds (69.8%) are on Facebook every day. In case you’re wondering, 63% also have Twitter accounts and half (49.8%) check them daily. As teachers, our job is to communicate with students. Sure, we can communicate with them in other ways. But, if you want to speak to your audience in the way they prefer and in the way they communicate with each other, you’ll connect through social media. That’s what I do and I learn a lot from my students that way as they often post industry-related articles on Twitter or Facebook to my attention.

Second, anyone who studies marketing knows that social influence is a primary factor in consumer decision making. If you want to influence others in any meaningful way, you must provide value within their social circles. Granted, the kind of value faculty may offer students via social media is questionable. Even if we think we are cool, odds are pretty high we are not. But, students don’t expect us to be cool. They know we are their instructors, not their peers. That means their expectations are pretty low. That said, what makes a good friend is often just being there. If you’re not there and not aware of what’s going on in their lives, you will have a harder time relating to them.

Third, you can overcome sending the wrong signals to students by inviting all students in your classes to friend you on Facebook. They are smart enough to know they can do so and still screen who sees what on their posts. So, no need to worry that they will be afraid you’ll get too close to them. By the same token, you can designate students into specific friends lists that you can choose when you want to post to them or not. If you don’t know how, just ask a student.

I can see how instructors in large, survey courses with perhaps hundreds of students wouldn’t want to follow this advice. I wouldn’t either. But, most of us teaching in upper-level courses have students in a dedicated major with relatively high overlap with our interests. Faculty already on Facebook tend to post comments, articles, and highlights related to the discipline and that provides an instant connection with our students. This leads to the next reason to connect with students through social media.

Fourth, the number one best way I’ve found to keep track of our graduates is through our Facebook group page for our major. We can post job openings, graduate news (like congrats on new positions), and activities within the major all in one place. A huge plus is that current students can connect with grads from prior years in the Facebook group for networking purposes.

I’m sure you can still be an effective teacher without connecting with students on Facebook. I can also understand why some of my colleagues may not want to engage with students on social platforms. But, if you’re looking for a way to communicate with them the way they communicate, learn something about what’s going on in their lives, and to stay connected after they graduate, then inviting the class to join you on Facebook is a good start.

Kirk Wakefield, Edwin W. Streetman professor of retail marketing, Hankamer School of Business, Baylor University.