Using Facebook to Enrich the Online Classroom

“Am I writing to myself?” That’s what I used to wonder when I first started teaching Spanish online a year ago. My learning management system, message boards, and group emails were impersonal and unresponsive—more like writing in my diary than sharing information with my students. I never knew for certain who read and understood my announcements or received an (electronic) handout or assignment directions. In the traditional, on-campus classroom, I’m a very interactive, hands-on kind of instructor, so I also went from knowing each and every one of my students by name and even a little bit about them to having nothing more than a roster with 115 names and majors. I just wasn’t satisfied, so I did something that others in the field had encouraged me not to do; I created a Facebook group for the class, and I’m not going back.

Some educators find Facebook daunting and potentially perilous, but the advantages are well worth it, especially once you master all the settings Facebook has to offer. Now, is it like being in the classroom? No, it’s not like being in the classroom, but it’s purposeful, interactive, and enjoyable, and exactly what my dry, strictly discussion-board online courses were missing. Facebook makes for an optimal virtual classroom, and this is why:

1. I get to see my students and they get to see me.
Pictures really are worth a thousand words, and they have made an enormous difference in my online courses. My Facebook group provides a personal component that an LMS cannot imitate.

2. Facebook allows me to have all class communication and interaction in one place.
Apart from the LMS, where students log on to read their eBook, watch grammar videos, and do exercises, Facebook is our home base. It’s where I post more than just announcements, assignment directions, and reminders. Facebook also allows me to post pictures and videos, add “handouts” (under files), and survey students to get their feedback. Being able to do all of these things in one place saves a lot of time and confusion. The Facebook group is our go-to for all things communication-related; the course announcements, handouts, reminders, questions, and answers are all there on our group page.

3. The Facebook “chat” feature helps with the unique challenges that are inherent to learning a foreign language online.
Online students learning a foreign language need extra guidance, reinforcement, and ideas on how to remember, compare, and contrast grammar points that build on themselves like a staircase. As instructors, we must be available to students to help them get from point A to point B in a timely manner as they work though their exercises. I hold regular Facebook office hours and “chat” with students in real time, answering questions about conjugations, pronouns, sentence construction, etc.

4. The popularity of Facebook makes it a good resource to use in an online environment.
Most students already have a Facebook account, so they don’t have to do anything “extra” to keep up with information and announcements. This means less work and stress for them as they begin what may be their first online class.

5. Facebook notifies students whenever I add a post and lets me know when they have seen it.
This is tremendous! I can see who is following along, so I know if students are “going to class” as they should. I no longer wonder if I’m talking to myself!

6. Facebook creates a forum similar to that of a traditional classroom.
Via the Facebook group, students get to “see” each other, contact each other, find a study buddy, or form exam study groups if they wish. They can also ask questions for me to answer; and everyone in the class benefits from the explanation. (Keep in mind that I use privacy settings to approve member posts and manage the page.)

7. No “friending” is required in order to form and participate in a Facebook group.
There are some misconceptions about how to use Facebook for academic purposes. Professors are understandably concerned about privacy issues and “friending,” and perhaps the best part about Facebook groups is that I don’t have to friend my students and they don’t have to friend me. All I do is create the group on the private setting and send the link to my students via email a few days before classes begin. Over those few days, they click on the link in Facebook and send me a request to join the group. Once all of my students are in the group, I change the group setting to “secret” to make it invisible to anyone not involved in our class.

8. Facebook provides a forum for some “fun stuff.”
I also use Facebook for some lighthearted comic relief by posting funny Spanish sayings, jokes, and pictures that are circulating on Facebook at the time. I also include words of encouragement and shout-outs to students for things like a great grade or a savvy question or post. I add pictures of my life, like my dogs playing in the snow and include captions in Spanish. The “fun stuff” helps me use my personality to connect to distance students in a meaningful way.

9. Facebook provides a way to incorporate real-life language examples into an online class.
To encourage students to keep up with course information and announcements, I include a participation grade for real-life language “mini-activities” that take about 10-20 minutes to complete. These activities include things like Spanish songs (with lyrics) from which they have to define and translate a couple of new words or phrases of their choice, video clips from a Spanish reality show where they listen and write down some sentences they understood, and animated clips that they describe in Spanish using a certain verb tense. They post their answers as a response to the original post, knowing that their peers will be seeing their work, which makes them a little more conscientious.

10. Students like Facebook.
While I can’t please everybody all the time, my students have been overwhelmingly positive about the Facebook classroom experience. They describe it as “fun” and “easy to keep up with.” They also like the fact that they’re notified of all page updates and that files and announcements are all in one place. Several of them even liked the mini-activities and chose to do all of them! I’m sold.

As you can imagine, a Facebook group virtual classroom is a lot of work, but it can turn an uninspiring online course into a relevant learning experience. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best mode of communication I’ve found for teaching a foreign language online. During the past year, I’ve worked harder than I ever have in my career to date. I’ve experimented, I’ve changed my mind, I’ve added and discarded, I’ve asked for advice and feedback from students, and I’ve updated my syllabus many times. And, at least until something better comes along, Facebook is staying on it.

Dr. Danielle Geary is a lecturer of Spanish and coordinator of online learning at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she recently created the university’s first Spanish online program