The Friends Question

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...Image via CrunchBase

It has been an interesting week for me in Facebook.  I have reconnected with several colleagues that I had lost touch with in the past few years.  Facebook to me is great for connecting with family and friends, but as with any social networking application, a host of questions arise concerning possible uses for instruction.  And so far, I have not used it for instruction.

In the past week, Jeff Nugent had a conversation with VCU faculty members Mike Abelson, Melissa Johnson and Stephanie Rizzi who shared their experiences with using Facebook and offered their perspectives on the pros and cons of “friending” students.  Their podcast is here. I listened to this podcast while at the gym, and I found myself arguing with them mentally.  (I have not yet reached the point where I begin talking to myself while wearing an iPod!)

My colleagues here were nervous about responding to “friend” requests from their students.  They seemed to agree that it would be inappropriate for them to friend any of their students.  That got me thinking about my use of Facebook and my own students.

For me, my context is different.  My podcasting colleagues here at VCU teach college freshmen – I teach graduate students who are also teachers.  As such, I already consider my current students as my colleagues.   So I would not be adverse to my students friending me, though I do not actively seek them out.  Part of my reasoning for not actively seeking them out is that Facebook for me is a social connection, not a professional connection.  My friends right now consists of three groups – family, colleagues, and former students.  And by former students, I mean students I had 15 years ago at the University of Nebraska.  My colleagues span VCU, Gwinnett Tech, and Herkimer County Community College.  I use other social avenues professionally, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and the blogs I follow in Google Reader.

I think that one reason people are nervous about Facebook is the negative press it has gotten lately.  The Chronicle had a recent article on How Not To Lose Face on Facebook.  It noted:

“For years college administrators have warned students to watch their step in online social realms, noting that sharing too much could hurt them later on if future employees saw their drunken party pictures or boorish writings. Now that professors and administrators are catching Facebook fever, they should heed their own advice.”

Good advice, but it underscores that many faculty (and students) do not understand the various settings they can control in Facebook to selectively release their posts to specific friends.  Nick O’Neill had a nice explanation in his post “10 Privacy Settings Every Facebook User Should Know.”

But as I thought about Facebook and privacy, I wonder if we are asking the right questions.  The whole issue of one’s digital footprint is raising vexing questions.  Is anything truly “private” anymore?  Maybe I am a little paranoid, but I was blown away by Pattie Maes‘ TED Talk demonstration of wearable technology.

Pretty cool, huh?  Yet think about this from the ubiquitous web perspective.  If Pattie’s vision becomes the norm, everyone will be walking around wearing a device that constantly scans the environment and through facial recognition potentially pulls up information on every person you meet.  Being worried about your cheerleader picture in Facebook might be the least of your worries.  “Privacy” will take on new and interesting meanings.

I am still wrestling with whether it would be good or bad to walk in on the first day of class, meet a student, and instantly know that student’s GPA and Facebook profile.  As my good friend Kathryn Murphy-Judy noted to me today as we discussed this, would a sound-bite be meaningful if you did not know that underneath a bad GPA was the death of parents or the ending of a relationship.  It takes time to build a relationship with people, and would this ubiquitous web presence speed that up or derail it on occasion?  I do not know.  The only thing I do know is that the world is changing and ignoring that change is not an option.

I would be interested in your thoughts?  Do you use Facebook for instruction?  Do you friend your students?  Do you have conversations with your students and colleagues about their digital footprint?  Should we? – is that part of our role as faculty?

What ever else, we certainly live in interesting times!

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5 thoughts on “The Friends Question

  1. Kia ora Britt

    As I write a comment to a post, I could use Pattie Maes’ 6th sense to determine if the blogger is going to understand my diverse point of view or appreciate the length of comment I usually submit. Having gleaned the information accurately, it may transpire that I don’t write any comment, never mind the length of it.

    I concur with what you say about Facebook and its settings. So it is also with many settings on a blog app. I wonder how many bloggers understand well the different adjustments that are possible in the brand of blog app that they use.

    For my part, I use facebook to keep in touch with family (all over the globe) and to share news and pictures of that news with them.

    I also use Flickr with another global group of great friends, and I have no doubt that we all learn things through the use of these apps and what they convey. But I don’t use either apps for formal instruction purposes, and I don’t share my Facebook account with my students either.

    But getting back to Pattie Maes, I also wonder about our own remaining 5 senses. We use these, each in different ways, to ‘feel’ our way through life – developed sensitivities that permit us to make judgements on our observations. What is going to happen when we become dependent on the technology to give us the gen on things?

    We already have worms, virus and spyware invading our computers. Who’s to say that these bugs won’t be around when Pattie’s vapourinventions become reality, deceiving us over which choice to make?

    Some of us may well revert to the other 5 senses, just to check and make sure – so what would then be the point of the technology other than to obtain a second opinion.

    Or perhaps our pets might be better at discernment than we are by that time. We may end up using them in the same way as canaries were put to use down the mines to check on fire damp, or how sniffer dogs today are employed to identify possible contraband.


    Dear friend and sweet companion we have grown
    To know your comforting and curious grace
    And all the impasse you have borne with lone
    Acceptance of our all too human ways,

    Always there, rarely aggressive, but sage,
    Quiet, and so appreciative of our home
    And homely offerings. In this complex age
    Of hi-tech communication we’ve become

    Much less aware than you of what a look
    Scent or sound can mean to one’s consciousness;
    We may read about these gifts in a book
    But proffer little thought to your awareness;

    And this acceptance that your sense admits
    Forgives our senselessness and dearth of wits.


    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  2. I can understand the reasons why not if you were dealing with school age but my understanding is you are talking about adult students?

    My work is with mainly adult students but I do have a couple that are 16/17. I have absolutely no issues with connecting with them inside Facebook and encourage them to add me to their account. Why? Because at the moment this is their preferred method of communication. I used to say send me an email which never happened. Now in FB they will contact me by leaving messages on my wall or sending me emails.

    This has meant that they now contact me when need help (even with other lecturers work) plus also telling me what they are up to when they have left the college. Where as once they had left I didn’t hear from them again. It has meant I’ve been able to get to know them more as people, and what interests them, as just opposed to students.

    My approach with FB is I only use it professionally as I would any other online site. Plus they are aware that I let them do the contacting and aren’t interested in checking up on them.

  3. Ken – thoughtful response (and I had not even thought about the virus / hacking issue!).

    Sue – I too work with adults, but they tend to be older adults for whom FB is still not mainstream. But you make a great point of using the tools they are using with your students.

  4. Ken,
    You might be interested in the book FEED, by M.T. Anderson (the book is marketed as young adult fiction, but the concepts are absolutely relevant to the horizon of technological advances). Pattie Maes’ innovative product can be viewed in an entirely different light after reading this book. I, too, appreciate the 6th sense in a guarded fashion.

    I do not presently use Facebook as an instructional tool, and actually only opened by account in the last week. I doubt that I will use it as an instructional tool, but I do like the idea of creating my own social network via Ning as a meeting grounds for my students. Perhaps I want too much control of the Read/Write web as I incoroporate it into insruction, but right now I prefer the idea of being the administrator of our social network, rather than simply a participant. I imagine my perceptions will change as I take the first step toward creating a network online learning and reflection center for my students, but for now I want to be the one holding the keys for entry.

  5. Kia ora Jason

    Thanks for the lead to Anderson’s book, FEED. I will follow this up with interest.

    You may well be interested in some blurb about working with online communities. This has recently gathered some interest on my blog. My gut feeling is that we (teachers and instructors) are just scratching the surface in using technology for communication to do with learning and collaboration – there are a lot of myths about.

    Catchya later

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