This week, we rolled out a big change to our school community: we’re moving away from using our Facebook homework groups as a means of communicating between teachers and students. It’s a pretty big shift to our day-to-day school culture, so this move has required some conversations with small groups of students and with faculty to sort out what it will mean in practice. The short answer, though, is that I think this is a great change for us.
First, here’s a little background. Four years ago, a student in the class of 2014 (who is now a senior) approached her teachers with a question. Wouldn’t it be great, she asked, if there was a way for teachers and students to interact digitally in real time? This was–and it still is!–a great idea, and it immediately had powerful results. Students could create study guides and flash card sets (through Quia and Quizlet, most often) and share them quickly with their classmates. Teachers could alert students quickly to everything from a classroom change to a correction on an assignment. Increasingly, we used the Facebook homework pages as a general space for announcements: this is where students looked for updates on dress uniform days. It’s where they downloaded permission slips for school dances and service opportunities. It’s where faculty members would make announcements and contact students to set up times to chat. It’s where we posted a picture of a found cell phone or lost earring.
The Facebook homework groups grew, and we created one each year for each entering freshman class. Today, the classes of 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 have active homework groups where the discussion is lively and productive. I’m a member of all four of the groups, and I monitor them each day, especially in case there are any questions I can answer. I’ve been consistently impressed by the great exchanges of helpful information I’ve seen shared there, and I’ve been grateful for the way students have kept these sites as protected spaces for supportive, collegial work.
As the general announcements have increased, though, the pages have felt less and less homework-centric and more like a free-for-all. It has made me crazy when I’ve gotten notifications of five new posts on the page and I’ve discovered that each of them were from students asking the same question without noticing others had posted the same query. Even more concerning was how intrusive the groups were beginning to feel. It’s hard for a teacher to encourage Sally and Jane to come see her in her classroom without it provoking curiosity (or worse) in other students. There are moments when the groups feel like the right forum for public announcements; there other moments when the announcements made me feel like I was reading something that was none of my business.
A lot has changed since we started the homework groups in 2010. Perhaps most importantly, we’re now a Google school, and all students and faculty have school Gmail accounts. We can share items through Google Drive, and we can easily build websites and groups and all kinds of other resources to share. In 2010, we didn’t have these tools. Today, we do. Additionally, and maybe most obviously, all of our students now have iPads, and we can rely on them to have access to email and the Google Apps suite readily on the devices they’re required to have on hand. Today, we have far greater built-in capabilities on our campus that let us do the sorts of things that the student originally dreamt up in 2010. As we’ve grown and changed, we now have school-specific, school-created tools that address those needs.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, is the reality of what Facebook is actually supposed to be used for. I have always had a twinge of concern when I introduce our students and their families to the concept of the Facebook homework groups. Yes, I’ve said. We use Facebook for school. It’s great! It works! Meanwhile, the question persists: isn’t Facebook distracting? Do we really believe that students are going to go to Facebook and only check their homework group and then leave? The answer is: of course not. The answer is: yes, we’d like our students to use the groups as an opportunity to experience personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom, in line with Goal Five. It’s an opportunity to develop self-control, self-discipline, and executive functioning.
The answer is: there’s absolutely no way that that’s what’s really happening.
I’ve been on Facebook since fall 2004. I know that because Facebook tells me so. I’m biologically past the high points in development in my prefrontal cortex that shape executive function. I should theoretically have as much self control as I’m ever going to have. And I absolutely cannot go on Facebook and only check the Facebook homework groups.
Facebook wasn’t designed as a tool for education. It’s designed as a tool to connect you to other humans, and–now that ads are heavily involved–it’s designed to entice you to stay on the site as long as possible. When I go on Facebook, I look at the homework groups, but I also look at my sister’s vacation pictures, and pictures of my friend’s baby, and I link to the website of that store I like on Union Street that’s having a sale, and I take that dialect quiz on the NYT website again to see if it catches that I’m from Houston. What was supposed to be a two-minute check-in on student life turns into a 30-minute odyssey into the heart of the internet.
So there’s the inevitable distraction element of Facebook that gives me great pause. Our role as educators is to model good habits for our students. I know that I don’t model good Facebook use in my own life, and I’m not confident that I can expect our students to resist its temptations. Moreover, I like Facebook (mostly), and I don’t think it’s my role as a teacher to require or ban this social media tool in my students’ lives. That’s a family decision, and one that parents have the right to make with their children.
So our move to email communication is a move in a better direction, because it takes our communication with our students closer to the realm where it really belongs: in school-specific tools, with school-specific language. It didn’t feel right to have professional interactions with students–about grades, tests, and announcements–in a context that’s so much more about personal, out-of-school interactions. Using the great tools we have on campus is a better way for all of us to interact. Additionally, since the Google Apps and Gmail accounts we have are so flexible and so fully featured, this move means we’ll sacrifice nothing in terms of ease of use and communication.
On our end, it means we’ll need to be better about communicating announcements (like about dress uniform days) to our students in a more consistent and timely way. We can do this. And I’m happy to help lead the way. From the student end, it means making a daily habit of checking email. I’m confident that this is something our students should learn to do, since this is something that will be required of them in college and in life. Email is the preferred communication tool of professional life now, and it makes sense for us to model its consistent, coherent use for our students.
So that’s the story. Please let me know if you have questions; email me or leave notes in the comments; I’m happy to discuss.