Using Facebook to engage and retain new students

Weaving social media into the learning technology mix.

Ian Currie, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education, is an advocate for the complementary use of social media to support his students’ learning experience. Understanding the tensions between the professional educational environment offered by ‘Blackboard’ and the popular social medium of ‘Facebook’ he elegantly walks the tightrope between cloistered and open technologies. Ian talks candidly about his approach and acknowledges that the potential pitfalls of using social media in Higher Education are not to be taken lightly: i.e. the legitimately held concerns of eSafety, data protection, inclusion, reputation, branding, etc. (see afterword for advice from JISC).  Ian has used the immediacy and informal nature of the Facebook platform to great effect – and then continued that use on throughout the course, integrating well with the more formal Learning Technologies at Edge Hill University.

FacebookAndBlackboard100I seem to have gained a bit of a reputation amongst my peers for being an advocate of social media as a means of communicating with students – this is more by accident than design but I am growing to accept my fate.

The attraction of Facebook as a means of communicating with prospective students emerged from the frustration of applicants (at the time) being unable to access Blackboard content before enrolling. Thus apart from marketing messages and/or individual emails it was difficult to keep potential students engaged with Edge Hill – particularly at course level. The attrition rate between applicants and those finally enrolling was something I felt social media could be used to ameliorate.

At around this time, I also came across the work of Goodenow (1992), Becker and Luthar (2002) and others around students’ ‘sense of belonging’ – something their work suggests is a key factor in students’ decisions to leave their course of study early.

It occurred to me that Facebook as a social media platform inhabited increasingly by a substantial proportion of the population had potential to engage applicants early and keep them engaged with their chosen destination course up until (and possibly after) enrolment. So in 2011 I launched a Facebook page specifically for applicants for the BA (Hons) Early Years Professional Practice and Leadership Course. A simple idea, posts about sector developments, occasional posts about the university, a means of making contact with other applicants for the same course, a platform for sharing concerns, intelligence about Ormskirk and the surrounding area, asking questions of each other (and of course the tutor/admins) and some surprising outcomes at enrolment…

In their first induction session, Freshers were seeking each other out following on-line conversations they had already had. They were becoming acquainted not as strangers, but as individuals finally putting names to faces. The page was so popular that we kept it going after the start of the course and a few months later when I asked for specific feedback about the page, this is what the students said:

  • They could talk to people already on the course
  • The page was a point of contact
  • Video links were interesting
  • It was a single place to go if I needed any information or had any problems
  • People from class could also post comments and links
  • People from class can help post links related to the assignment
  • There were resources on it that they found useful (and which weren’t necessarily module specific)
  • They liked being able to see information about the university in a less formal format before coming
  • They were able to see other people’s questions and comments about the uni and found this reassuring
  • Meeting new friends on-line
  • They could see what course is about
  • Became more relaxed, less nervous about coming to uni.
  • Received help and advice on queries which helped preparation for uni.
  • Simply chatting to people on your course
  • Noting important dates before getting to uni.
  • Parents could get a better idea of the course and what uni would be like

I launched a second page for 2012 recruits, the evaluation of which provided similar positive feedback. This has however raised an issue – whether to keep separate pages going for each new cohort or whether to somehow merge these into one. My current strategy is as follows…

I have now created a generic page for all ‘PD early years courses at Edge Hill’. New applicants will be signposted to this where sector relevant links and new sector developments are featured prominently. Current students are also signposted to this link.

I will continue to create a new page for applicants with a view to engaging them early and maintaining contact, but I will encourage students to increasingly take responsibility for posting content to keep this going.

One thing I would like to share with colleagues is that these Facebook pages are not intended to replace Blackboard. Indeed, any comparison is really one of oranges vs apples. The success of the page(s) has been largely due to the differences between the two platforms. Facebook is a social space that students routinely inhabit and as such is a convenient means of information sharing. A recent discussion with a group of students about what they liked about the Facebook page confirmed that the immediacy of access was far more preferable than the logging on process required to access Blackboard. ‘Far too many clicks and passwords to navigate through Blackboard’ was their response. They found Facebook much quicker for sharing information than Groupwise/Blackboard and the fact that they routinely had Facebook notification activated meant that this was a further convenience in terms of speed of communication. This experience was brought home to me earlier this year when I was delayed getting to work (snow) and I posted a Blackboard announcement as well as sending a Facebook notification to this effect. When I checked with students which version of the message they had received, only one person identified the Blackboard announcement.

Clearly there are functions on Blackboard that could not, and indeed should not, be replicated on a Facebook page, but as a vehicle for sharing information and speedy communication the Facebook page works well.

Some colleagues have expressed concerns about students posting inappropriate content on a Facebook page – thus far this has not happened in my experience, but could conceivably arise. In setting up a page, one has administrator rights and would thus be able to moderate any unacceptable posts.

One very recent phenomenon that I have come across but so far I am just keeping an eye on, are two people who have ‘befriended’ the Facebook page and who have started to post some (so far) subtle advertising content – not spam, but advertising about leadership coaching and private tutoring. I do not currently see this as too problematic, but it is a reminder that content can be seen and accessed by the wider public – that said, I recently received feedback via the Lancashire Early Years Forum that Edge Hill is clearly at the forefront of sector initiatives, because of someone having seen the posts on the Facebook page. This now has me thinking about the further potential of Facebook as a vehicle for promotion and publicity.

In a nutshell, if Blackboard is the formal institutional vehicle for pedagogical discourse, narrative and communication, Facebook is the equivalent of the local pub which customers frequent out of a combination of habit and choice to share thoughts and ideas in a non-threatening, convivial and largely egalitarian virtual environment. I would be interested to hear via the comments, others’ views on the pros and cons of aligning Facebook and other social media channels with core institutional facilities.

References:

Goodenow, C. (1992). Strengthening the links between educational psychology and the study of social contexts. Educational Psychologist, 27(2), 177-196.

Becker, B. E., & Luthar, S. S. (2002). Social-emotional factors affecting achievement outcomes among disadvantaged students: Closing the achievement gap. Educational Psychologist, 37(4), 197-214.

 

BestofTEL_SMALLIan Currie
Course Leader BA (Hons) Early Years Professional Practice & Leadership
Faculty of Education

Afterword: The use of a ‘Page’ and a generic ‘EYPPL account’ in Facebook mitigates many of the risks arising out of colleagues using Facebook to communicate with students.  For detailed advice, see ‘Facing up to Facebook: A Guide for FE and HE (August 2011)‘ from JISC and/or talk to your Learning Technologist (see the Faculty Contacts on this page) or email the LTD Team on [email protected]

It is also worth noting that continued investment in the university’s portfolio of teaching and learning technologies have introduced features that now address some of the improvements Ian’s students originally sought- such as the Blackboard mobile app, which offers them quick and easy access to their courses, and has activity notification alerts like Facebook. 

Furthermore, as the Blackboard product continues to evolve, new social learning features will become available to support registered students to connect and collaborate in a secure and supported environment. 

Finally, on the Edge Hill technology roadmap, faculties can look forward to even greater flexibility to use the VLE to engage with pre-entry, alumni, partners and guests. Programme teams and colleagues like Ian will be able to create publically available course spaces to deliver content for potential or pre-enrolled students in the same way that Ian is using the Facebook page above 

Keep an eye on this blog to hear more about upcoming upgrades and improvements to Learning Edge Blackboard 9.1 

David Callaghan, 13th May 2013