Facebook was projected to hit 1 billion users at the end of this August, just as the fall semester was beginning. With 95 percent of students in American higher education active on the social media goliath, it’s something that’s impossible for instructors to ignore.
Now, some professors are seeking to curb distractions caused by students using Facebook in the classroom.
“I’m really aware that this can be an issue. Its not just an issue at William and Mary, or in Virginia, but we look anywhere and it’s a problem,” said Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at William and Mary.
Professor King, in addition to teaching, writes a blog for NPR. In a recent post, she challenged college students to close Facebook and focus on education. King projected this post on a screen for her students to read on their first day of class.
“We made that a point of discussion and I essentially issued that challenge to the students,” King said.
If a student’s use of these technologies causes an overt disruption, King said, she will ban that student from her class for the day. Barring that, she is leaving it up to her students to focus in class.
“I know that some faculty members choose to disallow cell phones and disallow laptops and that’s a perfectly legitimate choice, but it’s not a choice that I want to make because I do want to treat the students like adults and ask them to make good choices,” King said.
While some professors view social media a classroom hindrance, Marcus Messner, a mass communications professor at VCU, calls these platforms a positive enhancement to an engaging learning experience.
One of Messner’s fields of research is social media’s impact on coverage by traditional news outlets, which, he said, lead him to embrace the communication channels in his classes. He now has a Facebook group for each class he instructs.
“With my students, I find [Facebook] to be a much more effective communication channel than e-mail,” Messner said.
Messner said he uses these groups to post every announcement he makes outside of class and talk to students about everything except grades. Messner even surfs Facebook during his office hours.
“I make time available during the week during my office hours where I guarantee them an immediate response via e-mail but also on Facebook,” Messner said.
Still, Messner has experienced issues with inappropriate student use of Facebook during class.
“When I taught my lecture class with 200 students in the classroom, I found Facebook to be distracting students,” Messner said. “I’m sure they’re on Facebook all the time.”
Since he moved his large lecture class to an entirely online format, Messner said that the usage of Facebook has been a positive force in his courses.
“Social media has not been a distraction, but rather enhanced the engagement of the students,” Messner said. “It has not been a big problem for me, but then again I’m teaching in communications.”
VCU student Chloe Yuan said she’s been on facebook since it became available to the public and that she visits the site daily.
“I check it whenever I have time,” she said. “Ever since I got an iPhone it’s been more accessible.”
But Yuan’s attachment to Facebook began to take a toll on the biomedical engineering student’s studies freshman year.
“I realized how distracting it was from academics so I force myself to kind of stop,” Yuan said. “I deactivated my Facebook for a little bit when I noticed my grades were falling.”
Yuan isn’t the only person to notice a correlation between Facebook and a lack of academic diligence; a study of graduate and undergraduate students released in 2010 found that, on average, Facebook users spent less time studying per week
and had lower GPA’s when compared with non-users. The study, conducted by researchers at Open University of the Netherlands and The Ohio State University, revealed that those who used Facebook had a mean grade point average 20 percent lower than that of non-users.
With an average of 552 million daily users, Facebook continues to be an integral part of college life. Yuan, now a senior, said she, like many other students, use it for many purposes, in particular for keeping up with student organizations.
“I think it’s because for a lot of student organizations, as well as just contacting people when they don’t have a phone, its a primary contact,” Yuan said. “They primarily use it for invitations for events as well as having a group for the members that you can relay information as soon as possible because you know that the members check Facebook very often.”
However teachers and professors choose to approach student use of social media in the classroom, Yuan says it will ultimately be up to the students to decide whether or not to focus on Facebook.
“I definitely think its up to the student’s discretion. They do have the option to deactivate it for a while if you believe that it is distracting you.”