Facebook Use by Undergraduates: An Educational Tool?

February 12, 2010 at 6:25am
The following is the third part of our series on different ways that educators are using Facebook. You can read the previous posts here. Please note that that these educators are not representatives of Facebook and that the opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of Facebook.

Nicole Ellison is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University in East Lansing.


The image of college students arranging study groups is not the first image that comes to mind when thinking about Facebook use on campus. But our research suggests that students are using the site to support their academic, as well as social, goals.

Facebook is used by the majority of undergraduate students on a daily basis – upwards of 90% by some estimates. These college students use the site in diverse ways to perform a wide range of social tasks (such as keeping in touch with high school friends or coordinating activities like sorority social events). Social scientists in a variety of fields have started to document these practices and to study their outcomes. For instance, here at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, our research team has explored the social benefits of Facebook friends using the ‘social capital’ theoretical framework. We found that students who use Facebook more intensely were more likely to report higher levels of social support and access to people outside of their immediate social circle, which we believe is linked to the features of the site that facilitate lightweight connections with a wide, diverse network of weak and strong ties. For instance, the status update feature enables users to broadcast personal information and share links with subsets of their network; the commenting feature facilitates interactions among these friends (who may or may not know one another) when they respond to these updates.

In more recent research, we have focused on collaboration via social network sites (SNSs) – how individuals use these sites to get questions answered, share information and advice, and accomplish coordination tasks (like finding someone to walk the dog while on vacation). Individuals have long used communication technologies like email and the telephone to do these things, but as more and more of our friends, colleagues, and family members join SNSs and the tools continue to develop, we believe these sites will increasingly be used to support these kinds of ad-hoc collaborative activities. This is due to a number of factors, primarily the reduced costs of interacting over SNSs (when compared to other communication technologies) and the larger, more diverse networks they support (which make it more likely that your message will be seen by someone who is in a position to help).

As part of this emphasis on collaboration through SNSs, our research team is now exploring a less-studied aspect of Facebook – implications of use within educational settings, especially in relation to students’ use of the site to engage in collaborative activities. In a recent survey, we explored the extent to which undergraduate students at MSU use Facebook to engage in classroom-related organizing. We found that of the 227 students that participated in our survey, over half said they were likely or very likely to use Facebook to arrange a face-to-face study group or to help manage a group project, and 49% said they were likely or very likely to "collaborate in a way your instructor would like." Our participants said they were most likely to use Groups or private messages to coordinate group meetings and were most likely to use chat and private messaging to complete an assignment. It seems clear that many students are repurposing Facebook’s features, especially those that support social coordination, to facilitate their academic goals. Students know that they are likely to find many of their peers on the site, and unlike email or course management services like Blackboard, students can find out more about one another through the profile in addition to sending messages and coordinating events. (Our earlier research suggests that the identity information found in profiles, such as high school, musical preferences, and the Friends list, can help individuals develop common ground with their peers by highlighting commonalities such as shared hobbies or mutual friends.) The existing set of features can be extended by applications designed for institutions of higher education, such as Inigral’s “Schools,” which make it easier for students to find classmates and share information without friending one another.

The use of Facebook to support learning inside and outside the classroom may be an untapped resource for instructors and students; in our survey, about one-third of respondents said they wished that Facebook had more tools to help them with their schoolwork. It may also be true that students are just beginning to understand the broader possibilities of Facebook use, as they take a tool they’ve grown familiar with and map it to other problems and tasks they face. Students who are able to capitalize on the organizing features of SNSs may be at an advantage when they enter the professional sphere, where organizations are trying to use social media in ways that support knowledge-sharing and culture-building.

As with other technologies, the process of determining “best practices” for using Facebook to support educational goals will be challenging, and in our future research, we hope to identify best practices instructors can use to encourage students to use social network sites in productive ways. Instructors may need to reorient themselves to working with commercial entities as opposed to in-house tools and support, and will have to consider issues such as the ethics of exposing students to advertising messages, the availability of technical support, and whether they wish to rely on third-party systems to archive graded student work. Some observers have expressed concern about the fact that SNSs might encourage cheating. We included a set of questions in our survey designed to measure this, and found that approved collaboration was much more common than unapproved uses – while close to half our respondents said they were likely or very likely to use Facebook to collaborate in a way their instructor would like, less that one-fifth said they were likely or very likely to use it to collaborate on an assignment in a way their instructor would not like. Of course, students may use SNSs to procrastinate when they should be studying or may access Facebook during class when they should be participating or paying attention, but it’s important to remember that students have always found ways to procrastinate or be distracted. An alternative perspective argues that the fact that Facebook is so engaging may mean that instructors should work to find ways to harness this engagement for activities that work in conjunction with, not against, their pedagogical philosophies and learning goals.

For further reading:

Ellison, N. (2008). Introduction: Reshaping campus communication and community through social network sites. In G. Salaway, J. B. Caruso, & M. R. Nelson, The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2008 (Research Study, Vol. 8). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, 2008. Available online at http://connect.educause.edu/Library/ECAR/TheECARStudyofUndergradua/47485.

Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12, 1143–1168. Available online at http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue4/ellison.html.