It started with a “friend request” from one of his students – the one who never checked her email and kept missing assignments.Then a light went on for Halifax high-school teacher Richard MacNeil.Last year, MacNeil became part of the “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” trend of educational instructors embracing the social networking tool Facebook to enhance their classroom teachings. Updating Facebook pages is fast becoming part of the back-to-school to-do list as teachers and students get ready to return to classrooms in the coming weeks.”It wasn’t that it was any better than sending an email or anything like that, it was that they seemed more willing to accept that media over the other ones,” says MacNeil.Canada is one of the fastest growing Facebook markets in the world with more than three million users, trailing Britain only slightly.As the popularity of Facebook continues to increase, educational tools are being added to the network, such as a blackboard application and study-group options.MacNeil was already using his own website to post assignments, useful links and samples of work in his communications technology class, so Facebook seemed a logical next step. “What I tried to do was not to make it just something to study, but to make it something practical so I tried to incorporate as much communication technology in the course as possible,” he explains.”For me, Facebook’s been win-win on an educational level,” says Prof. Norm Vaughan at Mount Royal College’s Department of Education and Schooling in Calgary. Looking through Vaughan’s class Facebook page, there are several discussion topics being debated daily and students – old and new – posting messages by the hour.Vaughan says it was his students’ idea to use Facebook and he has introduced it for the past three semesters with growing success. “The students wanted to use it because it’s a tool they already use and they (student teachers) also wanted to see if it was a tool they could use with their students in the future.”Researchers are also picking up on this trend and the use of Facebook comes as no surprise because it casts such a wide net among users. “The fact that high-school teachers and college professors are starting to use these tools makes sense,” says Mary Madden, senior research analysts at Pew Internet, an American think-tank dedicated to studying the social impacts of technology. Teachers “are able to leverage a tool students already use instead of asking them to learn how to use a separate application,” she says.But the fine line between student-teacher relationships can be difficult to navigate in the world of online friendship. Some school administrators have started discouraging Facebook use to avoid blurring lines between teacher and student.That’s why MacNeil recently stopped using the network with his high-school class, as privacy debates arose in the school and it “wasn’t worth the hassle.”The debate over using Facebook as a class tool also picked up speed at Ryerson University in Toronto this year after a student faced 147 counts of academic misconduct for setting up a Facebook study group. Students in the group posted answers to tests and various assignments on the network. The university deemed it cheating.It’s the newness of this technology that makes it difficult territory, especially when it comes to making private lives more publicly accessible, says George Siemens, associate director at the University of Manitoba Learning Technologies Centre. “We are living in a fishbowl, but we don’t understand the implications of that fishbowl effect yet and that’s the Facebook concern,” says Siemens. “There are many other options for educators to post resources to students,” he adds, listing various websites and discussion boards that can be used if employing social networks is an issue.But Vaughan says he and his students have yet to run into any serious problems and group work is going better than ever before.”It’s changing education from a solo sport,” he laughs.
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