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Face to Facebook: Social Media and the Learning and Teaching Potential of Symmetrical, Sychronous Communication


Social networking offers teachers and learners exciting opportunities to communicate. Web 2.0 and its synchronous communications platforms provide new avenues for teachers to deliver curriculum and facilitate learning. Further, they provide new avenues for students to engage and intensify their own learning.

Being able to chat in real-time with a teacher, usually via face-to-face discussions, is something that many students studying in on-campus (or day) mode take for granted, and is something that distance or off-campus students are generally unable to experience. In the evolving, flexible-learning tertiary environment, viable and effective computer mediated communication (CMC) alternatives to face-to-face teaching need to be explored.

These alternatives will only work if they prove useful to students. This article considers student reactions to social media as a teaching tool, probing its benefits and limitations. Over the course of a semester, third year on- and off-campus students communicated with an academic, outside lecture times, via the social networking site facebook®.

Students were allowed to ask any questions they had that related to the unit. At the end of the semester students were provided with a 10-item questionnaire asking them to evaluate their experience. This study looked at a specific aspect of social networking — synchronous text-based chat — and the students’perceptions of its usefulness for their learning.


The Tertiary Context:

Since 1972 the School of Applied Media and Social Sciences (SAMSS) and its predecessor organisations have been offering distance education at the Gippsland campus of Monash University, Australia. The campus houses the Off Campus Learning Centre, which oversees the production and delivery of materials for off-campus students and, as such, is recognised as the hub of distance learning for the University as a whole.

Some 30% of the 4,500 students enrolled at Monash Gippsland are distance students, with the added complexity that students are increasingly choosing mixed-mode attendance. That is, they study some subjects (or “units” in Monash terms) in day mode and some in distance mode. Thus distance education is complemented by an on-campus cohort with similar socio-economic and Cultural diversities.

Computer-Mediated Communication:

CMC is of significant scholarly interest. Over the last decade there has been a dramatic shift in the accessibility, number of users and availability of CMC. The contemporary expression of CMC  is social media, with the numbers of student users alone warranting significant study.

CMC is focused on the use of computer technologies to deliver curriculum and facilitate learning and teaching. Although CMC is not always equivalent to interactive learning environments that employ social media (through CMC), there are significant links to, among other things, incorporating digital literacy capabilities and defraying the isolating aspects of distance learning.

The Study:

The aim was to explore the issue of student perceptions of the use of CMC by assessing the perceived social-interactional and learning benefits of Facebook chat. Although Facebook has several functions — among others, wall posts and news updates — the synchronous text-based CMC was of particular interest in this study.

Text-based communication between Facebook users is free of charge regardless of geographical distance. It is a synchronous text-based CMC medium: teacher and student converse through typed messages in real time.

Benefits and Disadvantages:

The findings here are consistent with Barnes et al., who suggest that by merging the evolving work paradigms of net-literate students with established teaching techniques, “educators can tap into the distinctive proficiencies of  their students  while ensuring focused learning and positive outcomes” (2007, p.5). In other words, familiarity with social networking is a useful pedagogical platform.

There are several potential benefits in using text-based communication. Social-networking sites, with their reliance on short, simple text messages, mitigate the difficulties for users on slow internet connections. As another example, Facebook runs inside the user’s web-browser of choice, requiring no additional software that must be learned.

Furthermore, it has been argued that the use of emoticons may, to a limited extent, substitute for non-verbal cues available through  video-conferencing or face-to-face communication, and although some have argued that they are culturally specific, may assist in reducing ambiguity in text-based communication (Walther  &D’Addario 2001).


Synchronised communication — social-media chat — was generally perceived positively by students. A quickly answered question allowed students to spend more time completing their assignment. Further, they formulated questions and answers in writing. The immediacy of the response and the irrelevance of distance, along with anonymity, all helped the students in completing the unit.

It is important, however, to distinguish between CMC and the specific social network of Facebook. There needs to be more research on the broader uses of multiple CMC platforms, rather than simply equating its effectiveness with that of Facebook itself.

Concerns about privacy and the potential confusion of modes (social versus education), as well as exposure to advertising, need to be taken seriously if these forms of scaffolded learning are to be  implemented more broadly. Educators need to be mindful about the rates of uptake and usage of Facebook.

The largest cohort of new students at the Monash Gippsland campus is mature-age students who have come through TAFE or other post-secondary pathways. Not all of our new learners are net-savvy generation Xers; consequently, not all students have used Facebook, or are familiar with it. Therefore a blanket use of social networking to address specific disadvantages (distance, for example) could potentially introduce another set of discriminating factors.

A word of caution too, there is a significant time component for this form of teacher availability. If synchronised chat communication is to be incorporated into teaching more uniformly, it needs to be done with an awareness of the resource-intensity of the practice. Educators will need to be adequately resourced with the time to provide this level of learning support.

This was a pilot study with a small sample that, while it can claim some representativeness,  should be followed up by more-comprehensive studies that employ rigorous qualitative and quantitative research techniques, so educators can fully develop an understanding of not only  student perceptions, but the relationships of this form of CMC to learning outcomes.

Source: Monash University
Authors: George VanDoorn | Antoinette A. Eklund

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