Daily Archives: May 7, 2010

FB me! (lol)

Can Facebook be used as an Educational Tool in ESL Classrooms?


Back when my hair was raven black, I used to sit on plastic patio chairs, tapping out telnet commands on flickering green vt100 emulators, hearing the keyboard cliks and claks echo down the concrete blocked basement walls of my university’s engineering building.  I was amazed at how connected I could be with the world in a bunker, downloading Indian recipes, dialoging with other student newspaper writers.  We were experimenting with ways to communicate with others in the pre-‘Net culture, searching for the parameters of social behavior in a online world, ping ponging across the world.

Everybody who could figure out how to “log in” already knew how to behave  — we all read the same RFCs.  But in the 1990s, Prodigy and AOL started selling Usenet connections to their customers, relationships ruptured, and nasty conversations became part of Internet culture.  The result, “information superhighway rage,”  where people accessed the Internet not to learn, but to post petty squabbles.  At worst, they devolved into “flame wars,” stoked by vile trolls lurking in the virtual underworlds.

Fast forward some years, and once again, I’m clik claking away on my Netbook, hooked on a new virtual medium, Facebook, a.k.a. FB.  I’ve made my way thru Level 200 of  Mafia Wars (woo-hoo!).  During my daily sortes on FB, I keep wondering, being teacher after all, what could I do here that has educational value?  Not an easy question to answer, 2 B sure, while settling scores, permanently, and building mega-casinos.  But consider the facts: 85% of students in supported colleges have a profile up on FaceBook.  Two-thirds of Facebook members log on at least once every twenty-four hours, and the typical user spends twenty minutes a day on the site.  Some even say that Facebook owns our campuses. Bugeja (2006) writes,

Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, recounts a class discussion during which he asked how many people had seen the previous night’s NewsHour on PBS or read that day’s New York Times. “A couple of hands went up out of about 140 students who were present,” he recalls. “One student chirped: ‘Ask them how many use Facebook.’ I did. Every hand in the room went up. She then said: ‘Ask them how many used it today.’ I did. Every hand in the room went up. I was amazed.”

Facebook is as ubiquitous today as pinging IP addresses was 5 and 20 years ago.  What hasn’t changed is the fact that people speak differently when they’re online, compared to face to face communications.  Referred to as netspeak, some linguists characterize this form of communication as “oral-written” (Herring, 2007).  The use of acronyms, emoticons and avatars all are unique and ubiquitous to online communications (Huffaker & Calvert, 2005).  Additional layers interwoven into online discourse are evolving, shared standards of appropriate conduct.  Commonly called netiquette, these virtual codes of conduct seek to exile trolls whenever they flame a newbie, in order to continue maintain and develop complex relationships of mutual accountability (Holmes & Meyerhoff, 1999).  And now, twetiquette is the new add-on in the online culture wars.

Clearly, we are experiencing a new kind of “community of practice.”  But everyone in this community does not share the same goals, and this social group is in fact, segmented, and cannot be looked at as a unified body of activities.  Often, we throw around the phrase, “digital divide.”   Traditionally, we use the term to delineate the “haves,” from the “havenots.”  That is, kids from the suburbs having unlimited Internet access, 24/7, while inner city children only get online in public, free setting, like at school or the library. But that’s not the most effective way to use the term to discern how different groups of people express themselves in different ways online.

Consider Yudelka Polanco, who outsleuthed NYC detectives to find the ne’er do well who lifted her phone, and ran away down a street in Bushwick.  As she explained to the police and news reporters, “everybody has MySpace,” including the perpetrator of the crime.  Even though only one in three Latinos who speak Spanish only go online, this story reveals a more complex relationship – that some people, usually younger in age, use online technologies for more social, friendship oriented activities, while others use the Internet for more information related activities.  This dichotomy has been described in several ways, McNeill (2008) describes it as a transactional/interactional distinction, while Tripp and Herr-Stephenson (2009) frame these activities at “genres of participation,” where some parties engage in friendship modes of engagement, while other engage in interest-driven activities while online.

Yudelka was very proficient in her use of online technologies, even if her knowledge of the Internet is limited to MySpace (we can’t tell from the article).  The distinction is more one of culture and use of, rather than access to, online technologies.  Both social and information gathering activities are important online community enterprises, the question is whether, via Facebook for example, the two communities can interweave and satisfy both social and knowledge-based objectives through a common project.

Is Social Networking Antithetical to Learning?

As an initial question, maybe our students are on FB ‘cuz we’re not.  McNeil (2008) sez:

Facebook was acting as a ready space for resistance and the contestation of the asymmetrical power relationship built into the established offline positions of university, student and lecturer (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). This was perhaps most clearly evident in the playful and often ironic rejection of dominant university discourses throughout the posts, with the students certainly not conforming to the passive and silenced undergraduate roles of the seminar room or lecture theatre.

So students are on FB so they can vent about their teacher’s flaming red hair and disgusting, leopard print outfits.  Or, switching positions, an educator inviting his students to be his friends on FB can give off a creepy treehouse effect.  And of course, posting bad behavior on FB, especially young teachers, is an open invitation for academic reprimand or even criminal charges.

There is a growing body of research, however, that opens the possibility for using social networking software in educational settings. Most social network softwares exist primarily to support pre-existing social relations (Boyd & Ellison, 2008).  Ellison, Steinfield and Lampe (2007) did a study with 800 Michigan State students and concluded they primarily used Facebook to enhance their “bridging” social capital.  In other words, students used online social networks to extend, not create friendships.  Can we extend academic relationships onto FB?  Only if we keep in mind the digital divide dilemma. Adults and youth use the Internet for different enterprises: information gathering and social interactions.  In other words, we as educators can’t simply upload standards based Regents test questions to a Facebook page.  To effectively implement FB as an education tool, we must negotiate between the interests of both communities when developing educational social software.

Tripp and Herr-Stephenson observed this conflict while observing 2 working-class Latino middle school students interact with online technologies at home and school.  They noted that there was a disconnect between how the students were using online technologies and how their teachers expected them to use them.  Reading and research online, one student said, “was so boring.”  While students enjoyed working with media tools, they still remained largely disinterested in the formal school curriculum.

McNeill described some ways this digital divide can be remedied by investigating the Facebook interactions between a Film Studies lecturer and his students.  He applied the concept of face, “an image of self, delineated in terms of approved social attributes,” and face-work, “actions taken by a person to make whatever he is doing consistend with face.”  In the lecturer’s online conversations, he was deliberately humorous and jokingly self-deprecating in order to lessen the professor-student power relations common in traditional academic settings.  Developing an offline to online trend, McNeill concluded, allows educators to use Facebook as a means to articulate imaginative, expressive speech acts.

The online relationships between teacher and student, of course, are not without controversy.  The film studies lecturer opened his FB conversation with overtures to the nearest pub, which evolved into “Thursday drinkies,” an activity hardly aligned to most education standards.  Muñoz and Towner (2009) offered some guidelines educators can use when designing FB educational activities, including

  • creating a “professional use” profile page, separate from the instructor’s personal profile, which should have higher privacy settings
  • creating a group page for a class
  • instead of inviting students to be friends, the professional profile should be kept open to allow students to view the profile information without submitting any personal information to the webpage
  • offer an icebreaker activity to get students started
  • offer alternatives for students who opt out of using Facebook

Using Facebook in an ESL setting

Nothing bring home clearer to me the limitations in most ESL classes than the following story:

“What is it to learn?” I asked Marisa, a second-grade, native speaker of English in an English-dominant classroom. Promptly she answered, “To learn is when you read, you talk to the people, and you find out stuff.” I then asked the same question (in English) of Sabrina, an English language learner (ELL) and native speaker of Spanish, a student in the same classroom as Marisa. She promptly answered, “Learning is when you spell C-A-T. Then [you] say: ‘The cat is going to the lake. The duck is going for a walk. The dog is playing.’ And you practice it over and over until you get it right.”  (Iddings, 2005).

Developing mastery in a second language requires more than “drill and kill” exercises.  It requires integrating the skills and activities we practice in our primary language into second language usage.  Simply trying to speak a second language in a purely academic setting is bound to fail.  Online social networks actually may offer a unique benefit to ESL learners, as Facebook can offer students the opportunity to learn a new language in a non-academic setting.

An example of using Facebook as a means to promote second language learning is the“Immeuble en ligne Facebook project. As part of a college French class, students were required to sign a User Conduct Agreement, whereby they only interacted in ways not objectionable, with other students on the class Facebook page.  While on the page, students communicated in French about content discussed in class and additional materials shared by students. Using Facebook to communicate, en français, “made us think in French outside of class.” Social networking software, then,

can be seen as an innovative tool to facilitate the development of socio-pragmatic awareness and competence in second language learners through meaningful intervention, and can promote cross-cultural understanding.  … Language learners can easily join groups who exclusively interact in the target language and observe written exchanges between the members on the wall or in the discussion forums (Blatner & Fiori, 2009).

Applying technology in the classroom always presents multiple levels of difficulty.  The instructor must jump between text, presentation and web development facilely.  S/he must recalibrate traditional “sage on the stage” colloquies to “guide on the side” workshops.  Sensitivity to different communities of practice all vying for space on the educational virtual commons is a prerequisite to any chance of effective learning.  But the tools are there, I believe, to offer bridges across the digital divide for ESL learners, offering students new, experiential based modes of literacy instruction.  And Facebook is one of them.


Blattner, G. & Fiori, M. (January 2009). Facebook in the Language Classroom: Promises and Possibilities.  International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning. 6(1).  Accessed May 6, 2010 at http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_09/article02.htm

Boyd, D. & Ellison, N. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 11. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/boyd.ellison.html

Bugeja, M. (January 27, 2006). Facing the Facebook. Chronicle for Higher Education. 52(21) C1. Accessed on May 6, 2010 at http://www.vpss.ku.edu/pdf/PSDC%20Facing%20the%20Facebook.pdf

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(4), article 1. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue4/ellison.html

Herring, S. (2007). A faceted classification scheme for computer‐mediated discourse. Language@Internet, 4. Accessed on May 6, 2010 at http://www.languageatinternet.de/articles/2007/761/Faceted_Classification_Scheme_for_CMD.pdf

Homes, J. and  Meyerhoff, M. The Community of Practice: Theories and methodol0gies in language and gender research. Language in Society. 28, 173–183.

Huffaker, D. A., and Calvert, S. L. (2005). Gender, identity, and language use in teenage blogs. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(2), article 1. Accessed May 6, 2010 at http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue2/huffaker.html

Iddings, A. Linguistic Access and Participation: English Language Learners in an English-Dominant Community of Practice.  Bilingual Research Journal, v29 n1 p165-183 Spr 2005

McNeil, T. (April 2008). ‘Face work’ in Facebook: An analysis of an online discourse community, quoting Selwyn, N. (2007). Screw Blackboard… do it on Facebook! an investigation of students’ educational use of Facebook. Paper presented to Poke 1.0 – Facebook social research symposium, November 2007. Accessed May 6, 2010 at http://www.education.ed.ac.uk/e-learning/gallery/mcneill_facebook.pdf

Muñoz, C. , and Towner, T. (2009). Opening Facebook: How to Use Facebook in the College Classroom. Paper presented to Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education, 2009.  Accessed May 6, 2010 at http://www46.homepage.villanova.edu/john.immerwahr/TP101/Facebook.pdf

Tripp, Lisa M., and Rebecca Herr-Stephenson. Making Access Meaningful: Latino Young People Using Digital Media at Home and at School.  Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14, no. 4 (2009): 1190-1207.  Accessed May 6, 2010 at http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/122530881/PDFSTART