Jennifer Tang and Sarah Brennan
Facebook, an innovative digital communication tool, boasts more than 500 million active users worldwide. Faculty nationwide can testify to the popularity of this social networking site. Ask a group of students in any classroom if they have used Facebook the night before, and teachers observe that most, if not all, hands would go up (Bugeja). Contrast this with the response of students if a professor inquired, “Who completed the reading or assignment I gave last night?” The results would most likely be different, regardless of the level of excellence the faculty member brings to the classroom.
Facebook, social networking, and blogs, among other Internet technologies, now occupy a dominant role in students’ activities outside of the classroom. Interestingly, the use of Facebook, blogs and other networking sites require that students exercise the same critical skills that educators often demand of students in terms of classroom assignments: reading, writing, and critical thinking. Further, students are engaging in self-propelled research using the Internet—in essence de- signing their own educational plans, whether they know it or not. They are actively searching, referencing, cross-referencing, and fact checking; they are drafting, editing, re-reading, and re-writing. Whether social or academic, students are sharing perspectives, thoughts, and preferences with their peers and Internet-users world- wide without understanding the ramifications of their actions. Never before have individuals been able to share information instantaneously with such a wide audience. It is clear that social networking sites are defining a generation of learners in new and innovative ways. These changes suggest a need for faculty to re-evaluate classroom pedagogies.
“Facebook Mentoring: The Potential of Using Facebook to Increase Academic Learning and Retention Rates Among Hostos Students” is a COBI project that explores the possibility of using Facebook as an online mentoring tool. Our project was inspired by an article that recounted the experience of two nursing faculty at Mesa Community College who successfully used an avatar to mentor their students on Facebook. They posted encouraging notes, informed them of upcoming exams, and congratulated them when they graduated.
Based on this encouraging experiment, we began thinking about the best ways to incorporate Facebook into the mentoring process. However, the overwhelming options and problems that make up the Facebook experience soon became apparent.
As we continued our research, we grappled with issues of privacy, boundaries and controlling access to information. Realizing the enormity of the online environment, we discussed the possibility of abandoning the idea completely. We read multitudes of cautionary tales that had Facebook at the heart of trouble for individuals who had lost their jobs (Hoffman), were expelled from academic institutions (Dorell), or had attempted or committed suicide as a result of information released on the web (Clementi).
As we scrutinized television ads, listened to random student conversations in the hallways and other public areas where students congregated, we began to re-think our project. We realized that the issues encompassed by this project had validity and could not be dispensed with lightly. While the literature showed that Facebook mentoring was possible, we realized that it was first necessary to address the concerns of faculty and student communities about Facebook.
To do that effectively, we collected data about how Facebook is currently being used by faculty and students. We designed two 10-question surveys—one for faculty and one for students—to report frequency of use, concerns, and openness to using Facebook for educational purposes. We released the student survey on SurveyMonkey and collected responses during the Spring 2011 semester. Of the respondents, 78% were current Hostos students and 7% were Alumni.
The results were as follows:
100% indicated they used Facebook; 57% said they used it daily, 28% said “often” (once or twice a week) and 14% said either “sometimes” or “rarely”
100% said they used Facebook for keeping in touch with friends and family; 36% said they used it for professional networking and to participate in group discussions; 14% used it to join groups and get freebies, coupons and offers. Among its features, users praised Facebook’s ability to post photos and links and to send messages instantaneously.
Over half of the respondents said they were linked to blogs.
57% currently use Facebook to keep in contact with their professors. Of these respondents, 21% said they discussed academics; 14% said they talked about career options; and 7% shared personal issues or concerns.
43% said they would consider using Facebook to communicate with their professors, while 21% said they would not use it to contact faculty.
7% admitted they looked up faculty profiles on Facebook
93% had concerns about privacy: “I don’t like that I can’t see who watches my Facebook page,” said one user. Another student complained about “the lack of privacy” and “gossip.” 57% worried about identity theft; 50% said they feared losing control over posted information.
When asked, “What would you like to learn about Facebook?” students wrote: “how to do the privacy settings” and “how to prevent others from possibly stealing my information.”
These results confirmed our belief that Hostos students are actively engaged with Facebook even though they are concerned about privacy issues, identity theft, and the misuse of posted information.
We adopted the idea of using doppelgangers (Skiba), or avatars to represent the mentoring profile of faculty and students who want to use the newly-created eMentoring Facebook account for Hostos. To protect the anonymity and privacy of our students and faculty, we decided that mentors and mentees who joined this online mentoring community on Facebook would each be assigned a special user ID. Through this persona, one mentor and one mentee could theoretically share questions, stories, and comments candidly with each other. Faculty would dispense advice under the name of “Julián Sanz del Río,” a Spanish philosopher who mentored Eugenio Maria de Hostos, and the students would be assigned to be “Eugenio/a Maria de Hostos.”
Using an anonymous user ID to represent faculty would protect their privacy as well as that of others involved and could prove to be important to the project for many reasons: (1) student bias towards a particular faculty member could be avoided; (2) the ID could show a collective effort on behalf of faculty toward the development of all students; and (3) the ID could provide consistency for all faculty users. For the students, this anonymity could provide opportunities to: (1) share honest questions; (2) post candid feedback; (3) pose complex discussions; (4) maintain personal privacy, and (5) avoid public ridicule.
We shared our solution with colleagues, who, surprisingly, challenged us on the matter of these safeguards. They suggested reasons why students preferred to interact using their true identities on blogs and social networking sites. In particular, they expressed the view that online communities grow precisely because the players know who they are talking to and what they are talking about. They pointed out that there is incredible opportunity to support others by being open and revealing their true identities.
The first reaction was to defend our reasons for anonymity and point out the dangers and naivete of those statements. However, we soon realized that students and faculty do have varying comfort levels when it comes to online communication, and we acknowledged that our project needed to reflect these variables. We decided to implement a compromise: Faculty would always be anonymous, and students could choose whether or not to be anonymous. Moreover, faculty would be assigned to a rotating schedule to advise and answer the needs of mentees as they are posted in the online eMentoring community. At various times, then, students would be able to converse with “Julian Sanz del Rio,” the moniker under which all faculty mentors would work.
The final component of the project is the educational campaign designed to help Hostos Facebook users construct a safe and positive online presence. We learned that Hostos Career Services offered students a Facebook workshop entitled, “Beyond Facebook: Secrets You Must Know (Social Networks... the New Background Check Tool).” To prepare students for mentoring, we decided to create a hybrid workshop that would expand upon this seminar and focus on educating students on the uses and dangers of Facebook.
The face-to-face portion of the workshop, entitled “The Professional You: Using Facebook and Online Technologies to Build a Positive Online Reputation,” will include an online tour of Facebook functions; how to open a professional Facebook account; discussions about the use of appropriate language and etiquette in posting information; the shelf-life of posted information; social and academic boundary building; and an examination of the myriad consequences to one’s personal and private life when using a site like Facebook. The online tutorials offer detailed descriptions of Facebook functions and privacy policies. In addition, an online rubric designed to judge the strength of one’s online reputation will be included in both portions of the hybrid workshop.
By exploring the positive and negative uses of Facebook, we would give Internet users a needed sense of control in an uncontrolled environment where information is being shared with a world-wide audience. As a further incentive to participate in the hybrid workshops, students will earn Hostos Rewards Points (see college web site).
FACEBOOK AND PRIVACY
To understand what Facebook is, we realized that we had to step back and take a broader view of how Facebook’s popularity is related to the way people in the 21st century have learned to communicate. While viewers of the recent film The Social Network might assume Facebook is an innovative addition to everyday life, this view does not explain why the site is so popular and why so many users voluntarily sign up for it.
Facebook can be seen as symptomatic of our “confessional” culture (Hofmann “Confessional”). Inasmuch as candid memoirs, talk and reality shows, blogging and Twitter accounts have made private mutterings acceptable as public knowledge, Facebook could be seen as part of the zeitgeist. For the purposes of mentoring, however, its greatest danger lies in its decimation of relationship boundaries. Notably, Facebook has an absence of guidelines on how to separate a person’s personal and professional lives and encourages the merging of the two. For example, friends, intimates, co-workers and supervisors alike share the same “Friend” list on a Facebook account, and anyone’s postings can be viewed simultaneously regardless of the private or professional nature of the communication. While levels of intimacy continue to exist in real life (for example, what one shares with one’s spouse or significant other will always be of a deeper and more personal nature than that offered to an acquaintance), Facebook users are often tempted to forget that these social boundaries still exist (Helft).
Why does this happen? Though Facebook does have privacy settings, the smallest and most intimate group that can be defined on the site is that of “Friends.”
“Friends of Friends” and “Friends and Networks” represent ever expanding groups while the most public setting is that of “Everyone.” If “Friends” is the smallest group available, that means any posting still has the potential to reach thousands of people who are labeled simply as “Friend.” No further delineation can be made—a user cannot categorize a “friend” as being an (a) acquaintance (b) best friend or (c) significant other or (d) boss or co-worker. More disturbingly, a user’s Facebook privacy settings can be circumvented if one of your “Friends” allows “Everyone” to see their profile—like someone tunneling into your house through your friend’s open back door, a total stranger can end up viewing a piece of your Facebook profile without your knowledge. Though all “Friend” requests must first be approved by the user before more information can be shared, a potential stranger can still come up to your doorstep, so to speak.
The purpose of our project, in particular our educational campaigns, is to protect Hostos faculty and students from the use and misuse of their information by raising their awareness of the quality, content and reach of online communication. If Facebook doesn’t allow a user to refine access to private and personal utterances, the responsibility of posting comments and information falls squarely on the user. Though this field of instructional technology is not new and a great body of literature exists on the topic, recently developed Internet technologies are radically redefining what it means for students to learn, study, and engage in learning inside and outside of the classroom.
The 21st Century world of education is radically changing and faculty must step forward to help define and give a structure to the online environment that is more chaos than structure. Because the consequences of these new technologies are yet to be fully understood, it is no accident that faculty and students alike feel trepidation at these new modes of communication. The anxiety that new technology tends to provoke may account for the major feelings of resistance that we have encountered from faculty in discussing Facebook or other Internet technologies as academic tools for learning. While students are well aware of the importance of fashioning effective resumes, CVs, and portfolios, we note there is a lack of education and awareness to protecting one’s online reputation, even as more and more employers use the Internet to make their hiring decisions. If our position as Hostos educators is to help students maximize their chances to succeed in the marketplace or to further their education in a world dominated by networking sites such as Facebook and other novel modes of communication, then it is upon us to train and guide students on the importance of seeing how to navigate what could be an online minefield. Refusing to address this reality may very well jeopardize student market- ability as job seekers or future baccalaureate candidates.
The Facebook eMentoring site was announced publicly on February 14, 2011 during the Valentine’s Day Mentoring Match.com program and will debut at Hostos in Fall 2011.
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