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Required Facebook postings spark class participation

Uyen Hoang, a senior pre-med student at Emory University, rarely speaks in her 82-student sociology course. But Hoang is by far the most prolific poster on the class Facebook page, consistently sharing ideas and articles with the group.

"I am definitely more comfortable sharing information on Facebook. We have very little time in class for everyone to voice his or her opinion. Once class is over, we lose our chance to talk. But Facebook is available 24/7," Hoang says.

Students may have initially been motivated by receiving points toward their participation grade for posting and commenting on the course's Facebook page, but Hoang and many other students in the group are posting well beyond the required amount, says course instructor Ellen Idler, a professor of sociology at Emory. 

"If you have 80 students in a class, some students feel comfortable speaking in front of the class but there are many who would never raise their hands to ask a question because they're shy. That's just not their way of expressing themselves," Idler says. "Facebook allows them the opportunity to participate."

Students are required to post or comment eight times over the semester on topics related to the course, called Social Aspects of Health and Illness, says Idler. This is Idler's first time incorporating a social media component into a course; she is also the first faculty member she's aware of to require social media participation as a portion of a final grade.

Making connections

Facebook post

Students in the large lecture class range from freshmen to seniors. Normally, many of these students wouldn't even know one another, much less have meaningful discussions about complex healthcare issues. But the Facebook page allows students to share ideas and react to those ideas in a way that is much more difficult in a typical lecture class, Idler says.

"The students will post an article and say, 'This is just like what we were discussing in class today!' They're reacting to a discussion in class and connecting it to something they've read in the media and connecting that to the wider world. I think it's wonderful," Idler says.

Students also interact in group activities in class, so participation has not shifted entirely to the digital realm, Idler clarifies.

Hot Facebook topics among the students this semester included the Affordable Care Act rollout, mental health issues (particularly ADHD) and eCigarettes, says Chris Martin, a second-year Ph.D. student assistant who moderates the course's Facebook page and tracks student participation.

"It's like a collective brain for the students to relate to course topics. It also got the students to do some supplementary reading and pay more attention to health news," Martin says.

Idler says she's found Facebook interactions much more effective than other technologies designed for classroom use.

"It's not something the students have to go to, it comes to their newsfeed. It comes to them," she adds.

All but one or two students in the class have posted at least a few comments or articles to the Facebook group, Idler says, and a significant portion have posted much more.

Idler has also used the Facebook page for an extra credit assignment for the class. Students can receive extra credit if they visit an exhibit on health at the nearby Centers for Disease Control and Prevention museum and post a photo of themselves there along with a description of an aspect of the display that was the most interesting to them.

Overall, Idler says she's been pleasantly surprised by how effective the Facebook participation requirement has been in sparking class discussion. Hoang agrees.

"Dr. Idler is my first professor to use Facebook for academic purposes. Personally, I enjoy participating in this novel project. I've been following major news sources on Facebook and learning new things every day," Hoang says. 

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