Friday, May 22, 2009

Facebook and Grades

I'm glad to see these studies. The results are contradictory, which is actually what I would have expected. I've been using Facebook and promoting it's use in an educational setting for the last couple years. While I think that there are tremendous opportunities for learning in Facebook, I also see the potential for it to become an addictive, time sink for students.

Just this last semester (yes it's over) I had a student that was very active in Facebook - 90% of the activity was very frivolous, for example sending virtual items to friends or playing countless hours of "Mafia Wars." I suspect that this student's grade is probably a letter grade lower than his or her potential. I'm sure there are other reasons students get distracted and lose motivation, but I was able to simultaneously watch the ramp up in Facebook activity and the decline in classroom performance. No scientific correlation here -just my gut - but I've been teaching full-time for twelve years now, so you get pretty good at making these assessments.

All that said, I haven't given up on Facebook as a learning environment. Just like any other tool or environment, Facebook can be used poorly or incorrectly. As a counter example, consider the story of Ryerson University freshman Chris Avenir. Chris helped create and run an online chemistry study group in Facebook, which allowed 146 classmates to help each other with homework assignments. Really great use of Facebook - harness all of that activity in Facebook to a positive end. At least one professor and consequently the school didn't agree. Avenir had 147 charges of academic misconduct brought against him by the university - which had a possible consequence of expulsion. While Chris was not expelled from school - read the outcome here - the reaction has been pretty vocal for Chris and against the University:
Chris Avenir, a bright, honest, first-year engineering student at Ryerson University, has been in the news because he was accused of cheating by setting up an online study group on the Facebook Web site. Anyone can get an account on Facebook, a Web site designed for friends to keep in touch. In universities, it has become the modern version of a coffee shop and study group.

Cheating is a serious crime. One hundred forty-seven students used Facebook to discuss one of their engineering classes, and only Avenir was charged with cheating by one solitary professor. All Avenir did was set up a group which his classmates joined. He almost got expelled for it. In an unjust result, Avenir was given a failing grade for the homework portion of the class (lowering his overall grade in the class from A to B), was ordered to attend a workshop on academic integrity, and now has a disciplinary notice placed on his transcript.
That's what show trials do. Until the school apologizes to him, I hope Chris Avenir will appeal to the school senate. And if no one at Ryerson apologizes, Avenir should quit and go a school worthy of the title "university."

Jury out on Facebook's impact on grades:
Two contradictory studies about Facebook usage and grade-point average have higher education officials questioning if the social networking giant has any impact on students' classroom performance.

Just weeks after Ohio State University research suggested that college students who used Facebook every day had consistently lower grades than students who did not, a Northwestern University study released May 7 concluded there was no correlation between Facebook usage and bad grades.

Students who reported checking status updates, joining fan groups, and chatting with friends and relatives on Facebook several times a day had a GPA as much as a letter grade lower than their counterparts, according to the Ohio State study, which included 219 college students and was released in April. Sixty-five percent of Facebook members checked their accounts at least once a day, according to the research. Seventy-nine percent of students said Facebook did not have any effect on their academic performance, a finding that seemingly was contradicted by the data.

The Northwestern University study included more than 1,000 undergraduates from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a 'nationally representative cross-sectional sample' of students between the ages of 14 and 22. The Northwestern researchers said students who logged onto Facebook several times a day were not more likely to get bad grades than students who abstained from the social networking site.

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