By Aditi Pai, Biology Department, Spelman College
Case studies are a highly effective pedagogical method that successfully engage students, promote their critical thinking and problem solving skills (Yadav et al 2007). Group work and discussion are an integral element of successful case method pedagogy (Herreid 2007), though often, large class size, limited meeting time and/ or the nature of the physical space of traditional classrooms may be barriers to successful discussions.
In a typical classroom, often it is impossible to hear from all students because of time restrictions and additionally, many students hesitate to participate in the formal big classroom setting. Finally, in a traditional classroom setting, discussions end with class period and students have limited means to contribute to a discussion with each other after the class time ends.
One solution to the above problem of limited discussion time and participation from students is to extend the class time and change the class space from a formal physical space, to an online informal venue, such as the social networking site (SNS) Facebook. In recent times, educators have taken advantage of the popularity, accessibility and familiarity of social media (wikis, blogs, podcasts, Twitter, You-tube, Facebook) and utilized these for their classes (Moran et al 2012). Facebook is a particularly useful tool in teaching science case studies (see Pai et al in press).
Facebook, is the most popular SNS at present with over 1.26 billion users as of Oct 2013 (Smith 2013). A full 89% of youth in the US between the ages of 18 and 29 years, use SNS such as Facebook (Brenner and Smith 2013), most on a daily basis. Hence, most of the traditional age college students are Facebook users. Interestingly, users have to be only 13 years of age consequently high school students may also use Facebook.
Facebook users may form a ‘Facebook Group’ page, where members share a connection with each other only on the group page but not necessarily outside of it. Instructors’ and students’ privacy is therefore protected. To teach case studies with Facebook, an instructor can form a group page for their class and invite students to join the group by sharing the group page URL. Facebook groups are ‘open’, ‘closed’ or ‘secret’. The best option for academic purposes is a closed group, where the instructor can serve as an administrator and decide who may/may not become a member. The activity of a closed group is not visible out of the group, thereby maintaining the privacy of the class. Administrators may remove content from group page if they deem it inappropriate.
Before starting, instructors should take care to define the scope of the work, establish the ground rules for use, and make sure to populate it with all the members of the class. Instructors may or may not choose to assign grades to ‘Facebook work’ depending on their learning objectives and their institutional policy. However, it helps to have a minimum grade for ‘participation’ in Facebook discussions which may entail at least a few ‘posts’, ‘comments’, and/or ‘likes’. After a policy is determined and discussed for Facebook work, the class may begin using this venue. The class then has a different type of venue for case study teaching and learning, one with many advantages compared to a traditional classroom.
First and foremost every member of the group has the opportunity to learn their peers’ names because of the ‘profile picture’ associated with each Facebook user, enabling other users to associate a name with a face. This level of familiarity helps create an environment where participants know each other, don’t feel anonymous, and therefore feel comfortable enough to contribute. This is particularly useful in large classes where people have few opportunities to get acquainted with each other.
Second, an instructor may share a case study reading or a video simply by posting a URL. When any member posts anything new in the group page, all members get a notification (although users may opt to not get one). Hence users are immediately informed about the new materials posted, which is a beneficial feature for a discussion. Because a large number of users constantly check their Facebook updates even on their cell phones (67% of users 18-29 years of age), they are apprised of this academic task along with other updates. Facebook users typically spend an average of 20 min per visit and 8.3 hours per month here (Smith 2013), thus instructors are more likely to elicit responses from students via a Facebook discussion compared to other sites including Learning Management Systems (LMS). Given the frequent use of Facebook, many respond immediately to case study work notifications, and instructors likely see responses quickly. Even if users do not respond with comments to the post, instructors can tell how many members have ‘viewed’ the post.
Thirdly, after the materials are distributed to the students, either via the link on Facebook or through a LMS or a handout, instructors can then invite students to contribute to a discussion on the topic by posing specific questions on the group page. For example, faculty might post a particular figure, table or a photo from the case study and ask students a question on it. In fact, faculty can ask several questions simultaneously as different posts and allow different discussions to progress at the same time.
To ensure discussions progress, faculty could ‘tag’ students (equivalent to calling on students in a classroom) to start a discussion. A good way to ensure that responsive students feel rewarded for their effort, is for faculty to either comment on the student’s thoughts, probe the student further with a follow up question, or at least ‘like’ the comment to indicate that they have read it.
Ideally, once the discussion is initiated, students should be able to continue to it. There are several reasons why discussions on Facebook are more likely to succeed than ones in the classroom. The biggest reason is that students are able to respond to this online discussion with more sophistication than in the classroom, both because they have more time to consider their response and because they can respond with better information as they are able to support their position with links to resources. Another reason is that students are also able to draw their friends into the discussion by tagging them. Finally, it is also true that this medium unlike the traditional classroom venue, affords them an opportunity to participate more fully. Thus, students are able to do more than simply observe a discussion or make their share of comments when it’s their turn, because in an online discussion, students can ‘like’ their peers’ comments, ask their own questions, and/or comment on the peers’ comments. All of this is possible because the discussion is asynchronous. In other words, students can participate when they have the time or when they have had a chance to think about the issues rather than in a classroom setting, where time is a huge constraint and discussion occurs in real time.
If the case study deals with an issue which is a dilemma or a debate, the faculty member may not only explore the different sides of an issue or the multiple perspectives through discussions as described above, but it is also possible to have students ‘vote’ or weigh in on an issue via the survey tool on Facebook. The survey tool allows users to query the other users of the group about their thoughts on a question through a multiple choice format. This tool is also useful to survey the students on their prior knowledge, in preparation for a case study. Though not all students participate in all discussions with posts and comments, a large number may regularly respond to survey questions.
The time frame over which a discussion unfolds may be specified by an instructor, for example with posts or comments announcing when the discussion period ends. However, in this medium students are free to rekindle a discussion weeks and even months after a particular case study has been ‘taught’ in class. Thus students might rekindle a discussion because it connects to a current event, new information becoming available to them or simply because they thought of a new point.
As the semester unfolds, the instructors should take care to ‘grade’ student participation if necessary. When the course ends, the instructors may simply terminate the group (after saving the activity of the group as a pdf for records if necessary), though sometimes, it may be useful for students to continue to have this group as a space to interact with each other and the instructor even after the course ends.
In summary, case studies may be taught effectively on Facebook because unlike LMS that are designed to optimize instructor’s control of information, SNS promote learner’s autonomy of their learning in the framework of Personal Learning Environment (PLE) concept (Dabbagh and Kitsantas 2012). In an effective PLE, instructors form the space but learners have the means of participating at their own pace and in their own space, which is exactly what an informal, popular, user-friendly, reliable site like Facebook affords (Dabbagh and Kitsantas 2012).
Brenner J and A Smith. 2013. 72% of online adults are social networking sites users. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/social-networking-sites.aspx
Dabbagh N and A Kitsantas. 2012. Personal Learning Environments, social media, and self-regulated learning: A natural formula for connecting formal and informal learning Internet and Higher Education 15: 3–8
Herreid CF, ed. 2007. Start With a Story. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association Press
Moran M, J Seaman and H Tinti-Kane. 2012. Blogs, wikis, podcasts, and Facebook. How today’s higher education faculty use social media. Pearson Learning Solutions and Babson Survey Research Group.
Pai A, G McGinnis, M Cole, K Stovall, J Kovacs, M Lee, D. Bryant. 2013. (in press). Let’s be ‘friends’: Using Facebook to enhance undergraduate science instruction. Chapter in forthcoming book: Cases on Social Networking Websites for Instructional Use, IGI Global
Smith C. 2013. By the numbers: 70 amazing Facebook Stats. Source: Digital marketing ramblings. Retrieved from: http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/by-the-numbers-17-amazing-facebook-stats/
Yadav A, M Lundeberg, M DeSchryver, K Dirkin, NA Schiller, K Maier, and CF Herreid 2007. Teaching science with case studies: A national survey of faculty perceptions of the benefits and challenges of using case studies. Journal of College Science Teaching 37: 34-38.