Facebook and the Public Square

Filed Under (e-learning, New Media, pachyderm, Video) by Chris LaBelle on 22-04-2009 and tagged

Oh no!  Someone let the cat out of the bag – using Facebook too frequently saps your intelligence and degrades your academic performance.  OK, maybe not an exact translation of Dr. Karpinski’s recent study out of Ohio State University, but it’s not as far off as you might think.

According to this recent study,

“Facebook is frequently used by 85 percent of undergraduate students; and 52 percent of graduates. Furthermore, Facebook users, who usually studied between 1-5 hours a week, had GPAs between 3.0 and 3.5; as against GPAs between 3.5 and 4.0 of the non-users, who generally devote 11-15 hours a week to their studies.”

While Dr. Karpinski avoids drawing a direct correlation between Facebook usage and academic performance, her data suggest that the amount of time students spend on Facebook versus homework impacts GPA.  Go figure.  Which begs the question:  Is Facebook anything more than an online watered-down version of the public square?  And more specifically, would the closest real-world metaphor for Facebook be the library or the mall?


The real-world mall experience is primarily about community– a place where stores instantiate the public square to move product.   In the case of Facebook and many other web 2.0 sites, it’s hard to not see the parallel. When was the last time you found a better deal on something in a mall compared to Amazon.com (holiday deals aside) or some other online retailer?

I know, I know, everyone is doing itFacebook is one of the most visited websites on the planet, but, pushing a product?

First, let’s compare the business model of the mall and that of Facebook, Twitter, Digger and other web 2.0 sites.   Revenue is generated by “tenants” and advertisers to offset the cost of public square upkeep, i.e. the food court, roofs, benches, air conditioning, walkways, and other areas where people interact.  Interestingly, it appears that like many failed malls, Facebook, Twitter, Digger and other sites are spending more to maintain and expand their infrastructure than they are taking in.  Sure, these sites might become profitable some day, but let’s deal with reality in the here and now.  When thinking through how educators might leverage sites like Facebook, Twitter and other web 2.0 sites, it’s important to put things in perspective and remind ourselves that technology has always been the vehicle and not the destination (when kept in perspective), and it can be a challenging endeavor when we put the cart in front of the horse and begin to prioritize the private good (corporate objectives) over the public good, especially within higher education. TV is the ultimate venue for showcasing the pros and cons of this type of partnership.  Devaney and Weber’s article on private versus public good is also a solid touchstone to help frame this type of discussion.

Not that everything has to be educational, and for me personally, I find Facebook extremely helpful to message people or receive notifications about upcoming events.  However, when my list of Facebook contacts grew too large, I began to feel “Facebook fatigue” and the word that came to mind as I watched more and more trivial user status information fill my profile was “communotainment.”   Assuming that I’m not alone and that there are numerous people who care about their friends’ moment-by-moment Facebook or Twitter status (tongue squarely inserted in cheek), is it that surprising that “communotainment” sites like Facebook ultimately end up displacing activities like homework when its usage is left unchecked?  Not entirely convinced? Watch the recent program from Frontline on how South Korea is trying to help their tech-savvy youth to balance “communotainment” with the rest of their schedule.   This issue of maintaining balance is something worth pondering as we look towards how best to “program” or shape tools and new media that enable virtual community and more important, retain elements of “public good” beyond just social interaction.

For those of us who work as technologists in the world of higher education, I think we have an important part to play in helping demonstrate how virtual community can be leveraged to meet educational objectives and meet the need many of our students have for community.  This could be more clearly demonstrated by providing online, compelling content that has been vetted by the university and allows students to quickly and effectively form associations with each other.  At present, the tools of choice in most distance education programs are usually Blackboard, Moodle or other content management systems.   While it is true that this software has evolved, many of these tools resemble the distance education tools I was using 10 years ago when I was in graduate school with some web 2.0 add ons.  Where is the new paradigm to build more robust community in the world of online higher education?  In higher education, we often balance privacy requirements against the other needs of students, and for justifiable reasons, privacy requirements trump most other considerations.  Fast forward to 2009 and we are now assessing the consequences of this imbalance between privacy, access and relevance and how we should respond to market conditions that are not very tolerant of our predicament and are demanding more agile and innovative approaches to meeting our user’s needs—community being perhaps the most important.

With the continued encroachment of the private sector into the world of higher education, I am very optimistic that new ways of doing online instruction and building community will take hold.  Having said that, I think that it’s more likely that in the not-so-distant future, the toolset that makes up a standard distance education course will include not just the core course management system, but will include a larger virtual community site built with an authoring tool that resembles the feature set found in Ning (micro-community tool), more Instant Messaging capability among students and more explicit access to larger groups of past students via virtual communities and repositories of relevant student-produced content, especially video.  This is how more and more of our students experience the world and where the center of their epistemology finds expression. Students will and should become more involved in collaboratively architecting classes and providing some sort of historical memory to a class as it develops over time and grows to accommodate the work of past and current students.  I found some very compelling examples of this in the Pachyderm links referenced in my last post.  This is where web 2.0 and new media hold amazing potential and where we should expect more student involvement in the traditional and non-traditional class experience.

Just as we see happening in the private word of virtual communities, interest in content domains and student needs relative to these domains will drive engagement, growth and retention rather than the exclusive student-side requirement to receive course credit.  While I’m sure that this is already happening in various educational institutions, I am guessing that this is still more the exception than the norm.  My fear is that until we provide this level of community and education to distance education students (and ultimately to our on-campus students)  we will see “communotainment” sites like Facebook gain more and more popularity and continue to exacerbate the difficulties our students face as they try to balance their need for community with completing their homework.

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12 Comments Already, Leave Yours Too

Ren Bostelaar on 22 April, 2009 at 11:09 am #

I’d guess that the students with the higher GPAs – the ones who spent less time on Facebook – have always had less involved social lives. Their study habits were in place years before they entered college, and decades before Facebook began mediating the relationships of young people.

John on 22 April, 2009 at 3:59 pm #

In your last paragraph you mention bringing a greater level of community and education (using web tools) to distance ed students and then kind of tacked on, using parenthesis, “on-campus” students. I wonder if a greater emphasis should be placed on using these web tools in on-campus environments. I think of those large 100+ student classes and how, even though they might be sitting in the same room, they might be in some sense considered distance learners too. I remember even being in small classes of less than 20 students where there was no engagement between students, only a one-way conversation between the instructor and the student.

Using these class/community tools on-campus might speed their adoption thereby providing a quicker evolution of the theory and best practices associated with their use.

How about college wide virtual communities where people can make connections and class information (current and past) could be connected to?

Karen Watte on 23 April, 2009 at 10:10 am #

I would think that part of the role of instruction in higher education would be helping students know how to evaluate and apply new media – or new technology – in an appropriate way to achieve some value. From the vast and ever-expanding arsenal of new tools, students need to know how to be able to select the ones that truly add value to their experience whether it is in class or on the job. Enjoyed your post.

labellec on 23 April, 2009 at 10:37 am #

Ren, I think that you really point out the most likely scenario here. The main springboard for me from the article was this concept of community and how we might leverage it more in higher ed in online distance ed. I wonder what forms of community students who don’t use Facebook are pursuing in the college environment and if these forms of community are more helpful in maintaining what appears to be more appropriate study habits….

labellec on 23 April, 2009 at 12:46 pm #

Great ideas John. You have a good point about the large class sizes and how technology might be used to help bring more interactivity into these environments. We didn’t have tools like Quizdom (http://www.camcor.com/quizdom.html) when I was in college, but, it’s exciting to see these types of tools used in classrooms to help enhance interactivity–great PBS program on this as well.

Definitely agree with the on-site campus being a starting point for diffusing new approaches out. Ironically, I think it’s really more the students now who are already familiar w/new media and trying to push for more inclusion of these types of tools.

labellec on 23 April, 2009 at 12:52 pm #

Totally agree Karen. It’s amazing to see how fast new media is changing. I agree as well that higher ed needs to really expand on helping students qualify new media and how to objectively assess how it can be used most effectively. My post took a somewhat humorous look at Facebook mainly to make the point that I think we often get caught up in the glitz of the technology at the expense of understanding its application–just as your comment points out. Thanks for the input!

Mark Anderson-Wilk on 1 May, 2009 at 7:24 am #

First Monday, a peer-reviewed journal on the internet, just released a study that challenges the recent suggestion that Facebook use and academic achievement are negatively related. The First Monday authors attempted to replicate the previous study and found “if anything, Facebook use is more common among individuals with higher grades.” All in all, they conclude there is no relationship between Facebook use and academic performance. http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2498/2181

labellec on 4 May, 2009 at 4:14 pm #


Thanks for the reference. As you could tell from the tenor of my post and earlier response to Ren, I don’t actually believe this study conclusively demonstrated a direct correlation between Facebook and academic performance and I’m sure many more studies will come out on both side of the issue–but I did find it provocative enough to build on and I think there are some interesting social factors that underlie the social networking phenomenon within the Facebook shell.

In terms of an article on the other side of the link you provide, Driskell and Lyon’s article, Are Virtual Communities True Communities? Examining the Environments and Elements of Community points out that most of the initial academic studies on what type of net effect virtual communities have on the participants were more negative than positive. Most of the negative effects were Internet-induced isolation, alienating individualism and the replacement of physical community activity with cyberspace activities. So, again, this need to think more intentionally about the pros and cons of this technology are well documented and it’s hard to not wander into some of the social behavior issues when discussing this topic as I think it’s really embedded in a larger social phenomenon that is both technological and behavioral.

Thinking critically about whether this type of technology can be re-purposed for instructional contexts and applications is really the issue in my mind–we all know it can really handle marketing and social networking well. To tease out the instructional potential, I think one has to start with a willingness to examine how this type of technology bootstraps learning and how it might hinder learning.


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