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Facebook ‘Groups’ could boost privacy, collaboration

Facebook launched an updated "Groups" application that allows for more collaboration.
Facebook "Groups" allows for easy communication and collaboration on projects, but is it an appropriate collaboration tool for students?

A new Facebook feature unveiled Oct. 6 gives users more control over which information is shared with certain groups of people, and it also offers an easy platform for online communication and collaboration on group projects—leading some K-12 educators and ed-tech officials to wonder if the social networking site might be a viable collaboration tool for students.

The Facebook “Groups” application lets users determine specific content to share with members of a defined group, as well as chat or work together on documents within a group. The feature could be a useful communication and collaboration tool for students outside the classroom—but concerns about online safety might keep many teachers and ed-tech officials from embracing the tool for such use.

“More collaboration and sharing of resources is a tremendously valuable development for schools,” said James Bosco, principal investigator for the Consortium for School Networking’s project on Web 2.0 use in education, called Participatory Culture in Schools: Leadership & Policy.

“I think what’s happening is that the schools are beginning to unblock these resources. The recognition is that with the applications being used more widely in society, it becomes more and more problematic not allowing their use in schools,” Bosco said.

Facebook Groups is an update of Facebook’s list feature, which allowed users to limit who could see different content on profile pages. However, only 5 percent of Facebook’s 500 million users took advantage of this feature, according to the web site.

Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, said while the updates do improve online safety for Facebook’s younger users, it is still not an appropriate ed-tech tool for the classroom.

“From [an online] safety perspective, I think this is really helpful, because it will allow young people to set up groups based on degrees of trust,” said Willard. “[But] there are other Web 2.0 platforms that I think are far more geared for effective educational use. To my knowledge, Facebook does not have a team of educational professionals who are working with [the web site] to design specific educational products.”

Free and subscription-based ed-tech tools, such as Google Apps for Education and ePals, already exist to facilitate student and teacher communication and collaboration online.

Facebook Groups is geared toward helping users more simply sort their Facebook friendships into different clusters, to make people more comfortable posting items they only want a limited number of people to see. If used correctly, ed-tech experts said, that could enhance the online safety of Facebook’s younger users—to an extent.

“It will be important to help students understand the difference between smaller more trustworthy groups of friends and larger groups of people,” said Willard. “But it is also imperative that young people understand that even if something is just shared with a couple of friends, [it] can be sent further,” she continued, citing the recent case of a Duke University student who ranked her romantic experiences as a private joke for friends, only to discover that the ranking list went viral when it was passed on to other Facebook users.

CoSN’s Bosco said he fears that if students are not instructed how to properly handle Facebook and sites like it in an educational setting, it could lead to their misuse.

“Many schools are saying this is part of the reality of kids’ and adults’ lives, and so we probably have to get our heads out of the sand and recognize that we have to work with kids in order to teach them how to use [these sites] responsibly,” Bosco said.

Willard disagreed.

“What we’re going to have, if schools start using Facebook for educational activities, is advertisers are going to pick up on that and pick up the eyeballs and eWallets of these kids in schools. I think they need time away from that, and I really want to preserve education time for education and not advertising,” she said.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg said he believes 80 percent of the web site’s users will be affected by the Facebook Groups feature, either by creating groups or being sorted into them. Facebook Groups also allows for members to plan events together or edit documents posted within a group.

Bosco said communication and collaboration tools like this might be a way to update the classroom, despite some ed-tech officials’ concerns about online safety.

“To the extent that … these resources get better and better, they provide more opportunity for collaborative learning, for us to get beyond the more primitive ways of teaching to create the most vibrant learning environments,” he said.

Adults must teach children how to use social networking sites the right way, he added, rather than prohibiting students from accessing the sites at all.

“It’s forbidding versus educating,” Bosco said. “Some people take the forbidding approach, and that’s their prerogative, but I don’t know that that’s the best way to cultivate the values we wish to cultivate. That’s a losing battle.”

Willard isn’t against using Facebook for other activities. In fact, she said she sees it as a great tool for use outside of the classroom.

“I think Facebook can be used very effectively by schools in general outreach. I know many districts are now also setting up pages on Facebook. This gives them a way to communicate with parents and students,” said Willard. “It also appears to me that school athletic teams and other extracurricular organizations can use Facebook, and with this feature do so in a way that keeps the membership and communications in a defined group.”

Some of the online communication and collaboration tools in Facebook Groups are found in a variety of other sites, such as Google Docs or Gaggle. Some critics of Facebook Groups say it doesn’t allow users to accept or deny group memberships. Users therefore must manually “leave” a group they are in if they don’t want to receive the group’s messages or have it listed on their profile.

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