Is Facebook’s ‘subscribe’ feature a game-changer for teacher-student engagement?

By Posted in - Facebook & Schools & Social Media & Social Networking & Teachers on September 20th, 2011 3 Comments

Could Facebook’s latest feature be a game-changer for personal/professional issues around its use in the education sector? Teachers and lecturers have been grappling with the question of whether they should ‘friend’ or accept friend requests from their students, but the ‘subscribe’ option may offer an alternative solution.

My recent work developing social media strategies and running workshops for primary and secondary schools reveals that there is particular nervousness about the use of Facebook, and rightly so, for those who work with children. Typically representatives from the schools that I have spoken with are advising teachers to either not be on Facebook at all (!) or at least to not accept friend requests from their students (Missouri in the US even went so far as to attempt to make it illegal for friends and students to become friends on Facebook, though this is currently being questioned as to whether this law can pass, and the decision held until february 2012). However, the danger of this is a ‘bury our heads in the sand’ mentality, unable to see and understand how young (and old!) people communicate with each other via social media, and unable to see what people in spaces such as Facebook are saying about your school or perhaps even you as an individual.

Some schools have been fighting social media in its entirety: banning it in the classroom, banning it on the school network, ignoring it, and advising teachers not to use it. But some, as this recent article in the New York Times reveals, have realised that this is a battle that they cannot win. Schools are better off to be in there where it is happening, rather than at the edges not understanding the platforms that their children use every day and that influences their lives so much. Whatever children spend a lot of their time doing and interested in should be of paramount interest to teachers since it can tell us so much about how to engage young people and how they want to receive information (which may well extend to teaching materials). I believe that schools also have a fundamental role to play in educating young people in using social media (and any forms of communication) appropriately, and they cannot do this if they do not understand the tools and concepts themselves. Therefore we should be encouraging teachers to be in these spaces and learning about them not closing them down.

Now, however, Facebook has introduced the new ‘subscribe’ feature for individual profiles. This provides a way for users to see select updates from other users in their news feed, without actually becoming fully-fledged ‘friends’ on the social network. This is clearly Facebook’s response to the audience segmentation that Google+ has introduced to the world of social media through their ‘circles’ functionality.

The ability to control who sees which messages and updates that you post is a powerful game-changer in social media terms. Until recently, our answer to presenting our different personas depended on us having to manage multiple accounts and profiles: Facebook for friends and family, LinkedIn for professional networking, etc. In short we would have multiple personas developed and communicated through multiple sites. Now through a single platform we can communicate with friends, family, co-workers, clients, whoever it might be, in different ways without having to switch to a different site for each group. We have multiple personas, but through a single site. The rapid early growth of Google+ has meant that Facebook has had to respond fast, and so it has.

The subscribe feature will now enable anyone to be able to share updates with each other, but to select which updates they see by choosing to either make them public, ‘friends’ only, or private. This is achieved simply by people becoming a ‘subscriber’ of individual updates, not a friend (i.e. they can’t see your full profile if it is fairly well protected). This has particular benefits to teachers, as Mashable highlight in their article on this new feature.

So, as teachers and lecturers may now decide to start those kind of connections on Facebook, one thing needs to be considered: we need to be careful and cautious every time we publish a status update to check the privacy settings of each update. Make sure that you check how it is being posted so you don’t accidentally post a status update designed to be ‘private’ or for your friends only to your ‘public’ feed. However, common sense and best practice dictates that if you’re going to publish an update that you don’t want others to see in any form, then you probably shouldn’t be posting it online anyway, no matter how ‘private’ your Facebook account is.

Whatever happens, we’re fully expecting this to be something that we’re asked to talk more about and demonstrate in our workshops and strategies for schools and universities, and we think this is a positive step for Facebook and for schools.

(3) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Neil Jones - Reply

    September 20, 2011 at 3:33 am

    Great post. The thorny issue over the use of Facebook will, I'm sure, continue to divide opinion. I am yet to try this feature and have not really got off the ground with Google+. However, it seems to me that regardless of the features packed into the applications, the imperative is in the way you behave.

    The nuances in communication through Social Networks are so complex and the safeguarding so essential, that there is a strong argument to maintain discrete, separated networks – as you say, "multiple personas!" – despite the e-Schizophrenia that this may engender!

  • Steve Rumsby - Reply

    September 20, 2011 at 3:47 am

    I honestly think this shouldn't make any difference at all to Facebook use in schools. Any teacher looking to use Facebook in a formal way in school should keep that use well away from their personal Facebook account. Facebook pages are much better suited to this anyway.

  • Peter Hopkinson - Reply

    September 20, 2011 at 5:35 am

    As a Junior School we do not expect any socal networking communication between staff and pupils as this simply puts them in too vulnerable a position. Staff are advised to keep their personal accounts as secure as possible and not accept pupils as friends. I can see how this is a different proposition for senior school teachers/pupils but the potential for disater is enormous and I agree with Neil Jones that extreme caution must be observed. Schools must engage with their staff on these issues and point out the potential dangers.

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