Skepticism of Facebook Student Groups grows on college campuses

Half of Oberlin's Student Groups had less than five members.

To understand why Facebook’s unveiling of Student Groups didn’t send higher-education technologists into a tizzy, it might be helpful to examine the case of Oberlin College in Ohio, where 95 percent of its Student Groups have seen no student activity since they were made live in a pilot program that started in early March.

Facebook’s April 11 announcement, making Student Groups public after pilot programs on college campuses across the country, harkens back to the social network’s younger days, when members had to have “.edu” eMail addresses to create a Facebook account.

Student Groups will allow students and faculty members on hundreds of campuses to make private group pages that will be off limits to Facebook members outside the campus community. Students can share files–homework or class projects, perhaps–and interact with fellow students even if they’re not friends of the social network.

But Oberlin, a private liberal arts college of 2,800 students, has had access to Student Groups since early March. Since then, students and faculty have created 128 Student Groups pages–ranging from Class of 2016 pages to pages for science students–with the most popular group drawing 280 students, Ma’ayan Plaut, an Oberlin social media coordinator, wrote in an April 11 blog post.

More than half of those 280 Oberlin College groups have fewer than five members, many of them with the group’s creator as its lone member.

Plaut said college students might lack enthusiasm for creating and participating in Facebook Student Groups because, for them, Facebook is an escape from the burden of academia, not an extension of it.

“Other than adding classmates to the group and posting about a lost item and an event or two, the groups are about dead as their curated incoming class pages that were created when they matriculated,” she wrote. “Perhaps the rules are a bit too open-ended, or we’ve reached a saturation point with social grouping, or maybe it’s just that Facebook just can’t dictate how we create our social groups.”

Some Oberlin Student Groups were created automatically when the feature was made available at the college. One of those automatic groups, about jobs and internships, didn’t have any way of connecting interested students with companies and organizations.

“How about letting us share our internship database and career services social connection on Twitter and Tumblr instead?” Plaut wrote. “This is a blow in the gut for me.”

The most noticed oversight in Facebook’s Student Groups rollout was the inability for prospective and incoming students to join groups, such as pages designed for specific majors.

Most colleges and universities don’t assign an official campus eMail address to an incoming student until weeks before their first semester begins.

“Groups for Schools also does not focus on helping prospects and admits, who often don’t have an .edu eMail,” said Brandon Croke, a community manager for Inigral, a California-based company that helps schools with social media strategy. “While we have communities both for current and admitted students, we’ve seen the highest levels of engagement take place before school even begins.”

Reaction to Facebook Student Groups wasn’t as skeptical on the instructional side of higher education. Twitter and education-technology blogs buzzed with what Student Groups could become once it becomes established on campuses.

Teresa Martinelli-Lee, an adjunct professor at the University of La Verne in California, said she hoped Facebook was moving toward a hybrid learning management system (LMS) with a much more social format than competition in the open source or proprietary spaces.

If Student Groups become a place where students share files, exchange questions with classmates and faculty members, and share resources, Martinelli-Lee said she could envision a time when students maintained two Facebook accounts: their personal pages and an account linked to Student Groups with common interests.

“Students certainly know how to multitask,” she said. “This generation can do quite a few things at the same time … and if they have their Facebook open, they might as well use that format in class.”

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