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Monday, October 15, 2007

Facebook as a Learning Platform

Facebook seems to be coming up everywhere the past few weeks. The most recent, which finally got me to post, was a Stephen Downes post - I'm Majoring in Facebook, How about You? He points us to a Fortune Magazine article that describes a Stanford class being offered by BJ Fogg that studies Facebook as a platform:
"Facebook is the most convenient and respectable way to feel connected to friends, get updated on existing friends, find new people, build relationships and express identities."
Students, however, seem more interested in cashing out. "I want to build a really cool app and then sell it for some amount of money," says Jennifer Gee, a 21-year-old computer science graduate student. Classmates nearby nod in agreement.
The class has each student creating applications in Facebook and presenting to potential investors. Interestingly, BJ Fogg (the professor) came onto my radar a few years ago because he was writing about persuasive technology - i.e., how do you persuade humans to behave a certain way with technology - a key component of human performance improvement through technology.

Why is Facebook so hot right now? I see two main reasons which I give below, but first ...

What is Facebook?

Facebook is a pretty simple application with fairly standard social network functionality. At the core, Facebook allows you to:
  • Create a profile
  • Link to your friends
  • See your friends updates and to update your friends
  • Create public or private groups
  • Join groups
  • Hold group conversations (threaded discussions)
While there are a lot of other features, that's about 90% of what people do. In fact, here's a picture of what users do on Facebook (larger circles represent more activity):

It's mostly some pretty simple activities. But because of critical mass, a general ethos of open conversations between friends, filtering of notifications, and control of friendships, it works well as a means of communications within your social network.

What I've found interesting is that I now commonly use LinkedIn to find interesting people, but often use Facebook to communicate with them.

When you look at the core functions of Facebook - it fits pretty well as the basis for a learning platform. More on this below.

So, why is it hot?

Facebook has Your Audience

One of the struggles with any social networking software is overcoming the hurdle of getting users to start using yet another social networking platform. This is something that I've lamented before (see Too Many Social Networks?and Multiple Social Networks).

I was just talking to someone from a very large organization. They had previously tried to get an internal platform for social networking rolled out in the organization and had limited adoption. Then they realized that about half of their workforce were active users of Facebook. And as the old adage goes:
Q: "Willie, why do you rob banks?"
A: "Cause that's where the money is." ~ Willie Sutton - Bank Robber
Why are we going to be adopting Facebook? Cause that's where our users are.

In fact, this makes me wonder if it can overcome a bit of the 1% rule (or even the update to the 1% Rule).

So, instead of trying to get your audience to adopt another platform, adopt Facebook.

Facebook Applications are Simple to Build

If you look at the picture above, the top right Facebook represents interacting with applications. Facebook applications are custom functionality that work seamlessly within the Facebook environment. The code runs on a separate server, but the applications interface plays back inside Facebook. Facebook provides an API that gives you access to friends, groups, etc.

And it's relatively easy to create these applications.

I'm currently engaged with two different clients working on Facebook applications. Why? Well, because the audience is there and we intend to leverage the Facebook platform in order to:
  • Spread virally by asking friends to add the application, notify friends about activity
  • Use groups as the basis for certain kinds of activity (think communication, decision making)

Facebook as a Learning Platform

For the upcoming Free Online Conference - Corporate Learning: Trends and Innovations we wanted to have a way for participants to get to know other participants and hold discussions. While we are going to use Q2 Learning's platform, we could have created a group in Facebook and used the threaded discussion capability there. The advantage of that is that likely a sizable portion of the audience is already on Facebook and thus wouldn't have to upload profile information. This also would allow the relation(friend)ships created during the process to exist beyond the conference.

Choosing Facebook would also give us the possibility of using Facebook as a recruiting vehicle. Through the notification system, friends of attendees will see a message that they are attending the event.

You can do the same thing with Facebook for your organization, group, class, etc. Leverage it as a means of getting the word out, as a social networking layer, as a discussion tool. And, again, your audience is already there.

Of course, there's also some really interesting possibilities because of the ability to create applications. You can think of Facebook as providing a platform that handles authentication, profiles, networks, groups and notifications. If you think about it, there are a lot of applications that could leverage this core capability. I would expect that this is a place where we will see eLearning Startups - New Wave Coming.


Tony Hirst said...

Making a Facebook application is really easy if you use a third party tool - I've listed the ones I know about in this post on How to Build Your Own Facebook App.

Here are a few examples of pain free 'iframe canvas Facebook apps'

Ron Passfield said...

Thanks for this thorough discussion. I have spent a considerable time building Squidoo lenses and have now included FaceBook. I think the applications for education are endless as they are for Squidoo.
Ron Passfield
eLearning Resources

eLearning Goddess said...

I'm going to use Facebook in a teacher training course.. I hope it works!

Anonymous said...

That's a great idea.

Unknown said...

Facebook is now the best social networking platform. It has overtaken MySpace in growth. The good thing about Facebook is that people use their real identity and it is extremely easy to use.

A year back I tried to use Facebook as a tool in my classes and I documented my experience here.

Facebook EDU

I think Facebook holds some real potential for learning but it needs to mature a bit more.

It is very tempting to use it because people we want to contact are already there and actively using it but the question really is do students want our intrusion there?