Evaluating Facebook and Twitter for e-Learning


Facebook and Twitter. The two biggest social sites on the web at the moment (there’s also Google+, but that’s for the most part a wasteland analysts say). Chances are that you (and your spouse, mom, and perhaps dog) have an account on one or even both. But are they any good for anything else, besides getting in touch with friends, exchanging gossip and viewing holiday pictures, baby and pet snapshots, and celebrity status updates?

Specifically, are they any good for e-learning?

Sure, they aren’t designed specifically for that. But we humans are an inventive species (we invented things such as the electric light, the steam engine, antibiotics and eFront). When something created for some specific purpose has the hidden potential for another use, it doesn’t take us long to discover it.

YouTube for example, which started as a repository of mostly music videos, cat clips and “video blogs”, has turned into an excellent educational resource, teaching hundreds of millions of people lessons in cooking mousaka, playing the flute and everything in between. And we’re not just talking about self-made how-to videos (though it has its fair share of that), but also complete professional learning courses of high production value, which make money through advertising.

So how about Facebook, which also allows you to post videos but on top of that offers a lot of extra capabilities, including Group pages, wall posts, personal messages, and the ability to embed fully interactive applications (including the ability to monetize them)?

If your answer is that it might be able to play a supportive role to a fuller e-learning system, or maybe serve as a lightweight e-learning platform, but cannot really compete with a full blown LMS in flexibility and suitability to the task, then the current status of Facebook-enabled e-learning seems to agree with you.

There are apps here and there that enable this or that e-learning functionality (e.g. several “flash card” apps, some apps that mirror external e-learning content, etc) but nothing to write home about. Facebook itself downplays the breadth of Facebook apps, giving emphasis only to gaming (to the point that the central Facebook page one goes to download apps only mentions games). The relevant “educational apps” category features just three applications: a campaign organizer, a quiz app and a lightweight general learning app.

All in all, the situation regarding Facebook and learning looks most like a wasted opportunity. On the other hand, all kinds of educational institutions, schools and e-learning services use Facebook for its strong point as a social platform, for maintaining a social connection between students (and ex-students), advertising their courses, and the like.

There’s also the reverse course of action: integrating Facebook to your LMS as opposed to using it as one. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, you should know that eFront Pro comes with a Facebook plugin that enables you to have Facebook integrated within your courses in minutes.

It’s something that can also work for live courses in a hybrid learning scenario: Purdue University, for example, has been experimenting with an app that allows students to “backchannel” during class through Facebook and Twitter. This way comments, questions and suggestions become social.

Besides, as your learners are already using Facebook on their own, integrating your LMS with it is a nice way to keep them hooked to your information stream even when they are not using your e-learning service.

If the state of e-learning on Facebook is so underwhelming, you would intuitively not expect much better from the even more limited platform that is Twitter. And you would be more or less correct. There are a few popular uses of Twitter for learning stuff (mostly of the “word of the day” variety), but the 140 character limitation means it cannot really serve for anything more ambitious.

On the other hand, Twitter is good for getting quick access to breaking news, including news related to whatever you might teach. So, a good way to use it would be to setup your LMS to follow specific Twitter accounts that post interesting tips and links related to your courses. You can suggest interesting feeds to your students, or even setup your own account, tweeting or retweeting relevant material.

TL;DR (If it was “Too Long, Didn’t Read”): While YouTube turned out to be an important educational tool, either in itself or used alongside an LMS (as a video host), the care for the use of Facebook and Twitter in e-learning looks lost. That said, Facebook as an application hosting platform has the capability to serve as a complete e-learning environment in the future. Whether that opportunity will be taken, remains to be seen.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more e-learning tips and tricks, industry news and the occasional rant.

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