A new study suggests that Facebook could help to keep students engaged while participating in massive open online courses, or MOOCs.
The study compared MOOC student use of course-related Facebook pages to the use of built-in message boards and forums, finding that more students made use of the Facebook pages. Students told researchers that their preference was to use the social media pages rather than the tools built-in to the courses.
Data for the study was collected from three courses offered on Coursera, a platform that hosts MOOCs, and from Facebook groups. Researchers made use of a Facebook application that offered them the ability to collect data on student activity in each group. Individual activities including likes, replies, and comments were then able to be analyzed on both sites.
Study findings suggest that despite Facebook groups having fewer members than the actual course sites, which caused researchers to believe the site was being used as a secondary form of communication for students, those who were a part of the Facebook group were found to be more engaged.
While less than 10% of Coursera users posted content, an average of 28% of Facebook users were active in the three course groups.
Saijing Zheng of Microsoft said previous research found the true challenge for MOOC developers and instructors to be how to keep students engaged and enrolled in the courses. In all, 90% of the thousands who enroll in MOOC courses end up dropping the course within the first two weeks. She suggests that social media could be a solution to that problem.
The researchers believe Facebook's interface to have a number of features that MOOC courses are not yet able to replicate. These include the ability to collaborate with other students and effective communication tools between students and peers, or students and teachers.
"Current open course platforms do not include collaborative features for students to work together, or good conversation channels between students and between students and teachers. Social media may provide another communication channel for the students," said Zheng, former doctoral student at Pennsylvania State University.
The study suggests one of the advantages of Facebook is the use of real names. Forums and message boards for individual courses can be written on using a fake name, which can decrease feelings of engagement.
"Real names give other students the idea that they are talking to a real person and that, perhaps, helps build a sense of community and they trust that type of environment more," said Zheng.
She went on to say that Facebook offers students several ways to get in contact with the course professor. They can like a post, reply to a post, or send a private message.
In addition, Facebook groups can continue to meet or talk to each other long after the course ends, while MOOC forums and message boards typically close at the end of a weeks-long course.
Posts and replies on Facebook are also better organized than they are on message boards, which can easily become lost in a long string of replies.