International Journal of Digital Society (IJDS), Volume 6, Issue 1, March 2015Investigating the Use of Facebook as a Dynamic Communication Toolfor Engineering UndergraduatesÁlvaro Palomo-Navarro, Séamus C. McLooneDepartment of Electronic Engineering,Maynooth University, Co. Kildare, Ireland.AbstractThe proliferation of social networks as part of theWeb 2.0 evolution has not passed unnoticed tomembers of the academic society, who haveattempted in various ways to include them into theirteaching methodology. One potential application istheir use as dynamic communication tools betweenlecturer and students. The key focus of this paper isto explore the use of Facebook as such a tool with aselection of undergraduate Engineering andEngineering Science classes, ranging in size from 20to 90 students. The use of Twitter is also brieflyconsidered, as an alternative, but initial resultsshowed that the use of this social network did notsucceed for a number of factors including the lack ofprivacy, lack of familiarity by the students, and thelimitations of the Twitter posts. On the other hand,the use of Facebook was positively adopted by thestudents, due to factors such as increased privacy ofpersonal information, flexibility and familiarity.Both student and lecturer feedback on the use ofboth social networks is presented within.1. IntroductionOver the last ten years the academic world, likeevery other part of our day-to-day life, has beenprogressively influenced by the evolution of theInternet Technologies (IT). In particular, theevolution from the first version of the Internet, orWeb 1.0, to its second version, or Web 2.0, in themid 2000's has represented an important milestone inthe IT world. Web 2.0 is the term adopted for thenew generation of IT tools which break with theinitial static nature of most Internet websites. Thesetools offer the users a wide range of dynamic andpersonal services which allow the users tocollaborate and interact with each other. Tools suchas wikis, blogs, rich site summary (RSS) feeds,social networks and video sharing websites are allexamples of Web 2.0 tools [1].Traditionally, the education community hasfollowed the evolution of the IT tools from a safedistance. Currently, most third level educationinstitutions have implemented Virtual LearningEnvironments (VLE), also ambiguously calledLearning Management Systems (LMS), in theirCopyright 2015, Infonomics Societystructure. VLEs have been widely used by someinstitutions for almost twenty years, however, theircomplete spread has been related to the proliferationof online and distance education programmes.According to Oxford University Press, a VirtualLearning Environment, or VLE, can be defined as "asystem for delivering learning materials to studentsvia the web". Generally, these systems includeassessment, student tracking, collaboration, fileupload and communication tools. Of all benefits, theremote access to all course material is probably themost important for students, in particular for onlineor off-site studies. Currently there is a wide varietyof VLEs used by third level institutions, withMoodle [2] and Blackboard [3] being the two mainVLEs used in Ireland.Despite the variety of tools offered by VLEs,within the education community, they remainconsiderably limited in terms of potential for socialinteraction, collaboration and novel forms ofinformation presentation [4]. The use of Web 2.0tools can support VLEs adding innovative teachingmethods. Depending on the type of learningoutcome, tools for online collaboration or wikis,blogs, quizzes, video sharing, mind mapping,presentations, surveys, or social networks can beemployed [4-5].Research interest has been focused in recentyears on finding the correct balance between thirdlevel education and Web 2.0 tools [4]. Someresearchers promote the full implementation of thesetools in the education panorama [4], whereas othersare cautious about the level of implementation andpromote their progressive inclusion in academicprogrammes [6-7]. In particular, the use of socialnetworks in education has generated a large interestdue to their level of use in groups of the society suchas teenagers and young adults [8-11]. What seemsclear is that, now that the IT barrier in third leveleducation has been broken with the adoption ofVLEs, it is the turn of the Web 2.0 tools.In our particular experience using Moodle withthe undergraduate students of a Bachelor ofEngineering (BE) degree, some limitations havebecome noticeable. To our students, Moodle isperceived as a file repository where they can find allthe course material and they can submit theirdifferent continuous assessment documents. Other1002

International Journal of Digital Society (IJDS), Volume 6, Issue 1, March 2015tools such as communication forums are usuallyignored, leading to a poor communication betweenlecturer and students through this platform. This poorcommunication generally leads to situations such asimportant announcements made by the lecturer beingmissed by the students. Social networks appear as apossibility to improve the communication betweenlecturer and students.In a world where smartphones and tablets aremore and more affordable for all members of society,and teenagers are considered 'digital native',education not only has to be digital, it also has to bemobile [12]. For this reason, a large number ofresearch projects have focused on the use ofFacebook and Twitter in education with differentapproaches and applications. For example, Twitterhas been applied from language learning [13] toalumni relations [14]. On the other hand, mostpublications about using Facebook in academia havefocused more on potential uses and perception ofstudents and teachers, rather than on specificapplications [7, 11, 15]. The industry has even goneone step further developing Schoology, a VLE withthe same dynamic communication capabilities that asocial network such as Facebook offers [11, 16]. Theonly drawback with Schoology is that in order to useit, it has to be implemented at an institutional level,like any other VLE. Therefore it is not suitable toeducators in institutions already using a differentVLE, such as Moodle and Blackboard.In this paper, we investigate the use of Facebookas a communication mechanism with undergraduateBE students. The objective is to support the use ofMoodle with a dynamic and familiar communicationtool which can be accessed from any computer,tablet or smartphone. Initial experiments included theuse of Twitter due to its joint capabilities withMoodle. However, results showed fundamentallimitations with its acceptance and use and,therefore, it was discontinued after the initial pilotinvestigation. Remaining trials concentrated solelyon the use of Facebook. It is worth stating that alltrials were optional and it was not mandatory for thestudents to be involved.The remainder of this paper is structured asfollows. The next section presents a brief overviewof the main characteristics of Twitter and Facebook.Sections 3 and 4 outline the pilot implementation ofthese respective social networks in severalundergraduate engineering modules. Here, class sizesare approximately 20 to 25 students. The results andfeedback from this study are also given. Section 5then presents a further implementation of Facebookin an engineering science module with a class size ofapproximately 90 students. Section 6 summaries thethoughts and observations of the lecturers involved.The paper ends with some conclusions andsuggestions for future work in Section 7.Copyright 2015, Infonomics Society2. Social networks: Twitter and FacebookSocial networks are probably one of the biggestexamples of the Web 2.0 revolution. Originallydesigned to keep contact with other people and shareinformation such as messages and media, socialnetworks have evolved to be an important factor inhow people communicate nowadays. They have evenspecialised in different parts of life, such asprofessional life (LinkedIn), picture sharing(Instagram, Flickr), video sharing (Youtube, Vimeo),audio sharing (Audioboo), micro-blogging (Twitter),or visual bookmarks (Pinterest).Recent studies have shown that adults betweenthat ages of 18 and 29 years, and in particular collegestudents, represent the largest user group of socialnetworks [9-11, 17]. For this demographic group,and for all adults in general, Facebook remains as thepredominant social network. In addition, a moredetailed analysis of the Facebook usage habits ofcollege students has shown how 32% of them canspend over four hours a day online using this socialnetwork [8]. Among the different tools offered byFacebook, chats and messages top the usage.Facebook was initially created as a way to keepcontact with other Facebook users, known as friends.After creating a profile, Facebook users can addother Facebook users to their friends list and sharetheir personal information. Facebook offers theirusers tools such as messaging, chats, groups, games,photo and video sharing, personal page creation, andevents organisation.Twitter is a micro-blogging social networkwhere users can send and receive short publicmessages called 'tweets'. These tweets are limited to140 characters and can include links to blogs, webpages, images, videos and any other online material.Twitter users can ‘follow’ other users in order to beup to date with their tweets. In addition, users canclassify their tweets using 'hashtags'. These arekeywords preceded by the symbol '#' which allowother users to find tweets related to topics underinterest (e.g. #education). All tweets with a commonhashtag form what is known as a 'thread'. In addition,reference can be made to other Twitter users byadding their user name preceded by the symbol '@'in a tweet (e.g. @jbloggs). Finally, direct privatemessaging between two Twitter users is alsopossible.3. Twitter as a communication toolThe use of Twitter as a complementary dynamiccommunication tool for Moodle was initiallyinvestigated due to its joint capabilities, i.e. Moodleallows the addition of a Twitter thread in a module’spage. This provides a common view of both tools asit can be seen in Figure 1. The Twitter thread can beplaced in any of the two side option bars of the1003

International Journal of Digital Society (IJDS), Volume 6, Issue 1, March 2015Moodle page. In this example, the Twitter threadcorresponds to the hashtag #2013ee412.improper use. In relation to privacy, it is worthnoting that although all students need to have aTwitter account to make use of this set-up, it is notnecessary for the students and lecturer to follow eachother. This helps separate the education and personalside of the social network for the students. However,the lecturer unfortunately does not have any controlover the tweets written by the students, or any otherperson with a Twitter account, using one of thechosen hashtags. Hence, it is effectively only theperson who wrote the tweet who can delete it. Thisleaves the lecturer somewhat defenceless againstimproper use of the threads, such as offensivemessages, for example.3.2. Results and analysisFigure 1. Example of Twitter thread added to theMoodle page of the EE412 moduleThis common implementation of Twitter andMoodle was used simultaneously in three differentmodules from three different years of the BEprogramme over one academic semester in 2013.3.1. ImplementationFirstly, a Twitter account is created with asuitable profile for the module’s lecturer. Then aunique hashtag for each communication thread needsto be selected. Here, the hashtags #2013ee202,#2013ee306 and #2013ee412 were used with thestudents of the modules EE202, EE306 and EE412respectively.Finally, the Twitter thread was included as anadd-on to each module’s associated Moodle page.Each of these add-ons displays any messages sent inTwitter using the specified hashtag. Note that once astudent logs into Twitter, they can type tweets usingthe text box at the bottom of the application.Although optional, this latter step is recommended inorder to make use of the common implementationcapabilities offered by Moodle.This initiative was presented to the three groupsof students in their first lecture, along with a smalllive demonstration of its use. The students wereinvited to use the Twitter thread of each module toexpress any idea or question in relation to themodule. Other ideas such as answering questionsfrom other peers (rather than waiting for the lecturerto give the answer) and further discussion of contentcovered in class were presented. From the lecturerpoint of view, all announcements made to thestudents over the semester were simultaneouslyposted using the Moodle’s discussion forum (ornoticeboard) and the respective Twitter thread.Finally, it is important to briefly discuss theobvious aspects of privacy and guarding againstCopyright 2015, Infonomics SocietyOverall, the Twitter experiment did not producethe results initially expected. Over the semester onlyfour tweets were posted by the students: 1 from theEE202 module students and 3 from the EE306module students. No tweets were posted from thestudents of the module EE412. Two of the tweetscontained questions related to the module, whereasthe other two were just a brief positive comment onone class, and a test tweet. Two examples of Twitterposts made by one EE202 and one EE306 studentswere:"#2013ee202 by monitoring system in 3 rooms do youmean 3 transmitters and 1 receiver or 1 transmitter and3 receivers?""Is the lab on tomorrow? #2013ee306."The same amount of posts was made during thesame semester in the Moodle forums of the threemodules. Two examples of Moodle posts made bytwo EE412 students were:"In developing the complex baseband equivalent modelof a modulated signal what is the significance of theHilbert transform? I know it’s related to the filter toremove the negative frequency sideband but I don'tquite understand the maths involved (specifically itsinverse Fourier transform). Can you go over this brieflyat the next class?""Hi teacher, I just want to ask how to upload ourassignment1 to you? And the link of Turnitin studenttraining has many words, so which part should weread? Thank you very much!"The first noticeable difference when comparingboth types of messages is the length. Moodle postsare clearly longer and contain more detail thanTwitter posts. This is due to the micro-bloggingnature of Twitter, which limits the posts to amaximum of 140 characters. This limitation affects1004

International Journal of Digital Society (IJDS), Volume 6, Issue 1, March 2015the extension and the amount of detail expressed inone single tweet.A survey was carried out at the end of thesemester with the three groups of students in order toascertain their opinion on the Twitter initiative. Thesurvey also included questions regarding the possibleuse of Facebook as an alternative to Twitter. Of thestudents surveyed, approximately 58% of them had aTwitter account. Interestingly, 100% reported havinga Facebook account. All of them agreed or stronglyagreed that the purpose of using Twitter in themodule had been clearly explained on the first day ofclass. Finally, 68.5% of them saw value in enhancingMoodle using social networks, whereas 5.25% didnot see value in it, and 26.25% were impartial.Table 1. Student willingness to communicatewith a lecturer over social networksStrongly comfortableComfortableNeither comfortable noruncomfortableUncomfortableStrongly 33%33.33%16.67%0%33.33%16.67%In addition, students were asked howcomfortable they would feel communicating with thelecturer using the respective Twitter and Facebooksocial networks. The results are presented in Table 1.It is clear from this table that the students felt thatFacebook offered a better communications linkbetween lecturer and students in comparison withTwitter.Students were also given the opportunity toprovide comments in the form of open questions.The main comments obtained included:"Most of the questions are maths based, hard to type.""I think that most students prefer Facebook to Twitter.""It is a good idea, I just don't have a Twitter account.Also, perhaps privacy has an influence. Everyone onTwitter can see a posted question that otherwise wouldremain private between the student and lecturer.""Make it more private - i.e. don't let people's contactssee the posts, just the class itself. I do not have aTwitter account - Facebook is more popular and peopleare always on it so it's easy to keep up with. Instead ofjust using it for problems/questions, upload some useful(maybe fun) information about the module to drawattention. Although a good idea, I do not think studentswill want to mix their social life with college and thismay be hard to change"Two main conclusions can be clearly ascertainedfrom the above survey results. Firstly, there is a clearCopyright 2015, Infonomics Societypreference among the student body for Facebookover Twitter and, secondly, the students aresomewhat concerned about the privacy of their posts.The first conclusion aligns with current studiesthat place Facebook as the most popular socialnetwork for adults between 18 and 29 years old [17].In addition, the same survey shows that only 29% ofadults using Facebook use Twitter, the lowestpercentage in comparison with other social networkssuch as Instagram, LinkedIn or Pinterest.The concern about privacy of tweets is foundedfrom the fact that they are visible to the entireInternet. Twitter micro-blogging nature means thatall tweets, unless made private, can be seen by notonly all Twitter users, but by any person surfing theInternet without a Twitter account. This can causediscomfort to students which feel that other Twitterusers, or just Internet users, might be able to see theirtweets in relation to their academic life.As a result of this pilot study, it was decided toinvestigate the use of Facebook as an alternativedynamic communication tool, as outlined in the nextsection.4. Facebook as a communication tool - ISimilar to the Twitter experiment, the use ofFacebook with a group of undergraduate BE studentswas piloted during the following academic semester.It is worth noting that this group were not part of theprevious Twitter experiment.4.1. ImplementationFacebook offers the possibility to its users ofcreating ‘groups’. The members of a group can shareinformation without this being visible to otherFacebook users, even if these users are friends of amember of the group. Group members can shareposts with no character limitation, images, videos,poll questions, or any type of file.For this experiment, a Facebook group named"EE202 2014" was created by the lecturer. The useof this group offered two main advantages, withrespect to the previous Twitter implementation, interms of privacy. Firstly, the lecturer was able to actas group administrator choosing what otherFacebook users could join the group, in this case thestudents of the module that the group was createdfor. Secondly, it allowed the distinction betweenacademic life and personal life using one singleFacebook account. This is possible due to the factthat group members do not need to be mutual friendsin Facebook. This was a great advantage since bothlecturer and student did not have access to eachothers Facebook personal information or post. Theinformation shared in the group was only visible tothe group members.1005

International Journal of Digital Society (IJDS), Volume 6, Issue 1, March 2015Another advantage with respect to the previousTwitter experience was the control of the lecturerover improper or irresponsible use of the group.Since the lecturer acts as group administrator, thisgives him/her privileges such as removing andblocking users or deleting posts. These privileges canbe crucial in order to avoid undesirable use of thechat and to apply disciplinary measures to users whodo not respect the rules established.Figure 2 shows a snapshot taken from theEE202 2014 Facebook group. In it, a samplequestion posted by a student together with thecomments made by other group members is shown.members had seen a post. In the example of Figure 2,it can be observed how the publication at thatmoment had been seen by 16 members. To knowwhat members in particular, a user just has to hoverthe mouse over the link.Comparing the number of posts made in theFacebook group and Moodle's discussion forum, thestudents clearly showed a preference for the first one.Over the length of the semester, no student made useof Moodle's discussion forum. On the other hand,over the same period of time several students use theFacebook group to pose questions, comment onlecturer's posts and 'like' posts. Figure 2 and Figure 3show two examples of questions posted by onestudent and the lecturer respectively. In both casesthe names of the students and their profile picturesare blurred for reasons of confidentiality.Figure 2. Snapshot of the Facebook groupEE202 2014The Facebook group was presented to thestudents on the first day of class as a dynamiccommunication tool oriented to empower theirlearning. As in the case of Twitter, allannouncements made to the students throughout thesemester were simultaneously posted using theMoodle’s discussion forum and the Facebook group.4.2. Results analysisThe Facebook group initiative was acceptedquite early by the students. One week after it waspresented to the students, all of them (24 in this case)had joined the Facebook group. This information ispresented on the right hand side of the Facebookpage, where a link to the full list of members and thetotal number of group members is shown.A particular Facebook feature which provedvery useful was the possibility to see how manyCopyright 2015, Infonomics SocietyFigure 3. Example of question posted by thelecturer with different students answersOnce again, a survey was carried out at the endof the academic semester in order to obtain thestudents’ feedback in relation to the use of Facebookas a dynamic communication support tool forMoodle. In the survey, 100% of the students agreedor strongly agreed that the use of the Facebook grouphad added value to the communication betweenlecturer and students. Moreover, 100% would like tosee the same initiative implemented in their othermodules throughout the degree programme. Only17% of the students considered that communicatingwith a lecturer using Facebook could be invasive ontheir personal life.1006

International Journal of Digital Society (IJDS), Volume 6, Issue 1, March 2015When comparing Moodle and Facebook, 67% ofthe students answered that they would first readsomething posted on Facebook rather than onMoodle. In addition, 83% of them felt that theywould more likely post a question on Facebook thanon Moodle. In addition, one student added thefollowing comment to the survey:"It is an interesting idea as students are much morelikely to ask a question on Facebook purely out ofconvenience. I have very rarely seen a student post aquestion on Moodle in any of the modules I'vetaken."engaged with the Facebook group on a regular basis.However, an analysis of the Moodle activity logsshows that only 46 students actively engaged withMoodle’s discussion forum (mainly for viewingpurposes) and that most of these were the same asthe members of the Facebook group. In other words,there was a section of the class that did not engagewith either the Facebook group or the Moodle forum.This reflected the typical class attendance for themodule, which was estimated to be approximately50-60% attendance.5. Facebook as a communication tool - IIThis section repeats the experiment carried out inSection 4, but for a larger cohort of students and aslightly broader range of disciplines. In this case themodule was a first year Engineering based modulecovering an introduction to systems and control. Forthe 2015 academic year, this module contained 89students from the various disciplines of ElectronicEngineering, Engineering Science, ComputerScience and Software Engineering, Physics withAstrophysics, Multimedia, Mobile and WebDevelopment, and Science Honours. The first threedisciplines account for 90% of the student body.5.1. ImplementationFor this experiment, a Facebook group named"EE114-EE123-2015" was created by the lecturer.Once again, the key purpose of this experiment wasto compare the use of Facebook with that ofMoodle’s discussion forum from an interactivecommunications viewpoint. Students were given theoption of joining the Facebook group and/or to usethe Moodle forum. This decision was taken to allowfor any students who did not have a Facebookaccount and did not wish to create one. All studentswere informed that all information communicated bythe lecturer on either of these facilities would beinstantly replicated on the other.Figure 4 shows a snapshot taken from theEE114-EE123-2015 Facebook group. In it, studentsare requested by the lecturer to form teams for anupcoming project. A selection of student replies isalso shown. For comparison purposes, the equivalentcontent generated with the module’s Moodle’sdiscussion forum is presented in Figure 5. Onceagain, the student replies are also shown. In bothfigures, student images and names are blurred forreasons of confidentiality.Although the class consisted of 89 students, only62 members joined the Facebook group (whichincluded 3 members of staff). Furthermore, of thesemembers, approximately 50 of these actuallyCopyright 2015, Infonomics SocietyFigure 4. Snapshot of the Facebook groupEE114-EE123-2015It is worth noting the following in relation toFigures 4 and 5. While the information regardingteam selection was posted on both platforms at thesame time, the student response time was ofparticular interest. As expected, more studentsresponded through Facebook in comparison withusing the Moodle forum. However, the majority ofthose who responded through Facebook did sorelatively immediately within hours, whereas theearliest post on Moodle was almost a full day later.1007

International Journal of Digital Society (IJDS), Volume 6, Issue 1, March 2015benefits include speed of delivery, ease of access,and convenience. No student using the Facebookgroup reported negatively to its use.A mixed set of comments were received inrelation to the use of the Moodle discussion forum.However, on closer inspection it is quite apparentthat a few of the students mistook Moodle’sdiscussion forum for simply the Moodle VLE itself.For example, two of the comments received inrelation to the advantages of using the Moodle forumwere:"The ability to attach notes and lectures.""Easy to get access to online notes and tutorialquestions."Figure 5. Snapshot of the Moodle forum for theEE114 / EE123 module5.2. Results analysisOnce again, a survey was conducted to gatherthe student feedback. A low number of studentresponses (26 out of 89) were returned but thefeedback obtained was nevertheless interesting anduseful.Firstly, of the 26 responses, 24 owned asmartphone and/or tablet and 22 of these had aFacebook account. Akin to previous results and tothe activity noted, most students reported a higherengagement with the Facebook group then with theMoodlediscussionforum.Themajorityrecommended the use of a Facebook group in theirother modules and felt that such a group did notinvade on their personal lives.Some of the more interesting and positivecomments received, in relation to the use of theFacebook group, included:"Notifications of updates were delivered direct to aplatform that I use far more regularly thanemail/Moodle.""Quick, easier to access than Moodle. Moreconvenient.""More likely to check it more often.""Faster access to notices.""If you wanted to ask a question, it’s handier.”"Got important updates with a more reliablenotification system."These comments are not surprising and reflectthe key benefits of using Facebook as a dynamiccommunication tool to supplement Moodle. TheseCopyright 2015, Infonomics SocietyClearly, these comments related to the benefit ofthe Moodle VLE as a repository for notes, tutorialsheets, etc. However, they do not reflect any suchbenefits in relation to Moodle’s discussion forum (nosuch material was ever delivered through the forumin this module). In general, and allowing for theabove misunderstanding, no students actuallyreported a positive aspect to using the Moodle’sdiscussion forum. One student commented:"Personally I didn’t find much benefit to having aMoodle forum."Interestingly, the same student was a student who didnot have a Facebook account therefore could onlyaccess notifications through Moodle’s discussionforum.6. Discussion of resultsWe, the authors, are the lecturers in question ofthe modules mentioned throughout this paper. Ourresearch was motivated by the fact that VLE forumsseem to be of very little use when a dynamiccommunication with students is required. Based onthe experience of other colleagues in our department,participation from students is only achieved if theuse of the forums is made mandatory in some formor another. For example, one staff member assigns5% of the module grade to satisfactory interactionwith the module’s forum on Moodle.In addition, and akin to the opinion of otherresearchers, we believe that classic VLEs are notaligned with some key aspects of the current ITtechnology and the society.Following the implementation of Twitter andFacebook communication channels with ourstudents, and analysing the results obtained, we feelthat only Facebook groups appear as a strongpotential candidate to create a dynamiccommunication link with the students.1008

International Journal of Digital Society (IJDS), Volume 6, Issue 1, March 2015In alignment with the comments obtained fromthe students, we see more limitations than benefitswith using Twitter as a communication tool. Inparticular, we find that the two biggest challengesfacing the use of Twitter is (i) the necessity toconvert the students into Twitter when they arealready hig

college students has shown how 32% of them can spend over four hours a day online using this social network [8]. Among the different tools offered by Facebook, chats and messages top the usage. Facebook was initially created as a way to keep contact with other Facebook users, known as friends.