Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Using Facebook for course management, pt. 2


In my last post, I discussed some reasons why instructors would want to use Facebook to manage their course communication, as well as the potential drawbacks of this move. In this post, I will cover how to set up Facebook for this purpose, giving an overview of relevant apps that are necessary for making Facebook a courseware package.

Courseware basics

A good courseware system should provide at minimum 1) a central location for course communication such as announcements and 2) file sharing. A basic courseware system of this type can be had on Facebook by adding just a few apps.

Course apps
When Facebook introduced the Facebook Platform, they eliminated their own course application, allowing users to take over this feature. I have had a good experience with two course apps: Michael Staton et al.’s Courses and Colin Schmidt and Jonathan Chapman’s Courses

• Staton et al.’s Courses allows users to find a course at their school by the department and course number or create a course themselves. Users can then invite their classmates on Facebook to join the course. When logging into the app, users view a list of courses they have joined and can access tabs that let them browse for other courses, find their friends’ and classmates’ courses, rank their courses, and adjust the app’s settings. Individual course pages have links to study groups and display a course discussion board. Individual courses can also set up course chats using Vawkr (a third-party, Flash-based program which ominously announces that if you allow it to access your computer’s camera and microphone, you may be recorded).

• Schmidt and Chapman’s Courses app offers a similar set of features. Users can add new courses, but it doesn’t seem that the system has a very efficient way of browsing for courses that have already been created. It is possible to invite friends to your courses, as well as view your schedule. Individual course pages are designed like a Facebook user page, with panes for adding course notes, a course discussion board, and a course wall. While this app has more spaces for course communication collected on the course page, they all seem to be implementations of the same, discussion-board-type messaging system. Interestingly, there is also a pane entitled “Advice from Former Students”; however, it is not clear to me how helpful this feature would be. The app seems to be set up so that individual sections of the course have their own pages, and it is not clear if advice posted to one section would be aggregated on all sections.

Update: After futher use, it seems that while this app has useful tools for managing course information, it is very difficult to connect courses with other users. For that reason, it might be wise to use the Staton et al. app for now until the collaboration features of this app become better developed.

Currently the Staton et al. app has over 32,000 users while the Schmidt and Chapman app has only 7,000. While there would normally be an incentive to go with the app with the most users in order to take advantage of the greater network effects available to that app, in the case of course communication, instructors will not necessarily be interested in those effects and can just pick the app that has the features they want and invite students to join.

Document sharing apps
Scribd allows users to post and share documents through their Facebook accounts. Presumably the files can be in almost any format: the app’s homepage says it supports the .pdf, .doc, .ppt, .xls, and .txt formats as well “etc.” Users don’t have to create accounts with the system, and permissions can be set so that documents can be seen by everyone, friends, or only the user.

ThinkFree Docs is an app created by the online MS Office alternative, ThinkFree Office. The app requires users to create an account at Users can then upload documents (in the .pdf, .rtf, .dot, .pot, .pps, .xlt, .csv, .txt, .hwp formats) through Facebook, share documents, and view documents shared by other users.

There are some difficulties with this app. When I added a document, my name was not listed as the user name. Instead, the user was listed as “twha”; it seemed that this might be the default user name for documents added on Facebook. For this reason, it doesn’t seem that users can manage privacy settings: documents are either published or not. Despite these drawbacks, if instructors decide to require their students to use an online office suite and settle on ThinkFree, this app could prove useful.

• Finally, instructors can also use the Share Files app by FilesAnywhere. This app is the most robust of the three, and it requires users to create an account with the website. This account comes with 1GB of free storage and allows users to upload, download, and receive files through their Facebook profile. Users can then set up password-protected folders that they can use to transfer files with others in their class. If instructors want to do any complicated file sharing as part of a Facebook-based class, Share Files is probably the best option, for both volume and security reasons.

Additional apps
Depending on the emphasis of the course, instructors can also choose applications for blogging, videos, or practically any other new media format that is currently available.

Notify course participants
The final step in setting up a Facebook course is for instructors to notify their users of the apps they need to install to their Facebook accounts. Typically, instructors will want to add a common course app, a file-sharing app, and then any other apps that are necessary for the particular course.


Facebook is not yet as robust a courseware medium as Blackboard or Google Groups. It does, however, offer a simple solution that should be enough for most classroom applications. Since the Facebook Platform will continue to improve and add more apps, it is likely that Facebook courseware will become a much more robust, and widely adopted, solution in the future.


mpstaton said...

Thanks for the shout out. We actually merged with Jonathan and Colin.... Check it again, we got some great new stuff! - Michael Staton

Tammy Carr said...

Can anyone offer an update on this article? I would like to use a courses app as described but am having difficulty finding a functional one.