Not Just a Social Network: New Study Shows Facebook Can Be a Tool for Learning, Too

Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on August 24, 2015 at 10:32 am
Not Just a Social Network: New Study Shows Facebook Can Be a Tool for Learning, Too

When it comes to Facebook, most colleges and universities are using it as a way to share information and build social relationships among students. But new research out of Michigan State University shows that the social network can be used as a tool in the classroom, too.

Social media has changed the way we communicate on a global scale, and it’s now starting to have an impact on higher education.

Colleges and universities across the world use Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to communicate with students about social matters. But a new study out of Michigan State University shows it can also be an effective way to learn, when layered on top of a formal classroom setting.

“Many people think Facebook at best is a waste of time and at worst is harmful to student learning,” says Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor in the department of counseling, educational psychology and special education at Michigan State university and co- author of the study, titled “Is Facebook The Next Frontier For Online Learning?” The study argues that colleges “should look more closely at some of these platforms.”

Since the launch of Facebook back in 2004, many studies have been conducted on the social network, focusing on its impact on everything from relationships to finding a job. Researchers understand how people are using social media in their personal lives. And in the classroom setting, most Facebook use is informal, whether it’s students communicating with other students or professors using it as a way to get the word out about upcoming tests, homework assignments and other deadlines.

Facebook as a tool for sophisticated debate

Michigan State researchers set out to see just what role Facebook might play in the future of learning, and not just from a social perspective. Students from 16 to 25 were invited to participate in voluntary Facebook discussion via an app called Hot Dish.  Participants who posted content or responses to content within the app were coded for argumentation skills. The discussion was focused on the topics of climate change and global warming. The reason behind choosing those two issues? Because the U.S. lags behind other countries in terms of science and math. One way to get students better educated in science is to get them to debate. Greenhow said they wanted students to debate a complicated issue that would force them to act like scientists, which requires critical thinking.  What’s more, Greenhow said, getting an authentic debate to break out in a classroom setting is difficult because of the limited time. Researchers were curious to see if it was easier online.

Greenhow was also interested to see whether or not the students would even debate – and, if they did, if it would be a high quality argument that stayed on topic, or one that quickly reverts to a unproductive fight. As it turns out, the result was different than what she feared. “When kids’ voluntary signed up to the Facebook app to debate about the environment and climate change, they had constructive arguments, and those arguments were on topic and high quality,” said Greenhow.  She noted that two sophisticated debate moves few can master – building consensus through conflict and synthesizing all the disagreements – were achieved through the Facebook debate. According to Greenhow, the study supports the notion that sophisticated learning can and does occur within an information leaning environment -particularly ones that are powered by social media.

The future of social media in the classroom

So – what does this study mean for the future of social media as a learning tool? According to Greenhow, it could mean social media applications like Facebook will eventually move beyond their function as a social tool. Students, she says, will undoubtedly see social media used in the classroom for community building, but they should also expect to see it employed more to connect students to the areas they are studying more globally. “There’s real opportunity to connect the classroom out to the larger world,” says Greenhow. “We often feel like what we do in school is just teach a canned learning experience. When you use social media, you can connect out to the larger public.”

That could mean a debate that includes people around the world, driven by a teacher and 25 students in a college classroom, or it could mean using Twitter to connect with an author of a book students are currently reading. How social media can be used to teach is in its infancy, but Greenhow agrees that more research needs to be done. Not to mention, there needs to be more trailblazing on the part of professors in higher education. “One of the reasons teachers are hesitant to take it up as a tool is there is so much unknown,” says Greenhow. “We need more teachers on the cutting edge to help us understand what benefit these tools might have.”

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo is a freelance journalist hailing out of Long Island, New York. She has also written for,,,, Business Insider, Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

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