Are student-led Facebook groups open educational practices?

Coughlan, Tony and Perryman, Leigh-Anne (2015). Are student-led Facebook groups open educational practices? In: OER15, 14-15 Apr 2015, Cardiff.



The lure of Facebook for university students has grown in recent years, with many defecting from institution provided formal online tuition spaces to student-led, study-focused groups on the social media platform. Various studies (see Tess, 2013) have evaluated the impact of institution-led use of Facebook within the context of formal education. However, only recently have researchers begun to explore learner-driven Facebook use (e.g. Dron and Anderson, 2014; Gardner, 2014; Kent and Leaver, 2014). Our study contributes to this research and is grounded in two stimuli: (1) our previous research into self-educating, online forum and Facebook-based informal learning communities, conducted when developing the public open scholar role (Coughlan and Perryman, 2012); and (2) our background as academic managers with The Open University (OU) UK. The latter led to our becoming aware that many OU students use Facebook groups to support their formal studies. Observing this phenomenon led us to ask: are student-formed Facebook groups really open educational practices and can they facilitate learning and help achieve educational inclusion?

To answer these questions we closely analysed 10 student-led OU study-related Facebook groups, with a combined membership of approximately 2600. We first looked for a suitable existing framework for evaluating OEPs, but found none were ideally applicable to Facebook. We therefore adopted a hybrid evaluation strategy drawing on several frameworks as a basis for investigating:
· the level of openness in our case study groups;
· the degree to which the groups are educational;
· the practices that take place in the groups.

Our research shows that student-led Facebook groups can be a very valuable form of open educational practice, with university students making a significant contribution to their education through these groups. It is apparent that a combination of peer-provided guidance around academic practices and study skills, extensive emotional support, and discussion of module content in these groups can be a powerful complement to formal tuition. Following Gardner (2014) we suggest such groups feature the student-student interaction component of Anderson’s Interaction Equivalency Theorem (Anderson, 2003), sitting alongside top-down teaching and content.

Our research has the potential to shift the focus of the open education movement from researching students as co-producers of objects to exploring the ways in which students co-develop educational processes and are partners in the creation of new knowledge. We recommend that universities should consider the extent to which Facebook groups can complement the formal learning experience and that tutors should learn how to use Facebook proficiently and observe a variety of open groups over time in order to better understand the role of Facebook in students’ learning. We are hopeful our research will lead to a refinement of the term ‘open educational practice’ involving a shift of focus from the creation and top-down, educator-led ‘distribution’ of OER to the collaborative creation of new knowledge and an open culture of peer support.

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