December 2011


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    What’s the best, most effective way to spend the pupil premium? A report for charity the Sutton Trust has produced some surprising findings. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • facefacts
    Social networking sites are routinely banned in many classrooms but one college has found they can open up new channels for engagement and be a powerful aid to learning. Millie Watts explains. More
  • Handle with care
    Department heads and other middle tier staff are leaders as well as teachers but many staff in these positions say they struggle to adapt to a dual role. Andrea Berkeley explores ways to help them assume the mantle of leadership. More
  • Feeling lost for words?
    Mike Venables looks at the devices a nd tricks that make an effective and powerful communicator, drawing on the age-o ld traditions of rhetoric and acting. More
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Social networking sites are routinely banned in many classrooms but one college has found they can open up new channels for engagement and be a powerful aid to learning. Millie Watts explains.


Now in my second year of using the social networking site Facebook in the classroom, I have become used to the mixed reaction it prompts. On one hand, I’ve heard it described as the “work of the devil”; on the other I’m now being asked to help other teachers set up their own pages and groups across our full range of subjects.

Without doubt, Facebook is a powerful tool, offering opportunities for engagement far beyond that of a traditional virtual learning environment (VLE). Yet, used without careful consideration, it may pose a significant risk to students and to staff.

My own interest was sparked by my experience of studying with the Open University. Each tutor group had its own Facebook group for students and tutors where we could share resources and support each other’s learning.

Without that social element to study support, the demands of completing the course and full-time teaching would have been too high. By taking part in those groups, and through the OU VLE, I experienced learning as an adult that felt inclusive, collaborative and supportive – something that I wanted to bring to my own classroom.

At Richard Huish College, the first Facebook page we launched was Richuish Geography as a trial in September 2010 for our AS and A level students. It was primarily a way to centralise online resources, disseminate articles and homework reminders, keep students informed about upcoming events and current affairs, and offer an easy forum for students to query topics. All three department staff had input and editing rights (what Facebook terms ‘admin rights’) so all three of us could add, edit or delete posts.

Protecting staff

Before its launch, I ran a series of basic training sessions and discussion groups with interested staff on some of the key issues around web 2.0 technologies, and drew up a code of conduct for social networking which set out safe working guidelines for a wide range of sites, not just Facebook.

One of the key concerns throughout was protecting staff. It is actually difficult to trace individual profiles of people from the page anyway. But ‘friending’ people – establishing a link with them which means you can view each other’s pages – is also prohibited under our code of conduct. All staff were given a period of amnesty to ensure their own profiles conformed to the new code.

One of the main advantages of using Facebook for subject teaching is that staff can interact in real time with students. They can discuss issues raised in class but also challenge any behaviours or opinions that could be misinterpreted.

When we delete inappropriate comments, it is followed up with a one- to-one chat with the students concerned. In this way, it is helping to develop good digital citizenship.

Posting news stories

No online platform will engage students properly unless you bring it into the classroom setting. We first did this by referring in class to news articles posted on the page – for example recent eruptions, climate change summits or other current affairs linked to the geography syllabus.

We then asked students to discuss other news stories they had read and to post them during class, to encourage them to share interesting reading material with their peers.

Some homework assignments have been to vote in polls or to research one particular country and its development. Unfortunately, the ‘coolness factor’ comes into play with students, and some will never be comfortable openly commenting where their friends can see what they say.

However, there is an interesting paradox with student interaction: students who are often the most reserved in class are often the ones that engage most with social media. From an epistemological point of view this is an interesting trend and may be one way of engaging the quieter students and offering them a platform to share their knowledge.

Real-time exam revision

Around exam time, social media has become a mechanism for peer support and a fantastic extension to the classroom and workshops that was unexpected.

Over a set period of two hours the night before the exam, I agreed to be online to answer queries and hopefully steady the nerves of some of our students. With nearly 100 per cent attendance online during the session the statistics speak for themselves. It demonstrates the huge potential of Facebook as a tool to engage and reach students at crucial points throughout their studies.

Live micro-blogging revision sessions are also held through the free web app CoverItLive. Students do not need an account or have to use their name, and all sessions can be replayed at any time. The students go to the blog page ( to take part. Students are able to post comments but these are moderated by staff before they appear on the site.

There is potential here for interested teachers to harness the best of 2.0 technology, allow shy students to ask questions anonymously and run live, free workshops accessible from any computer or smart phone with a 3G connection.

Seamless integration

Facebook has numerous partnerships with other 2.0 service providers, such as YouTube and Blogger. We have department accounts for both and any additions the team makes to either are automatically synced to the Facebook page. Use of the SlideShare and Scribd document apps means that our PowerPoints and resources can be embedded into the Facebook page.

In addition, our Microsoft partnership means all our students can use the latest Word, Excel and PowerPoint through the page for free, anywhere in the world, creating a one-stop shop for all course resources. The result is a seamless integration for staff and students of the full spectrum of opportunities that these sites offer.

I am now co-ordinating a trial with 13 other subject pages, and tutor groups through Facebook, and a Huish blog project with interested staff. The key to keeping a project like this working is staff engagement, including updating staff about the changes Facebook make on a regular basis; and student education – for which I produced a short film, highlighting the dangers, and an optional student group to encourage good digital citizenship.

This year’s survey of British internet habits from the Office for National Statistics shows that 91 per cent of all 16 to 24-year-old Brits use Facebook. No VLE can boast that level of engagement. As they say, if you can’t beat them…

  • Millie Watts is a teacher of geography and geology at Richard Huish Sixth Form College in Taunton.

What’s to like…?

I see the key benefits to my teaching practice as:

  • Speed and ease. It takes under a minute for me to send a link to students on my page. Visual media makes lessons more engaging and relevant as stories can be personalised to students by using comments from staff and pictures can be automatically added to make it v visually appealing. I’ve found this easier and quicker to achieve through Facebook than a virtual learning environment.
  • Facebook connectivity. Most articles and websites have the ‘share’ function, whereby I can post articles I find to my Facebook page without leaving the site I am reading.
  • Community interaction: 126 of our 140 students who were a ‘fan’ of the page last year have stayed. They interact with our current students, share impressions of news stories, pass on links from university and will answer questions about their current careers or universities. It is an invaluable link for our current students.