Facebooking Your Faculty: To be or not to be?

Few emerging technologies have taken by storm the world as much as Facebook has. Although a plummeting share price has theoretically halved Mark Zuckerberg’s fortune (it has come down to $18.75 from its $38 IPO in May and experts say there is further room for the slide) (1) there seems to be no effect whatsoever of this slide on the overall usage and popularity of the site.

First conceived as Facemash (launched October 28, 2003) and then a more inclusive “TheFacebook” (January, 2004), what sets Facebook apart from its competition (MySpace, Friendster, Orkut, etc.) right from the beginning was that it had strong academic connotations. For quite a while, people could sign up for Facebook only if they had an email on a .edu domain, which meant that only students or faculty members could become Facebook users. However, this changed only on September 26, 2006 when anyone aged above 13 years, with a valid email could sign up for it. And now, with close to a billion accounts Facebook is a universal name. An infancy spend being reared up in the Dorm-Rooms of the hallowed Harvard University has not gone in waste as even today it retains an element of academic flavor.


Simply searching for “Facebook” on PubMed returns 329 hits today:


Quite a few academics are making hay off the shining sun of the social media revolution (and to be entirely honest, I am one of them!).

In this scenario, several educational authorities have put a blanket ban on teachers friending their students. Places like New York City or Missouri have put such bans into effect as well. This begets the question: what is the scenario with friending students (or faculty members) on Facebook in an academic setting?

Although most universities (not always in India, though) have webpages for faculty members, they are, however, no match for the “Facebook experience”. The interactive nature of Facebook gives it a major advantage over university homepages. Though the latter maybe housed on academic domains (like .ac.in for India or .edu in most countries), and thus come with a measure of reliability associated with it, the truth remains that they are almost always static pages where there is no flow of information between the student and the faculty. Sometimes, these pages are “nannied” by university laws that looks to maintain a prim and proper public image, thus cutting down on the element of approachability and often becomes a hurdle in proper exchange of dialogue between the mentor and the mentee.

This interactive feature comes with a potential hazard as well. When faculty or students interact within the structured environment of an academic setting, they are more likely to follow accepted norms of behavior and conduct. In online settings, the boundaries blur to a certain extent. Studies have shown that students often do not adhere to fitness to practice guidelines to their activities online(2) and this might lead to problems in socio-professional interactions.

The biggest criticism leveled against heavy users of social media is that in their usage of the online platform, they start to forget the boundaries that normally define their private and professional lives. Conventionally, it has always been considered the right thing to not let the elements of one cross over into the other. But in today’s Facebook-world, where “friends” include anyone and everyone – from one’s faculty/supervisor to their immediate family – all posting and reposting texts, images and videos with gay abandon, these rules are getting severely tested.

A small survey conducted by the School of Medicine at the University of Liverpool threw up rather alarming results.(3) Half of the sampled population admitted to have embarrassing photos of themselves while about 54% admitted to have observed images of colleagues behaving in an unprofessional manner. The question is, in India, where social media policies are lax and often non-existent, how does a faculty member respond to such wanton behaviors by errant students? Do they report the student for unprofessional behavior and risk ruining a career (and in the same step lose their credibility in the student community)? Or do they politely ask the student to modify their behavior (and risk getting rebuffed by a hell-may-care attitude)? With no social media rules to follow or cells to control these activities, these grey areas represent major quandaries in defining the conduct in teacher-student relationships in these emerging media.

In the Liverpool study, one respondent stated:

I feel that it is unprofessional of the STAFF to use Facebook as a manner of ‘spying’ on their students. My behaviour on Facebook reflects my behaviour in real life, none of which I feel the need to hide. However, the thought of being checked up on by the course in such an underhand manner disappoints me. Respondent 20

Unfortunately, there always will be this element of being watched. Though this is an extreme opinion, I believe, the way we behave in our private lives also leaves some impact on our professional lives. The General Medical Council, UK, specifically mentions in its fitness to practice guidance these words that echo my emotions: (4)

Students must be aware that their behaviour outside the clinical environment, including in their personal lives, may have an impact on their fitness to practise. Their behaviour at all times must justify the trust the public places in the medical profession.

In a paper entitled: “Faculty on Facebook: Confirm or Deny” presented at the 14th Annual Instructional Technology Conference (ERIC entry; Full Report), came to the following conclusions after a mixed methods (qualitative+quantitative) study conducted at the Lee University:

  • Over 50% recognize that Facebook has the potential to be a useful academic tool.
  • 90% of the interviewed faculty members credited Facebook for having opened up a line of communication with their students
  • Over 50% faculty members stated that it was an effective tool that gave both the student and the faculty member to know each other more personally
  • About 75% of the interviewed faculty were concerned about being able to balance being a friend and a teacher at the same time.
  • Over 80% of the faculty members created an online persona for themselves keeping in mind that their students would be scrutinizing them, thus providing only limited information (in my opinion, this would hamper the development of personal relationships that were entirely honest)

On the other side of the table, students have always been worried about their faculties’ involvement as friends on online social networking sites.(5) They were mainly worried that faculty members’ perception of their social activities could skew their academic performance.

An interesting observation by the Lee University researchers was the use of Facebook as a tool for communication between the faculty and the students:


The reciprocity effect (6) implies that self-disclosure from the faculty members would encourage self-disclosure from the students as well. This is quite often  personal experience that the faculty members who are perceived to be more open often bring out more interaction and learning moments in course of a class. The Lee University study looked at connectedness between the student and the faculty based on their Facebook relationship and came up with the following, rather interesting graph:


Now, what I infer from this is that the students are more likely to feel connected to the faculty members due to their Facebook friendships than the other way around. Though there is no sure way to say this in specific terms (bite me, Likert Scale), this is another personal perspective that I see vindicated in these numbers. However, it is interesting to see that at least the number of faculties who believe that Facebook engenders connectedness amongst the teacher and students beats the nay-sayers (although it appears that the margin is rather slim).

However, my favorite part about the study is not their multi-colored graphs but the concluding sentences:

Though some faculty members might remain hesitant to utilize such technology, they must keep in mind that it’s not all about them. As teachers, it is their job to put the learner’s needs first, and if that means having to use Facebook or any other social network, then so be it.

What is important for the faculty members is to decide how much information they should disclose. It is not just that they are scrutinizing the students, the reverse is equally true. In a world which is essentially student-dominated, a momentary lapse in judgment or poor understanding of the privacy rules that bind us can literally destroy a faculty member’s reputation. With such far reaching implications at hand, it is thus not a surprise that teachers tend to be more guarded when it comes to their activities on social networking sites.

A lot of research has gone into defining what makes for a good teacher-student interaction. Verbal behavior(7) has long known to be one of the major players in developing a positive classroom atmosphere: addressing students by their first names, interspersing their lectures with humor, using personal examples and other such verbal cues have been known to improve classroom situations and affective learning experiences of students (where the students perceive the learning environment to be positive and empowering). An extension of this could be the way a teacher conducts himself or herself in a social networking setting. Appropriate online activity could lead to improvement of not only the teacher-student relationship, but also create an empowering online learning environment.

In a research study (8), it emerged that the students who interacted with faculty were interested in three major themes:

  • Professionalism in the way the faculty conducted themselves
  • Desire to learn more about the faculty member as a person in a social setting outside of the formal teaching-learning environment
  • Fear of potential negative treatment from the teacher (which I have also mentioned before is a major deterrent for students to keep teacher at an arms’ length in social settings)

They also found that the majority of the students viewed teachers with an active Facebook account in a positive manner, which stands in line with the Lee Uni study where Facebook friendships led students to feel more connected to their faculty members.

With social networking still in its infancy, we are all working out the rules of the system, often by trial and error, and often, with disastrous results. The need for more research in this emerging education tool is needed, mainly to understand, amongst other things, how the online relationships between teachers and students work out in a positive learning experience, what are the pitfalls, how much self-disclosure is too much, and last, but not the least, does the gender of the teacher or the student involved in this online liaison affect the outcomes?

Until such data are declared and a clearer picture emerges, the prudent thing to do would be to take baby steps into the online liaisons, find out more about each other in morsels and, of course, remember the basic rules that guide professional and social etiquette. However, taking extreme steps, like putting blanket bans on such relationships would be a primitive and ill-thought out response. Much like the Paleolithic caveman’s fear of the thunder, it would be an illogical step to take the ostrich approach and bury our heads in the sands in response to the social media question. Instead, the ideal way would be to track the growth of the subject and dabble in it with the free spirit of the enjoyment of education.

This post was first conceived as I suddenly realized today that I have an inordinate number of faculty members on my Facebook friendlist. This led me to an online search to understand this phenomenon better. An afternoon of reading papers and trawling opinion pieces and an hour of typing later, here we are. However, I must say I have been uniquely lucky in being mentored by extremely wonderful people, both in the real world and on Facebook (and in some cases only exclusively on Facebook), but for whom I would not be as confident and informed a student as I am today. So, though I must say the scant literature on this topic does advice me to tread (and write) with caution when it comes to Facebooking with faculty, my heart (thanks to its n=1 study) advices me to go all out. What do you think?


1. Rushe D. Facebook shares drop to less than half their initial stock price [Internet]. The Guardian. 2012, AUgust 20 [cited 2012 August 26]. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/aug/20/facebook-shares-drop-half-stock

2. Thompson LA, Dawson K, Ferdig R, Black EW, Boyer J, Coutts J, Paradise Black N. The intersection of online social networking with medical professionalism. J Gen Intern Med 2008;23:954–957.

3. Garner J, O’Sullivan H. Facebook and the professional behaviours of undergraduate medical students. Clin Teach. 2010 Jun;7(2):112-5. doi:10.1111/j.1743-498X.2010.00356.x. PubMed PMID: 21134159.

4. GMC. Medical students: professional behaviour and fitness to practise. London: The General Medical Council; 2007.

5. Hewitt A, Forte A. Crossing boundaries: Identity management and student/faculty relationships on the Facebook. A paper presented at Computer Supported Cooperative Work. 2006

6. Won-Doomink MJ. Self-disclosure and reciprocity in conversation: a cross national study. Soc Psych Quart. 1985;48:97-107

7. Gorham J. The relationship between verbal teacher immediacy behaviors and student learning. Comm Edu, 1988;37:40-53.

8. Mazer J, Murphy R, Simonds C. I’ll see you on” Facebook”: The effects of computer-mediated teacher self-disclosure on student motivation, affective learning, and classroom climate. Comm Edu, 2007;56(1):1-17.

5 thoughts on “Facebooking Your Faculty: To be or not to be?

    1. Just read it. Its written largely from the marketing/tech crowd’s point of view. In medicine some more aspects are involved in the teacher/student relationship – the patient. It is a good read indeed, and I should have caught a hold of it on Google before I wrote this one out…


  1. I thought we had to worry about digital indiscretions in terms of doctor-patient relationships, didn’t think about the faculty-student relationship aspect or the peer-peer relationship till date. But then, isn’t everyone judging us based on information on the net? Should we go ‘offline’ to protect our professional identities? Cyber boundaries are hard to gauge, personal ones even more so owing to the dynamic nature of human relationships 🙂


    1. Which is why we need to tread ever so carefully rather than just take the head-under-the-sands approach. It is easier, wussier and a definite waste of the possibilities that social media can throw up in front of us.


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