Liquorice Allsorts

flickr photo by Destinys Agent shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

The ease with which Facebook account holders can publish, share, comment, connect has led to the social networking site becoming embedded into our lives without so much as a raised eyebrow. We like Facebook as a nation with a third of the UK population logging onto the site everyday (Guardian 04/02/2014) Collectively we share our lives on Facebook – joy (baby scans, wedding photos, anniversaries) and pain (deaths, illness, divorce). Why not include our learning activities? What’s not to like?

In the same way that sugar has become a part of our regular diet, Facebook has become part of our everyday life. And in the same way that sugar is difficult to avoid now because it is so embedded in our foods, Facebook is embedded in the way we communicate, receive information and increasingly how we learn.

Is it time to take stock and review whether we want to continue to use Facebook, given that we are entering a new era of what privacy means? Is Facebook the new ‘sugar’ – fun and tasty at first but over time dangerous to our health? Of course I don’t mean that being on Facebook will rot your teeth, but we do need to think about our digital health and if we are using Facebook in education, what our responsibilities as educators are.

I hear many reasons why tutors are keen to use Facebook with their students

‘All my students are on Facebook…’

‘It’s easier to use than Blackboard/Moodle etc…’

‘I want learning to be fun …..’

‘Students respond quicker when I post something on Facebook…’

‘It’s free…

I don’t doubt all of the above are true – after all most VLEs seem to be designed to make it hard to share, communicate or locate resources so I do have some sympathy. Can we as a sector say we are happy to continue to use and even promote Facebook despite concerns regarding privacy, commodification of student data and licencing?

Attitudes towards privacy

With the current UK debate around the Investigatory Powers Bill, shouldn’t the HE sector be more informed and informative about Facebook’s attitude to privacy. This is, I admit a complex area, particularly with the recent end of Safe Harbour (Guardian 6/10/2015) , but we are academics and should deal with complex, unpredictable situations as part of our profession. We shouldn’t be turning away from the complexity and repercussions of using Facebook with our students. The debate about privacy should not centre on the information an individual user shares or hides from view, as it often does in education, but instead should focus on the fundamental storage, use and access to private information that Facebook allows partners and companies.

Commodification of student data

As educators are we really comfortable with adverts targeting users while they study? Yes Adblocker can be used, but this is a blunt tool to stop all adverts showing on a user’s Facebook page. Are we prepared to set time aside in our timetable to advise on how to block adverts on Facebook pages? Are you happy in the knowledge that, for example, diet adverts will target your female students?

Are we comfortable knowing that the students’ data will be sold on? The maxim ‘nothing in life is free’ couldn’t be more appropriate in this instance and I’m surprised to hear any academics use the ‘free to use’ argument to justify their use of Facebook with students. Croeser (2014) sums it up nicely:

‘…there is no work directly addressing the serious ethical questions surround encouraging, or even requiring university students to use a service that enables the sharing of personal information (and is structured to undermine informed consent for that sharing) and that packages that information for reselling, and then creates targeted advertising for users. Targeted advertising may not only unsettle users by demonstrating the extent to which our information is accessed by marketers; it may also cause problems for the way in which it pinpoints our insecurities.’ (p189)

Your own intellectual property

How many academics are aware, that when they upload resources to Facebook they have just given Facebook the licence to use the material in any way the company sees fit including selling it to another sub-company? This licence is the sticky residue of your connection with Facebook – even after you have deleted your account, your uploaded material belong to Facebook. Academics can get very proprietorial about material they create, yet surprisingly unaware of the fact that they give away control of their material if it’s uploaded to Facebook. If you want to give away your material, do it through a creative commons licence for the good of the wider community.

What can we say in conclusion?

Use Facebook with your students if you want to, but do so in the full knowledge of the risks?

Share any concerns you have with your students?

Check if they are already aware of the risks and encourage discussion?

Make informed choices about what you use to engage your students online?

Finally, don’t knock the alternatives, namely your VLE. You might think it’s clunky or slow and it probably is. But it may be that your IT department has considered the three issues above and view the VLE as the best, safe alternative they can provide. Your IT department don’t have the financial resources that Facebook do, but there’s a reason for this (back to commodification of data).


Croeser, S. (2014) Changing Facebook’s Architecture in Kent, M. and Leaver, T. (eds.) (2014) An education in facebook? Higher education and the world’s largest social network. London: Routledge. pp185-194