Last week, I started teaching what will become a regular hands-on workshop titled “Facebook for Classroom Instruction” through our Faculty Development Center. This class is designed specifically for professors who want to learn more about incorporating social web tools into their class discussions, assignments, research and even their own professional development.
One of the main tools that the professors from last week’s class were interested in using is Facebook Groups as an optional class discussion forum outside of their Learning Management System (LMS). Groups allow faculty to limit membership to just their students, and also allow instructors to connect and interact with their students without having to actually Friend them on Facebook.
But, discussions from last week, as well as my own observations, have allowed me to identify a handful of key features that Facebook really needs to incorporate into Groups if they want to make Groups more relevant for educational use:
- Expand video chat to Groups: Today, Facebook introduced a new integrated Skype-based video chat. However, this is only supported for 1-on-1 chat. But, what about Groups? Instructors could hold online video office hours, students could hold a a live video chat discussion, and class Groups could conduct video interviews with an outside expert — all from the convenience of a class Facebook Group. Plus, if Facebook’s version of Skype supports screen-sharing, instructors and students could conduct online demonstrations through Facebook Groups.
- Support RSS export and widgets for Group streams: Facebook makes it really handy for Pages to share their content streams with external services via RSS feeds and embeddable widgets; however, neither options is avaialble for Groups. Instructors and students should have the option to subscribe to Group content in their favorite feed reader, export Group content via RSS (at least for Open Groups), and then re-purpose or import that content into their class website or LMS via an RSS feed reader widget or an HTML widget.
- Support RSS and Twitter import to Groups: Educators would also benefit from being able to cross-publish their Twitter stream to Groups (particularly for link-sahring), or from importing a blog RSS feed directly to Groups. This is supported on Facebook Profiles and Pages — just not Groups.
- Bring back threaded discussion forums: When Facebook rolled out the new Groups format last Fall, they did away with the threaded discussion forum, instead making discussions take place within the standard Wall format. Threaded dsicussion forums are super useful for managing classroom discussions by topic; Wall discussions are a big chaotic.
- Allow people to auto-join Open Groups: My biggest pet peeve with the new Groups format is that Group administrators have to approve membership requests from Facebook users even when the Group is set to Open membership. If Administrators want to restrict and control membership, they can make the Group membership type Closed or Secret. Facebook needs to quit creativing unnecessary work for us.
- Support an “Unpublished” state for Groups-in-progress: Facebook allows Page administrators to prep Pages in an Unpublished state to get the right look and feel before those Pages are Published live to the public. Groups, however, force administrators to add at least one other Group member before a new Group can even get created and configured (I usually cheat by just adding my husband until I’m ready for the Group to “go live”). Some instructors wnat to be able to fully set up the Group site before adding students as members.
Despite this wish list of requests, I do use the new Groups format much more heavily for professional work than I ever did the old style Groups. But, adding these features would make the new Groups even more useful to educators.
Unless Facebook wants to lose ground to Google+ (particularly with its Circles and Hangout features), they ought to take a hard look at how they can make Groups more appealing to educators. With so many colleges and schools moving towards Google Apps for Education, Google+ will soon start to provide a more seamless “group” experience for classes.