ASU Researchers Study Facebook to Increase Student Motivation in Online Learning

November 10th, 2013 No Comments Other

Although at first glance learning and Facebook may not appear to have much in common, researchers from Arizona State University believe that the popular social networking site may provide some important insights that could transform the face of online education.

The pilot study, led by associate professor Robert Atkinson along with ASU doctoral students, John Sadauskas, Robert Christopherson and Quincy Conley, aims to investigate which elements of the Facebook experience could be leveraged in online learning environments.

“An obvious drawback to online education is that in most cases, the social element is vastly reduced,” says Sadauskas.

“You are no longer in a room with fellow students and the opportunity to casually engage in conversation is less feasible.

However, the explosive popularity of sites like Facebook tells us that given the right circumstances, people are willing to socialize and engage in conversation online–conversation that is casual and fairly similar to in-person interaction.”

“And people do not need to be asked to log onto Facebook,” he adds. “For many, it is just part of their daily routine.”

He explains that most current online classes limit social interaction to online discussion boards, which may feel somewhat rigid and forced. However, if conversation felt more casual and bore resemblance to the social platforms they already use, students may feel more comfortable engaging in conversation with each other.

“We’re hoping to bring a more natural, conversational, and inviting social dynamic into online learning,” he says.

“By creating an opportunity for active engagement with classmates that “feels” like they’re talking to each other on Facebook, we anticipate students will be more engaged in learning and have meaningful online discussions that resemble in-person discussions with classmates.”

In one experiment, the researchers monitored and mapped the activity of 30 students while they were surfing their Facebook page.

By using an EEG headset that monitored brain waves and tracked emotions, in combination with a wrist sensor that monitored heart rate, and an eye-tracker that established where participants’ eyes were focused in real time, the researchers were able to collect data to determine which content and interface features engage users the most.

To gain additional insights, video captures were taken of participants’ screens during the Facebook session, which allowed the researchers to review the videos later and ask participants questions about what they doing and why.

Students were also asked to fill out a survey about their Facebook usage habits and self-rate their feelings every few minutes while using Facebook

“With over 900 million users, Facebook is by far the most popular social network, especially on college campuses. However, the potential of social networks as learning tools is only just being realized,” notes Sadauskas.

“Little empirical, non-self-reported data on the usability of Facebook is available to researchers, so it is difficult to determine which aspects of using Facebook make it so appealing, and furthermore, it is unclear which of these elements could be useful to integrate into learning environments.”

Aside from highlighting the content and interface features that are the most engaging, the collection of data is also expected to shed light on similar usage patterns among students who are light, medium and heavy Facebook users.

Sadauskas explains that the idea for the study was developed after he and his fellow doctoral students had finished work on an online learning tool that mimicked the look and feel of Facebook.

Because the three students are also part of Dr. Atkinson’s ANGLE Lab, which focuses on exploring and innovating technologies designed to enhance interactive learning environments and improve student learning, they were able to build on the idea of using social media for learning purposes.

“The idea was posed to have students use Facebook while connected to the sensors to acquire an accurate snapshot of actual Facebook use in real time,” he says.

The data and information collected thus far will be analyzed over the coming semester, although the study and its initial findings were recently presented at the annual Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) conference.

“To our knowledge, no one outside of Facebook itself is doing work quite like this,” adds Sadauskas. “We’re very fortunate to have these capabilities and we’re excited to analyze results.”


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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