Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


How to Use Facebook with an Online Course

Posted on | August 21, 2013 | No Comments

I taught an online course for New York University (NYU) called “New Technologies in Advertising and Public Relations” this summer that was totally asynchronous – meaning that we didn’t meet in person or online at the same time. I had taught the class at the Washington Square campus in Manhattan when I was a faculty member there, but recently began to teach it online from Austin. In order to increase participation and interaction among the students, I used Facebook (FB) to provide a forum for discussion and sharing information and links related to the class.

In this post I want to share some important points about using Facebook with a class, and particularly how to protect student privacy. My experience with online education is that the devil is in the details. Online applications vary immensely, and some work better than others. I was having trouble developing online interaction and participation. I won’t mention the system NYU uses as it’s several years old and probably due for an upgrade or replacement soon. We’ll call it Brand X.

(Update: NYU has recently changed to a new open source system called NYU Classes that is based on the Sakai learning management system. So far it seems much better than the previous system, Epsilen. NYU has even used NYU Classes/Sakai to replace Blackboard as the general learning management system we were required to use for all classes, onsite and online.)

The Brand X platform, which is not Blackboard, does have some other good features including online lessons, the electronic syllabus, dropboxes and even a collaborative wiki that I like; but the forum/discussion facilities are particularly poor. NYU’s application has a discussion component, but I didn’t like it; primarily because it took 9 clicks to get to a Discussion topic while with FB it took only 2 clicks. Also, FB clicks were immediate while the others were slow and it was tempting to switch to another tab in between each click. In other words, sometimes I didn’t get back before the Brand X application timed out.

FB Groups vs. Page

One of the first things to do if you want to use Facebook is to set up the group. I first made a mistake by creating a “page” for the course. What I really needed to do was set up a “group” dedicated to the class. Note that I have two listings for the course Lrms1-Dc0954 New Tech Ads and PR in the image next to this text. The one with the image is the Facebook “page” that is open to everyone while the one with just an icon is a closed group that is most appropriate to maintain privacy for the class. It hides the group members as well as their postings, comments and likes. Providing of course, that the settings are on the highest privacy levels. Click on the radio button for Secret after everyone has joined the group. If you make it secret too early the students will not be able to search for it so start off with the “closed” setting.

Facebook settings

How do you grade the participation? I asked that each student to post two links and make 10 comments every week. The posts needed to be related to the week’s readings such as the modules on Search, Online Display Ads, Viral Communications, Online Video, and Mobile. These are contemporary topics and we experienced almost a type of choice overload with so many blogs, magazine articles, and types of links available. Still, students uncovered, posted and discussed interesting articles such as this controversy about Linkedin taking down ads for female engineers because they thought the images used did not represent actual female engineers.

Most students did not participate nearly as much I projected. In retrospect, the comments are harder than the posts as the student would have to read the posts, grasp the significance of the article and be willing to make a “public” statement. One way to do it would be the instructor to do all the posting, give context to the week’s discussion and then Settingssee what the class could find.This is likely to be part of the solution but students should have the opportunity to share links they think are interesting and pose their own questions. In retrospect, the participation rates probably mirror actual classroom dynamics with some students dominating the discussion. But as the asynchronous class does not have an actual meeting environment, I think its appropriate to push the students to post and comment. “Likes” however are probably not a useful metric as they are too easy to click without real engagement.

Calculating their contributions involved searching the names of each student (See search icon in left image) and at this time tallying their posts and comments manually.

I asked students to email me their comments about Facebook participation. Comments were generally favorable but they found it hard to keep up with the demands specified above. Those who took an online course with Brand X were particularly positive but pointed out that the other teachers did not require quite as much activity. Students usually complain about workloads and try to get them reduced, but in the spirit of fairness I will examine their concerns in more detail. On the positive side, using Facebook allowed many students to participate easily with smartphones. This is particularly useful for students who are working and are restricted from Facebook activities at work. At least Brand X looks sufficiently geeky so it might not attract attention or be outright banned.

Other concerns arise when you have students from all over the world. Although the privacy settings are pretty goods, some students, particularly from authoritarian countries have significant concerns about their posts on FB being monitored. With settings on Secret most concerns about privacy were alleviated. but certainly the comfort of all students should be considered and especially foreign students. Although the course was mainly about technology, advertising and particularly public relations can bring up touchy topics.

I expect to continue to use Facebook to enhance participation and bring web sources into the course experience. I am using this semester for a MBA class on digital convergence and innovation that is meeting in a regular classroom, primarily for them to dig up related articles. If you want more information or have comments, please email me at with the subjecting heading “Facebook Course”.




Anthony J. Pennings, PhD recently joined the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University in Austin TX, after ten years on the faculty of New York University.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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