Using Facebook and Tumblr to Engage Students

ProfHacker 2013-03-16

social[This is a guest post by Carol Holstead and Doug Ward. Carol Holstead is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas. She currently teaches visual storytelling, magazine writing and multimedia reporting; she was the 2010 Budig Professor of Writing. If you're on Facebook, feel free to ask to join the group Visual Storytelling Spring 2013 if you want to see the page in action.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, where he is teaching a research and digital literacy course he developed called Infomania. You can find him online at and, and follow him on Twitter @kuediting.--@JBJ]

Like many followers of ProfHacker, we like to experiment with social media in our classrooms. And though digital tools have become an integral part of our efforts to engage students, we’re continually surprised by unexpected successes or failures.

We found ourselves talking about just that topic toward the end of the fall semester as we realized that we had created similar social media projects for our students, one with Facebook and one with Tumblr. In itself, that isn’t so unusual, but the results of those projects – one successful, one not – pushed us to dig deeper for answers about what worked, and why.

ProfHacker contributors have written about Facebook privacy, and about the importance of separating Facebook from professional life to cut down on the potential creepiness of mixing students’ personal lives with their classwork. They generally favor Twitter, WordPress, and other digital tools in the classroom, though, so have written little about using Facebook and Tumblr for teaching. A notable recent exception is Lucinda Matthews-Jones’s guest post on using Facebook to engage students with digital sources about the past.

There’s no shortage of useful articles elsewhere about teaching with Facebook or Tumblr. The parallels and contrasts between our two projects provide a perspective that we hope will help other instructors, though. Here’s what we learned.

Find the right topic

Carol set up a Facebook group for a 75-student introductory design class, giving students extra credit for posting. She had established a Facebook group for her class two years earlier and was surprised by its success, so she has made it a regular assignment each semester. Her only instructions: Post examples of good or bad design from ads, magazines, books, blogs, websites, typography, video and photography. Just about anything was fair game as long is it wasn’t offensive. By Thanksgiving break, the students had posted 170 times, with 25 of those coming from a single student. In past years, some students kept posting even after the semester ended.

Doug’s project was much smaller in scope. He created a Tumblr site for an 18-student section of an introductory editing course. The idea was to promote reading and to get students in the habit of curating information and to find ways to attract an audience. He offered no specific guidelines for posting, other than to provide articles, videos or photos that others would be interested in. He asked students to post twice a week as part of their participation grade. Posts to the site were slow from the beginning, and never reached a critical mass.

Start early and provide solid examples

Carol started the Facebook group at the beginning of the semester and provided examples of material she wanted students to post. She often showcased the best examples in class. For example, one student found two of the semester’s most popular posts: poor letter-spacing that created unintended phrasing on a box of “Flickering Lights,” and a Cosmo ad juxtaposed with a story so that it looked as if a woman were shooting chocolate milk from her behind. The student found the ad just as it went viral on Buzzfeed.

Doug started his project a few weeks into the semester, after plans for an internal Reddit site fell through. That lag proved fatal. He posted what he thought were good examples, discussing the posts in class and providing a link to the Tumblr site on Blackboard, but the late start meant the project never became part of students’ routines.

Encourage participation

Carol looked at and commented on every post to encourage students to keep posting and also to bait students to actually look at posts. Partway through the semester after talking about photography, she suggested that students post their own photos, or even their own design work. Several did. She also suggested students take pictures of design examples with their smartphones and upload those, and several did that, too.

Doug followed the students’ Tumblr posts, showing the best ones in class and asking students to talk about what they had posted and why they thought the material was engaging or important. That generated useful discussion about the importance of good writing, good production and thoughtful headlines. It also helped emphasize the importance of audience in curating material.

Offer incentives to post

Carol’s Facebook project allowed students to earn extra credit for posting examples, giving them a tangible benefit for minimal work. In contrast, Doug didn’t spell out how Tumblr posts would count toward students’ grades. He hoped that students would see value in sharing interesting articles on their own. Instead, they saw it as additional work with little reward.

Doug had much better luck this semester with weekly Blackboard discussions in which students earned a small number of points for participating. They took to that easily and provided excellent responses that proved valuable in assessing their understanding of material.

In Carol’s case, the Facebook project reinforced the value of extra credit – even small amounts – in helping students try new things. Doug isn’t sold on the idea of extra credit, but next time he will be clearer about how the online posts contribute to grades.

Turn students into treasure hunters

The Facebook project allowed students to apply what they were learning in class. Once they started looking for examples, they became treasure hunters. But the project had an important educational benefit: The more students looked, the more they saw. Their posts became increasingly better as the semester progressed, and comments showed that students were becoming more discerning.

Doug’s topic lacked the focus that Carol’s had. Her students posted specifically about design, while he wanted students define their own areas of interest. That’s a crucial skill, but one that many students struggle with. He hoped that a curation project would help them define their interests and push them to share news and information with peers. Instead, students seemed unsure about what to post. He still sees great value in adding a social aspect to following the news. He’ll try again in the future, asking students to define an area of interest early and post about that topic weekly.

Make it easy

Many students consider Facebook part of their private lives and prefer separating it from their schoolwork. Carol has never found that to be the case, though. It worked as an outlet for schoolwork in this case because it was easily accessible. Nearly all students had a Facebook account, and the lighthearted nature of the design project didn’t seem to cross boundaries into personal space. Plus, Facebook groups offer several added benefits to teachers: You don’t have to friend your students for them to join a group; Facebook now tracks views so with any given post you can see how many students have looked at it; photos and links are previewed in a post so students don’t have to click on a link to see what it is; the link plus comments are visible to everyone in the group in one place.

With Doug’s project, only a few students had Tumblr accounts at the beginning of the semester. That created an instant barrier. Most students slowly but reluctantly signed up. Even those who had accounts had trouble joining the class site, at least initially. Students were already using Blackboard extensively for his hybrid class, and they looked at the Tumblr posts as a burden, even after he added a link on Blackboard to remind students of the Tumblr site. Next time, he’ll make sure the Tumblr site is better integrated into classwork.

We’ve learned a great deal from our experiences with social media this semester. What have you found that works in your classroom?

Photo “Social” by Flickr user JD Hancock / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0