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It’s no surprise when a college opens a Twitter account, develops a Facebook page (or pages), or gets a blog, Wiki, or Flickr group going—but some Bard College at Simon’s Rock faculty members are pushing the envelope and leveraging social media to academically engage their students through Facebook.

Economics professor and Simon’s Rock alumnus Dan Neilson is one of those teachers. Three weeks into his Economy and Technology class last semester, Neilson decided to create a Facebook group “ECON210 Intermediate Macro Economics.” He sent an email to the class and got a couple of responses. Then he invited students to join the group directly through Facebook. Wham! “Most of the students responded within an hour,” Neilson says. “The difference spoke to me. I realized I might like email, but my students are using Facebook…all the time. I could have set up a Blackboard account or worked through the library’s website, but why? Facebook was instantly more productive than email or these sites would have been.”

Wanting to go where the students are was just one of the motivations to begin the group. Really, the idea was rooted in the material. “The class is about economy and technology and how new technology has changed the economic and social landscape.” He explains that one of the biggest changes that free digital communications has encouraged is the evolution of intellectual property rights and how individuals interact socially within these new digital mediums. With the syllabus dealing directly with these intersections, “it seemed natural to bring it to the forum and make use for it as a place for students to interact.”


Before the class began to respond to readings on their Facebook group, Neilson engaged the students in what he describes as an intellectual conversation about boundaries and privacy. “People post a lot of information on Facebook, but the fact is that you can control who sees what with a fair amount of discretion. So, we started by having a discussion about privacy—the right to privacy and the conception of privacy.” Yes, it was an intellectual discussion, but he says, it was also a warning. “I wasn’t planning on poking around my student’s profiles, but I did warn that they should change their privacy setting to restrict access to any information and imagery that they wouldn’t want their professor to see.”

With fair warning, the group began. Neilson would post a link to the readings a day before class. Students would read, review other responses, and then post their own analysis (which was a graded) to the group. The benefit worked for both teacher and student. Before, Neilson explains, “I would come to my own understanding of the reading and only find out in class that students had a totally different understanding.” Once they were required to post to Facebook before they met in class, “I learned about how they reacted to the reading, and they came prepared to respond to how others understood the readings as well.”

More than deepening student engagement and understanding, Neilson says that the Facebook/classroom experiment was pushing on a kind of 21st-century reflection of the principal that operates throughout the Simon’s Rock campus: Blurring the academic and personal life. Here students aren’t just interacting with academic material inside the classroom; they’re talking about their studies in the dorm rooms, the Dining Hall, the Student Union, and on. “For this generation of students, most of their social life is online. Why isn’t their academic life? It’s not that separate,” Neilson notes.


Some students in the class chafed against the blur. And based on the debriefing that concluded the experience, Neilson is already thinking about how to improve the Facebook academic experience next semester. “I’ll most certainly do this again,” but, he says, “I’m planning on taking more time to implement the idea and think more creatively about how to approach it.”

Other faculty members, like John Weinstein, are also thinking about how to best go about engaging students on Facebook. He’s already begun a group that he hopes the students will consider using next semester. Although, he thinks he’ll have his students develop what it will ultimately become. “It needs to be something that the students decide to do organically, I think. It’s a lot like going into their dorms for discussions. Yes, I’m the teacher, but it is their space. Because of that they should direct the conversation and how and when they want to invite me into that space.”

With this approach, Weinstein thinks that the project and/or group will actually draw out the social networking aspect of the medium. His hope is that it will help students connect with other college students studying Chinese on campuses nationwide. “Faculty are always thinking about how to help students get outside of ‘the bubble.’ Often we think of that in terms of off campus experiences. ‘How can we get them to spend less time on the computer?’ is a question that comes up. Instead, I would like to see their time on the computer as a way to connect them to other people and experiences. This is one way to do that.”


In the last year, offices throughout the campus have carved spaces in the social media. Check it out.

On Twitter:

  • The Office of College Relations updates the SimonsRock account with news items, stories, media appearances, and other tidbits learned around campus. Join the conversation and receive snippet updates throughout the week by following SimonsRock.

On Facebook:

  • The Office of Admission has an active, lively, informative page going. Lots of questions from prospective students and informative answers from the Admission staff, as well as some proud, enthusiastic alumni. Jump in and join 300+ fans.

On Flickr:

  • The Office of College Relations opened a Bard College at Simon’s Rock Flickr account. Browse and download pictures, upload your own images of campus, and become a part of the evolving visual discussion and tour of Simon’s Rock by joining the group.