Facebook and culture


In September 2010 a new cohort of around 300 International students from relatively diverse backgrounds began a BA (Hons) course at the University of Central Lancashire in International Business Communication. It was decided early on by the Course Leader that Facebook would be used as a tool to facilitate communication and internationalization. The reason that Facebook was chosen for this study is that it is the most popular online social networking site among university students. The process was simple: at the opening induction event it was announced that the Facebook page was live and that students would have the option to sign up to the IBC Facebook site. During the opening lectures and seminars, the site was demonstrated in order to offer an insight to students how they could make use of it. Within a week, around one hundred students had signed up to the site along with a small number of staff. By the end of the course the numbers had swelled to around 200 users. Only basic rules and norms were formed in order to avoid any serious conflict issues. The use of the site is ongoing and by May 2011 nearly 400 postings had been made. As mentioned earlier, it was decided the site should be student-led. However, in order to get things up and running, one of the Course Leaders began to post. After initial introductions and suggestions of how students may make use of the site, the lecturer began to post links to some of his favorite movie and music clips that he felt were related to British culture. The purpose was to stimulate interest by using ‘safe’ posts; in other words avoiding any major cultural issues whilst helping the students focus on what he felt represented ‘Britishness’. This did attract a limited response; at this point, no ‘national culture’ issues surfaced. What did emerge was the clear age gap. The tutor posting is in his forties and predominantly his audience comprises students who are in their twenties. The first student to post put up a more modern music video, commenting that the tutor‘s interpretation of British culture through music i.e. artists such as Morrissey, Madness and Take That, was outdated and that time had moved on; that student is from Germany and male. We began a short dialogue around what it means to be British. This was carried on in our next seminar. Already a barrier had been broken down, arguably not a cultural barrier, but an age barrier and a tutor/ student barrier. In other words, we had found a common ground, music. The next student to post was again from Germany, but this time it was a female; she posted photographs from her travels. The tutor commented and then a Chinese student, a female, posted that she liked the photograph and wished to go to that place. It was Blackpool, and the tutor did not want to offer his view on the place, but did comment on the professional nature of the photograph. At this stage, only one Chinese student had posted, all the replies and posts had come from German students. The Chinese students, however, did click on the ‘like’ icon, one might argue bizarrely, with a link to a story in a local newspaper explaining the significance of Remembrance Day. The next posts that came were ‘Events’ postings by staff and students. These proved popular throughout, and arguably helped increase the attendance at a number of these activities. This did allow for a ‘real world’ crossover as the events were all ‘cultural’ in nature. Next, came the first posting from a Spanish student, a male. He posted a story from Newsweek that directly related to an issue in the class about the valuation of the Chinese currency, the Yuan. After several posts between the tutor and student the debate closed. At this point, one could argue that this debate may not have been discussed in detail in the classroom and that further learning around the topic had been enabled by active student engagement. Indeed, the student in question very rarely spoke in class unless asked to do so. The next post stimulated interest among one Chinese student and a number of German students. Two staff members were going to present a conference paper in Germany and therefore, the post asked students about cultural differences and recommendations on what to do when there. The first comment from the female Chinese stated be punctual. One could not decide if this was meant in jest or if it entered into the realm of cultural stereotyping. Either way, the debate had started. After several more interesting posts the bombshell hit. A German female decided to post a survey as part of her dissertation research. Initially the response from students was very positive. All nationalities posted these; the ‘self help’ had begun. One or two produced them in their native language which gained comments from students that felt that English had to be the medium of conversation. Within a couple of months it soon became clear that students began to suffer from ‘survey fatigue’ as one after another request to answer surveys appeared on the site. On the other hand, in general, the number of respondents was quite positive, for the most part. In November 2010, the course assessments began in earnest. At this point students started posting questions in relation to those assessments. At first it was only the tutor that began to answer the queries, but soon the students began to help each other. This was a very positive sign and use of Facebook. The tutor monitored and only intervened when he felt the students were providing misinformation. It was at this point that the learning outcomes of the program linked more closely to the social networking tool used. The discussions around the assessment became specifically aimed at guiding students, through peer and tutor intervention, towards successfully completing the programme‘s aims and objectives. However, the posts were not initiated by the tutors; the students themselves felt that this forum was a safe place to openly discuss assignments. However, the social aspect of the site did not end. Although one could argue, as the program focuses heavily on Intercultural Communication, many of the posts, although social, did have a wider impact on the curriculum being taught in the classroom. These posts became an extension and ‘living reality’ of the theory being taught. On such example was demonstrated on November 23rd when the tutor posted from a hotel room in Germany, stating he was in Germany and was a little cold. Within one minute of posting a number of German students began a dialogue on what he might do, eat and so on. Again, this was an event that would not have happened through the normal channels. It was a Saturday night and the tutor was in another country whilst the students were in the UK. The social network enabled dialogue, socializing, advice, and learning, that would not have taken place under normal conditions. Around December came the first contentious issue raised on the site. These kinds of issues occurred only three or four times. Each time the issues were raised by a German female. The tutor always tried to remain neutral and as factual as possible. It was at these times that the students involved became quite vocal. These issues could have escalated had the tutor not been on hand to mediate. In fact, all the issues were resolved amicably. However, it was interesting to note that in the feedback given at the end of the year, one of the students felt that the tutor was quite forceful in his viewpoint; perceptions are obviously important. The clear danger here is that these viewpoints, that were individual in nature, were aired in public. This is one of the drawbacks of such a tool. However, had those views not been aired in the designated site then they would probably have appeared elsewhere, and could have been quite damaging. In terms of team building one German male student commented, ?Efficiency dramatically increased by adopting a Facebook group as a tool for information sharing. By the end of the course all nationalities on the program had posted on the site. Proportionally, the highest number of users came from Germany, even though the majority of the course originates from China.