My first experience with online learning was in July 2003 as a student. This was before the emergence of online social networking as we know it today. We were not Linked In and we were not finding all of our long-lost classmates and cousins on Facebook. Students and faculty got to know each other in online classes through the Bio Threads that were always posted the first day. These threads were a great way to put a little humanity into the virtual world where we were learning. Now that I teach online, I see these bio threads in a whole new light. Yes, most students have Facebook and they are exchanging their information about those sites in class, but I still rely heavily on the Bio threads. I too have a Facebook account, but I am just not comfortable having students as friends.
I require posts in the Bio thread for all my online classes, the reasons for this are two-fold. Posting a Bio gets the students immersed in the platform from the first day. I can see if anyone is having trouble with a proper post, is not using spell-check, or is reverting to text language over proper English. I can provide feedback on these issues before there are any graded assignments. I also require bios because I feel a need to get to know my students and the information they post in the bio is often very helpful to me when engaging them in class.
When reading the students bios, I find find information that can help me bring the students into classroom conversations better. Students often post where they work, marital status, talk about children and tell us why they are going to school. This information is a gold mine for me when I am trying to keep online discussions going. When we are talking about strong versus valid arguments, I can find my students with sales experience and engage them in talking about the sales pitches they use. We can then dissect as a class whether they are doing better with a sound or a valid argument. When we are talking about deductive versus inductive logic, I can bring in the parents of young children to talk about recent requests for treats or toys. Most young children present very simple deductive logic that is easy for us to analyze. Students love to talk about themselves and their families, so the bio can help me ask direct questions and bring out material that will enhance the classroom.
The bios can also help me see warning signs of potential problems that could come up in class. When I learn a student is six months pregnant, I know there is a chance of an early delivery or complications that might keep the student from class. I also hear about ill parents, single parents, people working two jobs, and unemployment in the bios. All these can be clues to problems that may later arise in the class.
I print out very little from the online classroom to keep by my side as I am teaching. One thing I always print out is the class roster and on that document I write out the nuggets from the bios that I find useful. I keep this with me as a I interact in the discussion boards and as I grade. There is so much to assist in both those efforts from the demographic and biographical information.
I have noticed that the bios are getting briefer these days and I am starting to wonder if I need to be joining the students Facebook pages to learn more to assist me with my teaching. I have never accepted a friend request from a current student, as I feel strange sharing my personal life in that way. I am not a heavy Facebook user and I do not complain about work (or students) on my page, I just feel that the family picture I share with my relatives are not something I want to share with the students. I am interested in hearing experiences from other faculty members about students as Facebook friends. Please let me know if you have found it to be helpful or intrusive. I am wondering if those nuggets of information that help me be a better educator are now lurking in the Facebook profiles of my students, not the classroom bio threads. It is a new world with social networking, maybe I need to embrace it in my teaching.