High school and college students are increasingly engaging in vigorous, intelligent debate about scientific issues in a voluntary Facebook forum, says a study.
Such informal learning not only could supplement the content knowledge students acquire in class, but also connect them with professionals and experts in the field, spur interest in careers and inspire civic engagement.
Social-networking sites such as Facebook can help students learn complex subjects that often receive short shrift in today's time-strapped classrooms, the study said.
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"One of the things we struggle with as educators is how to take students' spark of interest in something and develop it in ways that can serve them," said Christine Greenhow from Michigan State University.
"If students had these kinds of niche communities to be part of, in addition to their formal curriculum, that could really provide a rich environment for them," Greenhow added.
For the study, students aged 16-25 voluntarily joined a Facebook app that dealt with climate-related science news such as coal-burning regulations and environmentally friendly housing.
Greenhow analysed the students' activity on the Facebook app and found their discussion on various science issues to be largely on-topic, civil and sophisticated.
Past research has looked at online forums run by the teacher or professor and found mixed results when it came to student engagement and the quality of debate.
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Greenhow said students are likely to feel comfortable participating in the informal forum because it's already part of their everyday lives and can be less hierarchal and forced than a forum mandated by an instructor.
The findings make a case for popular online sites such as Facebook as possible learning tools. Facebook has more than a billion users, but critics say excessive use can distract kids from academics, spur loneliness and depression, and facilitate cyberbullying.
The study appeared online in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour.