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Associated Press
Mark Zuckerberg

PROVO — Cici Nye remembers opening her acceptance letter from BYU and eagerly scouring the Internet to learn more about her future college experience in Provo. She quickly found the then-fledgling Facebook page, "BYU Freshman '08-'09" and immediately joined.

In just a few weeks, the group had grown to nearly 1,300 excited freshmen, eagerly chatting back and forth about SAT and ACT scores, packing recommendations and their fears of dating at BYU.

"It was cool," said Nye, now a junior and executive director of public relations for BYUSA. "I would be on this group every day because there would be new students from across the country and the world. You could get a taste of BYU before you were here."

It should come as no surprise that Facebook is so popular on college campuses. After all, it was created in the Harvard dorm room of Mark Zuckerberg, who was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year" for 2010, an honor often reserved for heads of state and Nobel Prize winners.

Since its humble Harvard-only beginnings in February 2004, Facebook has grown to more than 600 million users across the globe. And a large chunk of those users are students who blend networking with knowledge gaining and merge studying with socializing.

While many users are quick to sing Facebook's praises and point to the amazing ability to connect and reconnect with people and organize mass groups, others worry about the potential for lower grades, damaged face-to-face social skills and even security concerns. (There's also the annoyance for professors who have to compete against Facebook, or any Internet offering, during a lecture.)

Zuckerberg has heard all of these arguments and will visit BYU today to answer questions about his world-changing creation. He's making the rare appearance at the invitation of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force. Hatch said he asked months ago, eager to have Utah's students learn from one of most successful, fascinating young men, and one of the most influential inventors on the planet.

"These are really brilliant young people," Hatch said, referring to Zuckerberg and the other Facebook officials who will join him in Provo. "They're a lot of fun to be around. I learn from them and I try to help them, because we want to make sure that our country is the most dominant country in the world online, and right now we are, and Facebook is one reason we are."

For Nye it wasn't about world domination, but rather connecting with fellow freshman to ease her pre-college jitters.

Through that connecting, by the time the Class of 2012 arrived in Provo in late August 2008, they were already arranging to make T-shirts and host a massive dance — all coordinated through Facebook.

"I definitely liked that I was able to create friendships before I was here," Nye said. "It's fun to be on campus now and still see those students that I met online, in person. With social networking now, it's cool that you can make friends online in this safe way and continue those friendship into real life."

Web-savvy sudents

BYU sophomore Denna Lawrence signed up for Facebook in high school, but it wasn't until college that she became truly converted.

"Now I use it for everything," she said. "A lot of older people tend to say that we're disconnected because we're always using a computer ... but I really think it has brought us closer together. I hear about things all the time on (Facebook) that I wouldn't have known about otherwise."

BYUSA has harnessed the power of that networking, and since its page went up in 2008, it has grown to 2,780 members who can quickly find out about the BYUSA Informational Meeting or the campus Bollywood Movie Night.

"We use posters and fliers, but we definitely use social media because it works," said Kristina Cummins, BYUSA communications assistant. "We need the posters, but students have become so immune to seeing a poster or having a flier. They already have access to Facebook. They're the ones who are going to that, rather than us trying to come to them."

Yet maybe that's not always a good thing.

Now students have to decide whether they can write a paper with constant tweeting in the background or if they can study physics and Facebook simultaneously.

Some may juggle just fine, but for others, the social multi-tasking comes at a cost.

As a sociology undergraduate at BYU, Wade Jacobsen studied students and their social networking habits and found that a student's texting, tweeting or posting didn't automatically mean lower grades.

However, for every hour that students reported multi-tasking with social media while studying or in class, their grades dropped by .05 — the difference between a B+ and a B.

Jacobsen also noted that students who spent more time using social media also spent more time interacting face-to-face — roughly 10 to 15 minutes more for each hour spent with social media — an outcome he hadn't predicted.

"It could be because people who are social online are also social face-to-face," he hypothesized. "But what we know is that they're linked. Students who spend more time using social media also spend more time interacting."

But some wonder if that interacting is become far too personal, pointing out that students often offer information on Facebook and other social networking sites far too freely.

"We have moved into an era where people are living more public lives than they have ever had the opportunity to do in the past," said Phillip Windley, founder and CTO of Kynetx and an adjunct professor of computer science at BYU. "I worry sometimes about people being too public or not understanding the ramifications."

Employers now are becoming more interested in potential employees' Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, and will often ask interviewees to "friend" them, so they can review the person's activities before they hire them.

"You have to be more aware of not doing stupid things," Nye pointed out. "You want to make sure that you have a positive online image of yourself and that the person you are online is the person you are in real life."

She pointed out that many of her friends are adults from her hometown who she doesn't want to disappoint or embarrass by what she posts. It's just a matter of being smart and realizing that like any tool, it can be used for good or bad.

But rather than be scared off by potential challenges, most students remain hooked.

"I definitely don't see myself like stopping to use Facebook," Lawrence said. "Now it's just so integral into everything (I) do. (When I graduate) I'll probably start using it in different ways, but I don't think it will ever just not be a part of my life anymore."

Professors' views

"Education, at its core, is really about relationships," said David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at BYU. "These social networking tools on our campus provide all kinds of opportunities to deepen and strengthen the relationships that we're already trying to build with students."

Wiley uses both Facebook and Twitter to post course-related materials and interesting news, which can be accessed by his students. He doesn't reach out to them, but will accept their friend requests.

"It's just another channel for getting to students," he said of the social networking sites. "That's where the students are. We have to go to where they are if we want to carry on a conversation with them."

But Robert Gehl, an assistant professor of New Media at the University of Utah, has been communicating just fine with students since he quit Facebook two years ago.

He teaches writing for new mMedia and uses Wikipedia, blogging and Twitter but has no love lost for his abandoned Facebook profile.

"There's a lot of hype among some educators who argue that we have to 'meet the students where they are' and that today's students, often called 'the digital generation,' are inherently tech-savvy, computer-hacking, podcast-listening, multitasking research machines," Gehl said.

With such a mindset, professors are often encouraged to alter their teaching, buy expensive software or learn skills meant to update them for the "digital age," he said. Yet many of those resources may be useless in another 10 years.

He points to previous social-networking bubbles like MySpace, which six years ago was "king." Then, it was all about building virtual realities in Second Life, which now is a "ghost town."

"Are we really willing to bet that a teacher's energy should be disproportionately spent on building a curriculum around the media site du jour?" he asked.

Instead, he suggests focusing on proven methods like engaged reading, thoughtful writing, the scientific method and technological literacy.

Salt-Lake based Instructure believes they have achieved a good balance between technology and traditional learning.

"The same activities people use on Facebook — sharing, communication, collaboration — are exactly the same activities that you need for good education and learning," said Devlin Daley, a BYU grad and one of the co-founders of Instructure.

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Their learning management system Canvas, recently named the software of choice for Utah's higher education online course management, allows students to install a Facebook app that will notify them when their teacher posts grades, new assignments, announcements, etc.

"I don't think you can pretend that Facebook isn't an integral part of higher ed any more," said Brian Whitmer, fellow BYU grad and co-founder. "I think a teacher can do a great job without Facebook, but I think it's a missed opportunity."

Email: sisraelsen@desnews.com