Tuesday, July 26, 2011

College Students, Studies Aside: Here are Five Ways YOU Can Control Your Success in Online Classes Right Now

(Before I start this post, I admit that online learning was not my intended topic for the week. However, I am troubled by the study reported in this Chronicle article "Community College Students Perform Worse Online Than Face-to-Face".  Of course, a headline of this type is going to breed tons of press and loads of advice about what colleges and faculty could be doing differently to make online courses more successful. While the data and hypothetical recommendations are tossed around, this post is for fall 2011 students who are actually contemplating online courses).
"How in the hell do you teach public speaking online?"

I can't tell you how many times I've been asked this question by both communication colleagues and non-comm colleagues, alike.

But the bottom line is I have taught public speaking online or partially online for the better part of 13 years and have had some national recognition for doing so (Look at my blog bio to get the specifics on this). I wasn't always successful with online teaching. In fact, when I first started, my course was terrible and my retention was even worse.

Living in a rural area and teaching at a college dedicated to widening educational access for everyone forced me to get good at it. So I took what I knew about adult learners from my undergrad degree and rebuilt the online public speaking course. And got some attention for doing so.

Since that time, I've met thousands of thriving and struggling online students. There are zillions of reasons why students both ace and fail online courses. When research comes out, such as that reported in The Chronicle, finger pointing comes next: Some say it's the college's fault for not requiring students to take an entrance test, similar to English or math placement exams. However, due to the open-access nature of community colleges, I do not believe we can dictate which students can and can't take an online class solely based on the delivery mode (Colleagues, if I'm incorrect, please comment! In fact, comment anyway!). 

Some say that students' success in online classes is largely based on faculty and their online product. Of course, faculty play a major role in the quality of an online class, both in its content and delivery. But regardless, many students do well in "less than" online courses and many students fail in exceptionally designed online courses.

At this moment, I'm not thinking about the more global issues that The Chronicle piece raises about online classes. I'm thinking about you, wonderful incoming fall student, who can take some action now to increase your chances for success in an online class. 

It would take me 20 posts to discuss all of my tips for being a strong online student. So, let's just focus on five items you can work on between now and when school starts. And, as is typical with my advice, you'll see a communication twist. Ready? Here goes: 

1.  Talk about your readiness for distance learning and realistically assess whether or not it is for you. 

Talk to a prof who is well-known for online learning (doesn't even have to be one whose class you will be in), a student who loved online learning and one who didn't love it, an educational adviser, or even by taking a distance learning readiness quiz like this one or this one or this one (or one that your college offers!).

Sound like a lot of investment and time? Well, if you are planning to be a full or part-time career online student, finding out what online learning really looks like is worth that time.

Even more important: find out before you register for an online course, not after, and not in the first week of the course (if you can help it). If the technology or the characteristics of online learning sound like they are not for you, and the issues are not things you can readily overcome (like that you will never like reading large amounts of material online), then online learning may not be for you at this time. Have those conversations to find out the truth about this unique delivery mode. Doing so will increase your chances of success and give you time to get into a face-to-face class, weekend class, evening class, etc. that still works for your schedule.

2.  Discuss the obligations of online learning with anyone who has the potential to support you (or hold you back).

Many, many of my students do their online work in the early morning, late evening, and some float in and out of the course site while they are at their jobs (not that I'm saying this is the ideal). In a traditional class, you have set times for your learning and you are conveniently away from work or home. Online learning will be very different. You will be in the thick of the exact distractions you are usually away from.

So, whoever it is that you are taking time away from--your parents, spouse, kids, boss, lizard, etc.--to "do school" needs to be on board and agreeable to your time needs. If they are not, then you may need to secure a different place to do your work (Starbucks? Library? Mountain top with wireless?) or actually be out of the house for the set times of a face-to-face class.

3.  Talk to an adviser or a prof about classes that would be better suited for you to take online--and those from which you'd benefit from face-to-face attention.

In my college years, and even today, I could easily take an English class online, but algebra or science? No way. I need complete face-to-face contact to help me through my most challenging subjects. I know myself: My first fluster over equations or cells and I would just shut off my computer and get some ice cream (in another city so that way I would have a commute excuse for not going back to the computer!).

Be truthful with yourself about those subjects that would make sense for you to take online and which ones absolutely won't work. The only exception to this is if a) you are willing to get additional help with that topic, either from the prof, a tutor, or another resource entirely; and b) if you have the time to dedicate to bringing yourself up to speed--even with that help.

4.  Once you've decided that you might want to take an online class, get in touch with the prof, get a syllabus, and ask questions before the class starts

I can't tell you how many students start my online public speaking class or my intro class and then are flummoxed to find that they need equipment to record speeches, a five-person audience, a well-lit location for recording, a way to upload presentations, etc. Fortunately, I send my online students a welcome letter detailing these requirements a few weeks before the term starts. Some students drop immediately because they don't want the hassle of recording themselves. I totally respect this decision and applaud it! These students are giving themselves a greater chance at success.

Not every prof sends a welcome letter or gives students a heads-up about requirements, however, so you may have to search out details about the class structure yourself. Get in touch with the prof, say to that person:

-"I am going to be a student in your online class this fall. Do you have a syllabus from last term and a sample schedule that I could take a look at?"
-"I'm thinking about taking your online class and want to see if this is the right format for me. Do you have a... (repeat the above)."

If the prof is not there because it's summer, then contact that person's department secretary, who often works year-round and hopefully isn't in Bermuda at the time you're calling. You can also go to a coordinator, department chair, or division chair. If all else fails, you can contact your educational planning office. Someone should be able to get you access to a syllabus.

When you get the syllabus and schedule, read these documents closely!

Most students want to know, "How much time will I be expected to spend online?"

There may be an explicit statement about this in the syllabus, but you may be able to gauge it in other ways: Look at the amount of discussion board points or a list of discussion board requirements. Lots of discussion board equals lots of online interaction. You're going to need to read posts, post your own posts, and respond to each other's posts--maybe a whole bunch. You can also look for group work or online reading assignments. This equals more time online. (And I'm not even mentioning e-mailing with your prof or other classmates, doing online activities, etc. This should be laid out in the syllabus).

Another point to examine:  The number of days/weeks that you have in between assignments for help/feedback, and even the prof's e-mail response time. You will be able to get a feel for how the course operates.

If you are still unsure about anything, e-mail the prof and ask some specific questions, not just a general "How does this class work?". You can also--gasp!--pick up the phone and call the prof or go make an in-person appointment.

Two important notes to this: Your prof is required to be on campus a week to several days before you are required to be there. That person will likely have pre-campus meetings and his/her "out of office" may still be on e-mail, but at the least, when he/she is checking and responding to e-mail again, yours will be waiting.

Second note: You typically will have access to your course management system earlier than your first actual class start date. Log in and check out the site. This will also give you important information about the course structure.

If you start to feel seriously nervous, ill, sweaty, nauseous, etc., your mind and body may be telling you something. If you truly do not believe you can handle the workload, the schedule, the requirements, or that you have the dedication for this type of learning system, then listen to that gut feeling and read tip #5 below.

5.  If you find yourself under water before or during the first week or your circumstances have changed, tell your prof and find another class option.

My message here is do not just fade away from your online course without letting someone know that you have a) changed your mind about this mode of delivery; or b) a life circumstance will prevent you from being in school at all.

When students have negative perceptions about education because they feel insecure about an online course, it is easy for them to become lost from the system. Do not let this happen to yourself!

If the class is not right for you, go to the prof immediately and say, "I have realized that the online version of this course is not right for me. Can you help me find a face-to-face course that would work for my schedule?" You may also be able to find a hybrid course that meets partly online and partly face-to-face, an evening class, or a weekend class.

Yes, the rest of the classes may be closed. However, there might be some wiggle room since you are an existing student.

If the prof can't help you, get an adviser to assist from your Ed Planning office (or equivalent) to figure out what you can still do in that term.

The bottom line is, do something--don't just fall out of college entirely just because an online class didn't work out. Take even one class so you maintain your momentum. 

Before I close out, back to The Chronicle piece for a moment:  It makes me think about something sad, but the person involved would want me to mention that I'm thinking of her:  My best friend Sherri Patterson died of breast cancer at age 36 (it was back in 2000). Before her cancer was diagnosed, the doctor said that statistically speaking, her chance of having cancer was extremely low due to her age. When Sherri learned that it was the big "C", she said, "Well, statistics don't really matter when it's you."

I bring this up because my best friend was hugely into education and I like to pay tribute to her. I also bring it up because you are going to see many statistics about students succeeding and failing in online learning. As a college student, reading about problems in online learning can be a heart-sinker when this may be the only way you can "do college".

I say think of my friend Sherri's words:  Some statistics about the number of students who finish online classes, or even college as a whole, based on their experiences in online classes, doesn't have to apply to you.

Know what you're getting yourself into. Do as much pre-work to find out as you can. And by all means, ask tons of questions.

You can even ask me questions about online learning. Write a comment or send an e-mail to chattyprof@gmail.com.

If I don't know, I have a bunch of colleagues out there who might. And our goal is to keep you out of the negative online student statistics and rather a gigantic, monumental college success.

(Okay, that was totally cheesy, but I'm sticking to it! Seriously, send on some comments or questions. Colleagues, if you have other pre-term tips for students in online classes, I'll update this post!).

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Want to Find Your Voice in Class? Speak UP!

Student was from Taiwan, but adopted an American name during his two years in Seattle: "Melvin."

In my Intro to Communication course, Melvin always displayed the nonverbals associated with an attentive, engaged student:

He made direct eye contact with myself and others in the class. 

He nodded his head as indication that he was involved in the class discussion.

He furiously took notes, flipped pages in his textbook, made marginal comments in the white space.

What Melvin didn't do was speak in class.


Instead, Melvin sent me eloquent e-mails about his perception of the material we were learning. He clearly understood the concepts, respectfully, but assertively agreed and disagreed with certain points of American communication culture.

By e-mail string #4, I begged Melvin to share these wonderful discussions in class. Then I received e-mail #5 with this subject line:

"Please. Let me be President's adviser behind the screen."

Melvin explained that in his culture, speaking out in class, asserting one's own ideas is not accepted. He would not be remaining in America, but rather returning to Taiwan to work in his father's corporation. Melvin had no intention of changing his deeply rooted cultural norms. He continued his stance--and brilliant e-mails--through two more classes with me.

Reading Confidence in the Classroom: Why it Matters in College, posted by Student Advisor (yes, found it on Twitter... where else am I hanging out?), made me think of Melvin.

The author of this post asserts that too many students sound unconfident in the classroom, starting their opinions/thoughts/ideas with qualifiers, such as:

"Well I was gonna say..."


"I feel like..."


"...But that's just my opinion... I don't know..."

The author states that these phrases are "safe" and "a cop-out."

You might be thinking, "Now wait a minute, Ellen. Where's the correlation with this Melvin guy? You said he wasn't un-confident, just not culturally comfortable with his communication." (Love my alliteration there?).

Yes, Melvin had a deliberate reason for not contributing in class. However, truth of the matter is that in American college classrooms, students are expected to add to classroom discussions, to assert their ideas/opinions/thoughts in a respectful way... to contribute to a shared, rich learning community. 

When I read the post from Student Advisor, I thought about how a student may perceive the advice:

"I'm supposed to talk in class, sound confident, articulate, and solid in my position... What if I can't do that? What if I'm not sure what to say, but I want to say something? Should I not say anything at all?"

When students are concerned about whether they should or shouldn't speak in class, they end up saying nothing. They contribute in their minds--you can almost see them nodding with their eyes. They mentally argue with the professor and classmates about points of disagreement. But they don't open their mouths.

They also don't e-mail with profound thoughts like Melvin did.

In essence, these students silence themselves.

My stance? It is not possible to find your voice without speaking up in class--even if what you say isn't perfect! 

And finding your voice in class takes practice and time.

I completely agree with some the author's assertions: Ideally, students would stand firm on their beliefs, regardless of agreement or disagreement from their classmates. They would assert themselves with confidence, avoiding disclaimers, hedgers, or qualifiers in their communication.

But the idea is not so simple, particularly for those who are novice critical thinkers.

Some people need to "talk out" their ideas to process them.

Some people need to fumble before their message is known.

Some people need to test the waters to gauge reaction before continuing.

This is all part of learning about ourselves as communicators.

So what's the communication lesson here? 

Remember that college is the place to craft and hone your communication skills. 

When you are in class and your prof calls for open discussion, join in. If your prof doesn't include open discussion, feel free to raise your hand and ask a question anyway. You will likely give other students the courage to raise their hands, too (then, check you out as the discussion starter!). 

Don't wait until your thoughts are perfectly constructed. Your prof is usually just glad that students are contributing (of course, your ideas should relate to the content).

Don't feel like you have to make a proclamation with your ideas. Inquiring tone is completely appropriate if you are, indeed, still questioning your position, your understanding of the material, etc.

Am I saying don't think before you speak? Of course not. But what I am saying is that your thoughts do not have to be perfect.

I'm well-schooled, typically well-spoken, and I boldly admit that I've had my share of communication bungles, in meetings and in the classroom. This means that, at times, my ideas fall out in a jumbled mess. Then, I've said, "Wait... let me rephrase that..." or "Ooh, obviously a little too excited about that idea. Let me start over." Like I said before, this is all part of communicating--even when one knows how to communicate extremely well.

Finally, in agreement with the Student Advisor post, don't feel like you need to agree with all discussion swirling around the room. If, indeed, you disagree, say so. Validate the original idea by paraphrasing i.e., "So what you're saying is that..." in a respectful tone. Then, add your thoughts. You can say that you appreciate the other person's point of view, but that you respectfully have a viewpoint of your own.

Bottom line? Say something.

If you don't, participation points may be at stake (I'm going to blog about this in the not-far-future). Others in your class won't come to know you, which means you could miss out on rewarding interactions both in and out of your class with fellow students. Your prof won't know what you are thinking/feeling/absorbing either, which means that he/she can't adjust to help you learn more or learn differently.  

Start speaking up when you are in your first college class and continue throughout your other classes. Hearing yourself speak will give you more confidence every time you do. Your ideas will become more fluid, more solidified. But please, give yourself time and practice for this to take place. 

As I was writing this post, I found myself curious about Melvin's statement:  "Please let me be President's adviser behind the screen."

I have to believe that in order to advise the President, a person would have to be pretty darned self-assured with his/her own communication. And is this person really hidden from the public eye?

So, I did a quick search: President Obama's top political adviser David Plouffe was recently quoted at a Bloomberg breakfast as saying that the unemployment rate won't hinder Obama's re-election possibilities.

Click on the link. The President's adviser is the headline. His words are the crux of the story.

As I suspected, it's a pretty transparent screen.

Dear college students, I hope yours is equally so.

For incoming freshman, do you worry about speaking out in class? For those who have been in college for a while, how long did it take before you were comfortable contributing to classroom discussion? Colleagues, what advice do you have, based on the Student Advisor piece? Please! Weigh in!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Are You "Shoulding On" Other People? Are Others "Shoulding" On You? Here's What You Can Do!

Going back to the classroom a bit--this is a favorite lesson/discussion that my students and I have in our Interpersonal class. Useful for in college and out!

I have a confession to make.

I'm a worrier.

For those who know me, this is not new information. When I tell my students, however, they appear  surprised.

I present myself as confident and self-assured, and in many areas of my life, I am.

However, like most worriers, when I have time and energy to spare, I often "What if...?" myself like crazy. It's far from productive, I know.

(Can anyone else relate? Any other "What if'ers?" out there??? I can't possibly be alone. Hmm... maybe now I'll worry about if I am alone...)

At times, when I tell others about what is worrying me, depending on what I'm sharing, the well-intentioned response is:

-"You shouldn't feel that way" 
-"You shouldn't be concerned about that."

The tone around the phrase is not condescending, but rather a supportive "There, there now..."

Can you guess what happens when someone tells me how I should feel?

White smoke bursts from the ground, swirls around me, and when it clears, I magically feel better (think close-to-end scene from Beauty and the Beast when Beast floats up in the air and becomes the requisite Prince).

So, I'm totally kidding about the smoke...

...and about magically feeling better.

Truth is, hearing how I should feel, regardless of how kindly spoken, negates how I do feel. 

In, essence, I've just been "should on."

I don't like it when other people "should on" me!

(Wonderful readers, can I digress for one moment and ask you to just say that real quick? "Don't should on me!" It feels sooooo good! Like you're saying a bad word, but you're not really saying a bad word... Okay. I'm done now.)

In my Interpersonal Communication and Intro to Communication classes, my students and I discuss the "fallacy of should" every term. Aside from students loving the fun "sounds-like-a-bad-word-but-isn't" statement, we discuss the underlying messages that a "receiver" could take away from a phrase that includes "should"... (and remember, this is after the "sender" probably shared a feeling or concern that they have, so the person is already vulnerable):

-My feelings don't matter
-My feelings are not valid
-My feelings are ridiculous
-I am being judged
-My communication partner isn't interested in delving deeper to find out my true feelings

(Anyone have any others? Please comment!)

I confess that there are times I'm tempted to "should on" others, too.

Like a fine chocolate, "You should..." rolls around the tongue so smoothly! I am usually well-intentioned when I have these "near-shoulds" because I am truly incredulous that another person feels a particular way. 

Case in point:  Sometimes, students are worried about extra credit when they clearly don't need it.

I have to catch myself from saying, "You shouldn't worry about your grade. You're doing fine!"

Another example:  When students are scared to give a second speech, yet their first speech was absolutely amazing.

My temptation? To say, "You shouldn't be concerned about that. Look at how well your last speech went."

But I know that these statements are not productive and not confirming or supportive of what the student actually feels.

So what's the communication lesson here?
When a person tells you something that is bothering/concerning/worrying them, deal with what the person's feelings are, not what you believe they should be.

Ask open-ended questions:

-"Why do you feel that way?"
-"What's making you/leading you to feel that way?"
-"How can I help you feel better?"
-"Is there a way that I can help?"

Allow me to apply a "do-over" to the statements above:

Student A:  Wants extra credit, but they are doing fine.

Me:  "What is it about your grade that is concerning you?" or "Is there an upcoming assignment that you're worried about? Let's talk about how to maximize your points there."

Student B:  Worried about second speech, aced the first speech.

Me:  "Can you tell me why you're concerned? Are you worried about finding credible sources? Was there something about your delivery you want to change?" or, simply, "You did beautifully on the last speech. I have no doubt that if you repeat the process, you're going to do beautifully once again. I'm glad to listen if you have some specific concerns or if there are ways that I can help."

Once your communication partner shares their real feelings, listen to them and respond to what they are saying. You can continue to ask questions, if you feel it is appropriate. Don't sneak in a "should" later in the conversation, though. It will have the same negative effect and possibly shut the person down from saying more.

By now you may be thinking, "I don't should on others, but, boy, do they 'should on' me! What do I do?"

Tell the person straight out, "I appreciate your confidence in me. This situation is really bothering me, though, and I be glad to hear some advice." You can also ask the person if they will simply listen so you can vent.

Or, if the person sounds negative about your concern, you can say:

"I'm already judging myself all over the place about these feelings. I realize you are trying to help make me feel better. I'd be open to some actual suggestions or even to you just listening."

Remember, you can't get your needs met from a communication partner if you don't assert those needs specifically and directly. People can't read our minds! Of course, some people don't have the capacity to refrain from judgment and will always "should" on you. You learn quickly that those are not your "go to" people when you have a problem.

One other quick note:  Make sure the tone of what you do say matches your sincere, open-ended questions. If your inflection sounds negative, the person won't hear what you're actually saying--they'll take away those negative feelings of "should" because that's the message your tone is sending.

Give this communication strategy a try, whether you are a habitual "should-er" or are the recipient of same. I'd love it if you'd comment and report back on how it went! (No disclosure of the actual situation necessary!).

It's just not nice to "should on" others or to have others "should on" us.

(I had to get it in one last time. Seriously... say it just for fun. There is quite a satisfaction there!).

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

School Business on Facebook: Time for Some New Student-Prof Communication Rules?

(Before I start this post, I have to express heartfelt appreciation to all followers/visitors of this blog. My counter is nearly at 4,400 visits in just 90 days. The positive comments, e-mails, and tweets I've received are so incredibly appreciated. I am beyond passionate about this message; I'm thrilled to interact with you in this niche aspect of the college success genre in such a rich, enlightening, and engaged way. I feel so honored that you are all with me on this journey!

Second quick update: I received a very important and useful tip from Jennielle, an Enrollment Manager and higher ed "tweep" that I want to share.  Jennielle responded to this post on grabbing the #1 communication skill before leaving college: She writes: "I am not a recent graduate, but I am always looking to hire recent grads. If your students are having a hard time finding jobs, tell them to visit their alma mater's admissions office! Admissions offices love to hire alums, but we also love to hire communications majors. They are perfect for the job." Many thanks, Jennielle!

Okay, onward!).

"You CAVED!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

This is what my sweet sister-in-law posted on my Facebook wall 90 days ago when I finally, finally, finally (finally!) relented and got on the social media bandwagon that I had been avoiding for years

I said it in this post:  I like face-to-face communication.

I like the phone.

I don't like replacements for those interactions.

Just this morning, in fact, I was madly texting with a dear Mom friend of mine. Finally, I picked up the phone and said, "This is ridiculous. We're obviously both up."

Yep. That's how I roll... er... call.

Back to my point: For these reasons, silly as they may seem, I avoided Facebook.

My students taunted me forever over my Luddite perception of social media. I think for the brief time that MySpace was popular, I experienced some grief over that, as well.

Now that I'm on Facebook, my reasons for being there are still pretty sanitized:

I'm blogging about student-professor communication.

Students access material via Facebook.

I need to be on Facebook. 

In my last post, I discussed my opinions about students befriending a professor. I didn't bring up Facebook in that discussion, even though "friend" has taken on a whole new connotation in tandem with social media.

Now, along with my late bloomer Facebook status, I may also be late in realizing that social media requires some updated student-professor communication "rules".

Once again, Twitter has led me to a number of articles about students, professors, and Facebook. One piece from Adjunct Nation, in particular, called Adjunct +  Facebook = Disaster, struck me:  A part-time prof (a brother-in-latecomer-status on Facebook like me!) speaks of an unfortunate experience where a student used Facebook to request a "grade fix."

Bottom line? This prof now has a pretty hard-edged policy about friending students via social media.

I'm sure this prof is not the first to experience squiggly lines of business versus personal contact on Facebook.

In my brief three months on the site, I was contacted regarding a minor school issue. I admit it made me uncomfortable--but not uncomfortable enough to worry about it.

Now I'm rethinking that idea.

I completely understand why students wouldn't think twice about contacting a professor on Facebook regarding class-related issues. After all, this piece from Communication Studies reveals that 57% of people are communicating more online than face-to-face, so it would make sense that Facebook would seem a perfectly acceptable place to raise issues.

It is important to remember what Facebook is:  Social media.

(Not telling you anything new right now. I get it! But wait, there's more...)

Emphasis on the word "social".

Social environments, either face-to-face or online, are not the place to discuss class business.

Students, let's look at this in another way:  You have just finished your dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. On your way out, you see your prof sitting with his/her family. You stomp right over to the table and ask why you received an 85% instead of a 90% on your last assignment.

Would you do that?

For the love of Godiva (my fave cheesecake at the above-mentioned), I certainly hope not!

I speak from a comparatively benign related experience.

When I taught at my last college, I was approached in the frozen peas by a student who worked at Publix grocery. Why did he visit me as I was deciding between the snap peas, the baby peas, and the peas and carrots? He needed help with his speech topic!

In the frozen peas!!!

Think of Facebook like Publix or The Cheesecake Factory. This is "out of school" territory. School business doesn't belong there.

A number of colleges have implemented policies regarding professors and their use of Facebook, such as the requirement to have a public page separated from a personal one. Along this same line, I wonder:

Are fellow faculty out there in the world implementing social media policies in a class syllabus? (If so, please comment!!!).

I imagine this would be found right in the same place where we discuss our office hours, location, how to reach us via phone, e-mail, and our e-mail communication policy.

I don't have a policy, but when I'm back in the classroom, it's coming.

In the meantime, what's the communication lesson here? 

Students, when it comes to communicating with your professors, if you are already connected on Facebook, save class-related issues for either campus e-mail or the e-mail in your course management system (Angel, BlackBoard, Moodle, etc). Both of those places are perfectly appropriate for you to send a message saying, "Professor Jones, I am having a problem and I need to discuss it with you."

Of course, you can probably guess that depending on the severity of the problem, I say you're better off going to the next level of communication "richness":  Pick up the phone or make an in-person appointment.

You can definitely check your syllabus or your college handbook for an official policy regarding student-professor Facebook use. If your professor does have a public page sponsored by your institution, then ask your prof about his/her policy is regarding class-related communication in that space.

You can say, "Professor Jones, I see that you have a Facebook page. If I need to discuss something about our class, is this an appropriate place to send you a message?" The prof may direct you elsewhere, but at least you will get the straight scoop about where your communication should happen before you make a social media error.

Interestingly, I have known some students who have their own professor Facebook policy:  They won't even consider "friending" a prof until after a term is over. (Personally, I agree with this, unless the page is strictly for college use!).  

From a practical perspective, if you are using e-mail to deal with a problem, you would want to have documentation of that. The documentation looks far more professional between you and your prof in your course management system e-mail or via a college account that belongs to one of you.

I'm sure this post will lead to further discussion and I'm going to end with some questions:

-Again, I'll ask my wonderful colleagues out there in the world:  Do you have a social media policy regarding where to conduct school business?
-And to my fabulous student readers:  What are your thoughts about doing school business on Facebook? Do you perceive that if your professor is "friending" you that this should be a perfectly acceptable environment for classroom issues? How do you think that Facebook will evolve communication with profs in the future?