This past week I was asked to advise on guidelines for teacher-student interactions in social media settings such as Facebook. Essentially, we’re recommending caution. The new guidelines will be posted in faculty handbooks, and read as follows:
Faculty/Staff members should maintain professionalism in their relationship with students at all times. Activities/behaviors in which faculty/staff members should not participate with students include, but are limited to the following:
1) Posting student pictures on web-based social network sites (Facebook, MySpace etc)
2) Exchange cell phone numbers with students
3) Participate in inappropriate text messaging with students
4) Participate in inappropriate e-mail correspondence with students
The key word here is “inappropriate.” Unfortunately, no definition is given as to what might be considered inappropriate. There are the obvious reasons – the unfortunate ones that make headlines. However, is ANY contact via e-mail or text messaging between teachers and students appropriate? Our paranoid society would cast suspicion on any of these activities.
While a teacher at Brushy Creek I had a group of students who would instant message me via AOL. I remember twin girls in my math class who would send me a quick message if I happened to be online in the evening, and would ask questions about the homework, etc. It was a great interaction, and it was actually written up in The Greenville News as a innovative way to assist students. After the article came out I had several others that found me online, and we created a chat room for those students.
That was many years ago, and things have changed. At the time my main concern was creating a class of haves and have-nots. Internet access in homes was not pervasive. Heck, very few homes (compared to today) even had computers. I was worried that those without access to this extra after-hours assistance would be at a disadvantage. Therefore, I actually tried to channel the discussions toward more casual, social conversations. I would answer questions about classwork and homework, but I would try not to give undue advantage to any of these students.
There was a certain naivete in these interactions. Given the way things are now, I would never do this. While I am certainly concerned for the safety of my students, and don’t want to minimize the very real danger of online predators, my reason for ME not participating is for MY own safety. And that, basically, is what our new guidlines do, as well. While they are meant to protect students, they are also meant to protect teachers from engaging in activities that could cause concern, whether there was real harm or not.
When you get right down to it, though, someone with predatory or malicious intent isn’t going to abide by any rules that are laid down. The best course of action is education and communication – educate students as to safe practices on the Internet, educate teachers and parents as to the potential dangers, and encourage parents to communicate with and monitor their children’s online social networking activities. Thinking back to my Brushy Creek days, in all of my online communications with students, I always had direct lines of communication with the parents of the students involved. Keeping everything open and transparent is one of the best ways to be safe.
Danah Boyd is a fellow with the Harvard Institute for the Internet and Society, and has been studying teen’s attitudes toward social media. She recently accepted questions via Twitter about her research, and posted responses to those questions on her blog.
@annejonas: i’m curious if they want schools involved in social networks or if they like it as a social space outside the realm of formal edu.
This is messy. Many teens have ZERO interest in interacting with teachers on social network sites, but there are also quite a few who are interested in interacting with SOME teachers there. Still, this is primarily a social space and their interactions with teachers are primarily to get more general advice and help. … Given that teens don’t Friend all of their classmates, there are major issues in terms of using this for groupwork because of boundary issues.
Boyd also points out that students have abandoned e-mail in favor of more instantaneous communication such as text messaging. A good analogy would be as follows: students (and most adults, now) have home addresses, but don’t send or receive old fashioned snail mail. Likewise, students only maintain e-mail addresses to obtain services on social networking sites that require an e-mail address.
Here are a couple more of the questions and answers from that exchange…
@harraton: Do they care about their privacy?
VERY much so. But what constitutes privacy for them is often quite different than what constitutes privacy for adults. Privacy is not dead.
@dougthomas: Teens; what are their thoughts about downloading songs? films? software? without paying for it.
They want access. Their parents won’t pay for it. They don’t have credit cards. They get what they are looking for by any means necessary. And those who get access to it traffic in that content among their peers who may be less technologically savvy/economically privileged.
@jamesb: how does their mobile contacts differ from social network contacts? When do they crossover?
Mobile consists of their closest friends because of the economics of the phone. Social network sites are their broader peer group. Their closest friends are a subset of their broader peer group.
Interestingly enough, some of our younger teachers almost fall into this same peer group, as far as their attitudes toward privacy, social interaction, etc. That’s another reason for developing our district’s new guidelines.
There are going to be lots of questions about interpretation , and I’m busy trying to anticipate as many of them as I can. For example, suppose a teacher has a son and posts a photo on Facebook of him with his prom date, who happens to be another student at the high school. Does that create a problem? In most circumstances, no. Again, the emphasis is on appropriateness, common sense, and professional judgement. But, as one of my colleagues asked, “Why do they call it ‘common’ sense when so few seem to have it?”