Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why your school or district needs guidelines for social networking--Before the start of school this fall.

Over coffee and the Sunday New York Times we were still finishing Thursday morning of our beach week my sister asked. “Have you heard that some teachers are friends with their students on Facebook?”

“Um, yes.” I was thinking "surely there’s a punchline coming," but it was a serious question.

My sister had come across an Ethicist column in which the writer was opining concerning the behavior of a teacher who had “friended” students on Facebook and was now seeking advice about what to do after having seen clear evidence of adolescent misbehavior, of the illegal as well as merely irresponsible type.

When she caught a glimpse of my expression before I ducked behind my mug, my sister rolled her eyes.

“Just because you are totally into all this weird tech stuff doesn’t mean the rest of us are. I’m sure there are tons of schools where all this is really new stuff to the teachers.” (I feel compelled to point out that my sister who claims not to be “into” weird tech stuff has an iPhone, a blog, and a Facebook account.)

I wonder if she’s right. It seems to me that anyone who has read a magazine or newspaper (let alone a website) in the last two years is aware of the impact of social networking on not just American but international culture. I hope this describes almost all the teachers in this country! Certainly anyone working with adolescents (the teacher in question teaches eighth graders) should have at least a rudimentary knowledge of sites such as Facebook or MySpace.

Or am I making assumptions?

One aspect of the article that interested me most was the inference that the teacher would be acting alone in determining what to do. The author never suggested that the teacher check with administration about complying with any district or school requirements. Given the recent spate of headlines about teachers being fired for their poor social networking choices (read this or this) or just google the terms “teacher disciplined facebook” and peruse the results.

Shouldn’t we have moved beyond the idea that this is completely new territory by now? I’ve been following a recent discussion on a listserv that leads me to think that we haven’t quite gotten there yet. If school leadership hasn’t at least released some suggested guidelines if not more stringent rules concerning appropriate online contact between students and teachers then there’s no time better than this summer to start.

While the technology is new(ish), the awareness of the need for appropriate interactions and information flow between teachers and students has been around for a long time. I remember discussing what constitutes appropriate subject matter for student writing in graduate school in the last century. The professor was preparing us to set boundaries with students who might choose to write elaborate descriptions of their out-of-school adventures for assignments. Her recommendation was to make it clear to students that there are parts of their lives that, if they share them with a teacher, they need to know the information may need to go further than they intend.

The same applies to social networking sites. Teachers and students both need to protect their privacy for many reasons.

So, what constitutes reasonable guidelines? The good news is that this is not new territory, there are resources available to use as a starting point and then modify to suit your organization’s needs. Appropriately, there is a wiki that is “a collaborative project to generate Social Media Guidelines for school districts.” Steve Taffee the Director of Technology at Director of Technology at Castilleja School has written a thorough description of their policies.

The guidelines are just the beginning though. Faculty and students need a true understanding of security and how to manage the settings of the various social media they use. Who is teaching students about how to manage their online lives? Not all parents are capable of this. So often I hear “oh, my daughter is the one who taught me how to Facebook.” Students may have savvy, but they may not have discernment. Parents and teachers have the discretion, but they are intimidated by the technology. Of the two, I would say discernment is more critical than savvy.

Having guidelines doesn’t mean there won’t be problems. Teachers who confuse, blur or completely ignore the lines they should draw clearly for students have always existed and will continue to turn up from time to time. Those teachers should be subject to Guidelines should exist to prevent as many problems as possible and provide a framework for dealing with issues that do arise.

So, get started writing your school guidelines, today!

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