Should you ‘friend’ your students on Facebook?
Assessing online teacher-student communication
By Lisa Tran
Should you friend your students on Facebook? What if you used an account separate from your personal one? Is any online communication with students appropriate?
The behavior of Internet users is changing quickly. Information is no longer static. We now read, write, and contribute online and for our students, it is done mostly on a social network. There’s little doubt that if we want to be a part of a digital native’s world, we need to also engage with them in their world. Many teachers are digital immigrants, refugees, even, who often misunderstand the role of social media and online communication. To bridge the gap, we need to explore and learn about the ways in which students communicate digitally, but is online communication with students effective or safe?
The pedagogy behind online communication and the tools that facilitate it are persuasive. The barriers to learning are lifted and extended beyond the classroom when students comment, share, and collaborate online. Students demonstrate high levels of engagement while using social media. If we apply similar interactivity to learning, the likelihood for a return of engagement is tremendous. We can’t however, expect students to use these applications as learning tools without our participation. When teachers are involved, they act as a facilitator, but more importantly, they demonstrate trust in their students—that is where the issue of “friending” your student arises.
At the 2010 ECOO Conference, a panel of Ontario teachers, union officials and school board representatives discussed this very topic. Note that until recently, teachers were not permitted any online communication with students. The existence of this panel discussion proves that we live in the digital age and that teachers are adopting newer technologies. The panel expressed extreme caution and tales of woe as they highlighted isolated examples of student abuse and manipulation of social media to harm fellow classmates or teachers. Although poignant, the discussion voiced deterrence over experimentation. This is not helpful to educators and their students.
The most important thing to retain from the union’s perspective is that their first and foremost concern is the protection of teachers and rightly so. However, if teachers are bringing Web 2.0 tools into the classroom and regularly communicating with students online, what is some pragmatic advice? What do we really need to know?
First, know that every user’s privacy is at risk, not just the teacher’s. John Harris, a teacher at Lochiel U-Connect, a technology-dedicated school in Langley, British Columbia, explains that, “If you use commercial Web 2.0 tools, you almost inevitably face questions of what data do students have to give away about themselves to get the account? What does the company do with the data and how will they market products to students [once logged in] based on this information?” Any answer provided by these corporations cannot be verified thus we need to safeguard our information or think twice before registering.
Next, follow the school, board, or union’s rules and guidelines regarding teacher online conduct. The ability to use social media as an academic tool is up to the board, but it isn’t only the board. Exercise caution and use your own judgment.
Teachers should also define rules for student use of social media and Web 2.0 in the classroom and at home. Students must understand that they are accountable for their online actions. Repercussions for misuse or inappropriate behaviour should be outlined. At Lochiel U-Connect, students must sign and abide by a computer and technology usage agreement. Harris explains, “A part of that is very clearly expressing our rule that whatever you publish online using school equipment or under the auspices of school projects, you’re going to use appropriate content.” If students break that contract, they lose the ability to use the technology.
When communicating with students online, never respond to malignant behaviour, including the creation of fake Facebook accounts impersonating yourself or colleagues. In Ontario, for example, teachers have a legal duty to supervise students (Regulation 298 or The Education Act) and that is extended when online communication begins. Additionally, Bill 157 outlines a teacher’s responsibility to report certain student behavior that may include online postings. In this case, the ECOO panelists recommend fulfilling your duty by reporting online malignant or defamatory activity and informing the student’s parents.
Learning the technology is always the best course of action before introducing it to students. If you require assistance, your students will likely be your best resource, being digital natives. If you’re confident in your students and fully grasp social media, there is no reason that commercial applications cannot be effective learning tools. However, if you’re fairly new to these technologies, use board recommended or internally hosted tools such as blogs, video sharing sites, or wikis. If those are unavailable, there are plenty of safe online environments specifically intended for education, such as Ning.
Ning is an application that allows users to create their own social network. It differs from Facebook in that users control their entire network, for example, they choose who can join the network and what actions they are permitted. Facebook, on the other hand, limits control to one’s personal profile. Ning remains free to educators in partnership with Pearson Education. Many online resources and videos are available to help educators build their own network.
I think we often forget that the school boards and teachers unions are behind us. They want us to use technology in our teaching, but the processing of legalities and legislation is slow and results in mandates that don’t encourage technology use. We can still, however, communicate online with students when the right product or guidelines are chosen.
Let’s revisit our original question—should we friend our students on Facebook? Harris says, “I don’t have any problems, in principle, as long as you know the implications and know the technology well. I would take some obvious steps, such as remove myself and students from Facebook and Google search. I would learn how to avoid my photos from being tagged. That’s what gets people in trouble.”
Personally, I believe not friending students does not affect learning. Using accounts separate from our personal ones is unauthentic and defeats the purpose of Facebook. If we’re going to use the technology, we need to understand and accept its purpose and policies. We can’t try to bend the rules of social media to meet our needs, but rather, find new applications that do fit our classrooms. We can’t however, run from the technology.
Teachers often turn to commercial platforms because they’re popular among digitally savvy students. Instead, we need to pressure developers for more educationally dedicated platforms or for commercial ones to create educational versions that are free of advertising and allow protected identities. “There needs to be a groundswell of demand,” echoes Harris. The more educators are involved, the better the applications will become—just as good, it not better than commercial ones. Harris also suggests a change in our curriculum that teaches guarding your privacy in this, an online age.
Surprisingly, many small developers are happy to accommodate educators. Harris shares the story of Engrade, a free online gradebook developed for education that allows teachers, students, and parents to view student grades and agendas. Their servers are located in the United States; however, they specifically built a new one in Canada so that student data remains local.
Teachers need to champion a social media or Web 2.0 tool—any one—as long as it’s one that is educational. Facebook was once exclusive to select college and university students. It quickly became a worldwide phenomenon that had many on the edge of their seats, waiting for the announcement that the social network would be available to the general public. If we usher students toward a new educational network, we will bring back the exclusivity. If exclusivity exists, we can reverse the current process whereby digital natives are introduced to social media on a personal and social level before experiencing the classroom version. If, from early on and thus affecting future students, we introduce and facilitate online sharing and communicating networks, we may possibly change the current online behaviours of today’s youth. Consequently, our initial instincts regarding using social media in the classroom won’t be related to the exploitation of our privacies, nor will it be about student cyber bullying. In the end, we may still not friend our students on Facebook, but we will have the confidence that we can, but simply choose otherwise.