I wrote this in response to a post by Lisa Nielsen, author of The Innovative Educator blog and co-author of the book Teaching Generation Text. As they often do, my comments morphed into a blog post of my own.
Almost 70% of 18-34 year-olds expect 2012 presidential candidates to have a social media presence (Digitas, 2011). A 2008 study by Cone’s, Business in Social Media Study, revealed that 93% of social media users expect companies to have a social media presence, and 85% expect the businesses to interact with their clients via social media – it is safe to say that that percentage has increased in the past four years. Almost 60% of Fortune 500 companies maintain active corporate Facebook and/or Twitter accounts (Sociable360.com). As a school librarian, when I want to check out a publisher or book distributor, I look them up on Facebook and Twitter. I skip the website, because I know that the content will probably be six months old, at best, whereas the social media profile will be current. For customer support, I will choose Twitter over a phone tree, any day.
Seventy percent of American colleges admit to factoring prospective students' Facebook profile into the college admissions process (Schools.com). My employer checks prospective candidates' Facebook profile before hiring them. Does yours? Ask.
What are we doing to prepare students to function in this landscape? It is imperative for them to understand that their digital profile matters - that it is, to a large extent, permanent, and that there are adults who can teach them how to use social media for productivity and learning. They need guides and mentors, and like everywhere else, they need supervision. We would never leave a cafeteria full of adolescents unsupervised. That doesn't mean that we monitor every conversation that occurs in that cafeteria. We just make sure that there are adults around. This helps youngsters keep their behavior in check. The same principle applies in virtual space. They need to know we are there.
On Facebook, we let people know we are there by “friending” them. Preventing teachers from“friending” students is shortsighted. For one thing, it reinforces the false notion that social media is exclusively social. As the above statistics indicate, it isn’t. It also denies students the chance to connect with vetted mentors, those who have expertise supervising and guiding children, and those before whom students are practiced at exhibiting their very best behavior. Interacting with teachers encourages students to learn how to use social media constructively – as tool for communication, collaboration, and productivity – as they will ultimately use it in the workplace.
Very often, students don’t want to be Facebook friends with teachers, parents, relatives and other adults. The most logical explanation for that is that they are doing things online they don’t want the adults in their lives to see. But digital profiles are increasingly looked at as resume extensions. Kids should not post what they don’t want the adults in their lives to see, and the best deterrent for irresponsible posting is to have a wide array of adults present in students’ online world.
So yes. Prohibiting teachers from “friending” students is a problem for students. It is also a problem for teachers. Since when is it okay to impose policy and regulations that dictate whom adults can and cannot befriend - in real life or otherwise? Teachers are certified to work with children face-to-face for at least six hours per day, but for some reason, they are not qualified to interact with them online?
We are in the business of education. It is our job to facilitate, not impede learning. Encouraging teachers to engage learners supports that effort, regardless of the platform. Social media policies that prohibit online teacher/student interaction are presumably enacted to prevent misconduct from one, or even a handful of teachers. But they deny entire student communities excellent learning opportunities – learning communication, collaboration, contribution, and participation – all fundamental 21stCentury learning skills. These policies embody the very opposite of what education stands for. Education should celebrate learning and preparing students for academic and professional advancement, not prevent it.
There are plenty of instances where misguided teachers behave inappropriately in face-to-face interactions with students. And truthfully the impact of that kind of misconduct can be far more traumatic than inappropriate online interaction. Yet I don’t see administrators and legislators drafting policies that prevent teachers from interacting with students face-to-face. Vilifying social media as a vehicle for misconduct perpetuates the myth that people behave badly there. This gives children license to do just that, whereas showing them how to use it responsibly debunks the myth and encourages appropriate use.
Restrictive social media policies in education – those aimed at avoiding potential scandal and litigation will ultimately fail. By trying to explicitly address all potential scenarios involving social media, districts increase their vulnerability. Lawyers, of course, will say otherwise. That’s how they generate business. In all likelihood, overly restrictive policies will beget more litigation than they avert. Better to omit the mention of social media and focus on general conduct – conduct that explicitly demands responsible and respectful behavior from teachers and students alike, whether it be in real life or online. Chances are, for every school in America, policies like that have been in place for decades.