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Schools weigh risk, benefit of Facebook

Fears over bullying and improper teacher contact with students are prompting many schools to limit social media sites like Facebook, which critics argue may not be a wise educational move.

By Staff writer / September 27, 2011

Thomas Jefferson High School students in Bloomington, Minn., engage in a ‘hybrid’ class, partly taught online, from a cafe. Although the school has now blocked Facebook, it allows other social media in some classes.

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For Chuck Collins's advanced placement environmental sciences class, Facebook is a must.

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Mr. Collins, who teaches at Missouri's Clayton High School, posts between 10 and 15 articles a week on a page he's set up for the class. Students need to read at least one of the articles and write a thoughtful, substantive response that weaves in class material in the comments section below the post.

"I can do things with [the Facebook page] that I absolutely could not do with more mainstream types of teaching," says Collins.

Not surprisingly, Collins was among the many teachers and students who opposed a recent attempt by the Missouri legislature to ban most interactions between teachers and students over social media forums like Facebook. The Missouri law (blocked by a state court in August) was the most sweeping attempt to try to govern the realm of social media in education, but it's hardly unique.

Increasingly, fears over bullying and improper contact with students are prompting districts and schools to try to regulate the vast world of social media – often, say some educators and technology experts, with too heavy a hand, however well intentioned.

"We need to have some sort of rules and guidelines for how you use social media ... but the goal should be to educate our students on what it means to participate in the world in which they live" rather than simply banning certain sites, says William Stites, technology director at Montclair Kimberley Academy in New Jersey and blogger in chief at edSocialMedia, which explores the role of social media in education. "It's meeting students where they are."

Like others, Mr. Stites sees big learning opportunities for students with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and numerous other sites, some of which have been designed specifically with teachers in mind.

The bans on certain digital activity may be new, but the fears prompting them regularly arise with new technology, says Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. When movies first appeared, he notes, there were efforts to prevent children from going into theaters because of fears that they'd be harmed by both the content and the lack of fresh air.

"There are always some children who need protection, and most children don't need it," he says. "So how do we provide protection and yet keep things sufficiently open, flexible, available, and accessible so that we don't deprive children? It's unclear whether the law can really handle that sort of distinction."

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