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.
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Many of the new policies are sparked by real examples, however rare, of misconduct. The most egregious involve sexual predation (the concern that prompted the Missouri bill), such as the middle school teacher in Pine Hill, N.J., who is accused of conducting numerous inappropriate conversations with male students, in some cases on Facebook.Skip to next paragraph
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Other teachers simply use questionable judgment when posting to their Facebook or MySpace page. Several have had their jobs threatened for posting critical statements about their students, including one New York City teacher who, the day after a local sixth-grader drowned at the beach on a school trip, updated her Facebook status to read: "After today, I'm thinking the beach is a good trip for my class. I hate their guts."
Those sorts of scenarios are one reason that statewide education groups in states such as Ohio and Massachusetts have created model policies – in many cases adopted by individual districts – that vigorously regulate social media use by educators.
In Dayton, Ohio, which this fall approved a ban on teachers "friending" students on social networking sites or contacting them by text or instant messages, the head of the local teachers union welcomed the restrictions. This is in marked contrast to the case in Missouri, where the state teachers union sued to block the new law there.
The problem, say critics of such restrictions, is that far-reaching bans – even if they create exceptions for the sort of educational uses Collins set up in his environmental sciences class – often discourage teachers from attempting to use digital media in class at all.
Collins doesn't usually accept direct friend requests from students, but he does often send private messages to them via Facebook to give feedback on their analysis of articles. Any other means of feedback would be cumbersome, he says. "Students don't check e-mail regularly. That is not a part of their world as much as texting and social media messaging," he adds.
Collins and others note that concerns about inappropriate communication often blur the medium with the message, and that teachers' judgment is the key, not how they converse.
"Banning certain forms of communication isn't going to stop predation of children by bad people," says Collins.
Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium of School Networking, agrees. "While social networking is the current focus, we don't know what's the next tool. Do we want policy constantly chasing to catch up with the new tool?" he asks. "The focus of policy should be behavior, not the technology."
Virginia initially tried to push a Missouri-like ban on social networking between teachers and students, Mr. Krueger says, but eventually ended up reiterating current state laws against predatory behavior by educators – including on social networking sites – and directing school districts to do professional development around appropriate digital media use.
In Missouri, after a court blocked the original ban, the legislature revised the law to require individual districts to devise their own policies for teachers' social media use and electronic communication.