Should teachers and students be facebook friends?
There has recently been much legal wrangling over the issue of communication between teachers and students via social media sites, in particular on Facebook. In America, state legislators and individual school districts are currently wrestling with the problem – not only trying to decide what the rules should be, but also how on earth to enforce them. The world of the internet and social media is notoriously slippery, with legal blurring around the edges, and enforcing strict policies when information can be hidden or kept private could be practically impossible in reality.
After the attempts of some states to put in place official rules against teachers befriending their students on Facebook backfired, leading to fears of restriction of free speech, legislators seemed largely to throw up their hands and pass the baton to individual school districts. So many school districts in America now have widely varying policies, with some allowing teacher student interaction on social media, some banning it altogether and others allowing only certain approved devices to be used. The rules also vary widely from school to school in the UK, with some allowing students and teachers to be social media buddies and others explicitly banning the practice altogether. But what are the main arguments for and against teachers and students connecting over Facebook?
It is easy for old-fashioned cynics to sniff at the very idea of educators interacting with their charges over social media – claiming that it opens up a can of worms and is potentially dangerous – so why do it? However there is a sense in which those making this argument fail to understand the explosive changes currently rocking traditional education. Education technology, from flipped classroom models to connecting with other parts of the world via Skype, are becoming more and more dynamically integrated in today’s classrooms. And with the current generation of young people growing up attached to screens and handsets, it is essential that teaching evolves to keep up with them and keep them engaged – even if that means adapting to use media that pupils are most familiar and comfortable with.
Properly controlled and moderated, teacher-student contact via Facebook can allow closer and more trusting relationships to form, information to be quickly and effectively disseminated and dynamic, exciting new teaching techniques to be tried out. Facebook’s settings are sophisticated enough that it doesn’t have to be an ‘all-or-nothing’ decision – some teachers create a separate profile for use exclusively with their students, whilst others block students from seeing any of their personal information but are still able to communicate with them using the site.
Another important argument is that by connecting with their students online, teachers are able to monitor their use of social media, flagging up aspects of their profiles that raise concern and keeping a watchful eye on inappropriate communications.
The cons include the opportunity for students to discover inappropriate private details about their teachers, and the potential for inappropriately personal relationships to develop between teachers and students. But this problem, albeit rare, has already arisen numerous times between students and teachers, and is not necessarily likely to be made more prevalent by the introduction of one extra mode of communication.
There is also the risk that befriending students on social media risks compromising teachers’ authority, by blurring the boundaries of friendship and authority, which is often best maintained by a responsible amount of distance.
Finally it may be argued that young people are already spending a worrying amount of time at the keyboard, when they could be outside or socialising with friends, which many fear is damaging interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate successfully face-to-face. By adding teachers to the long list of people students are able to interact with virtually, we are cutting off one more bridge to actual personal communication, which may be vital for many students’ development.
Of course, moving some teacher-student interaction online also makes the potentially damaging assumption that all students have access to a Facebook account – when you could argue that educators should be praising and supporting those who may have resisted the urge, not adding to social pressure to conform! Not to mention the risk of alienating students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may not have access to technology at home, or teaching staff who may not have access to Facebook!
All in all, it seems that there are not yet enough solid gains to be had from Facebook interaction between students and teachers to overcome the significant risks and challenges it may present. For now, the most important issue seems to be the development of crystal clear regulations that apply more widely, to enable teachers to be confident of the rules that apply to them. The current haphazard, higgledy-piggledy collection of contradictory rules is unhelpful to both students and teaching staff, as it makes it incredibly difficult to know exactly what is and isn’t allowed and creates the very real possibility that staff could be transgressing the rules without even realising it. Whether or not teachers should be able to befriend past students online, for example, is just one of many grey areas that must be clarified in order for any progress to be made.
What are your thoughts?
Where do you stand on the controversial topic? Should teachers and students be Facebook friends? Or is it too dangerous and potentially damaging?