As social networking web sites such as Facebook and MySpace become increasingly popular channels for student communication, schools are struggling to define the rules for whether, and how, it’s appropriate for teachers to interact with their students through these media.
Proponents of using online social networks to reach students say it makes sense to go where students are already spending much of their time online. But others fear that educators’ use of these sites encroaches on students’ online "turf" and could cross the boundary of acceptable social behavior between teachers and their students.
Online social networks are still too new for many schools to have considered an appropriate policy. But so far, it appears the guidelines at the collegiate level, if any, are typically more lenient than the ones suggested at K-12 schools.
"We’re seeing, culturally, a shift of formal structure" in the academic hierarchy, said Jared Stein, director of instructional design services at Utah Valley University. "A lot of students call teachers by their first name."
Stein said social networking sites could be seen as a good platform for teachers to communicate with students, but there’s a limit to how much teachers should engage.
He said there is no formal policy governing whether Utah Valley employees can interact with students on social networking sites, but the university discourages relationships that could cause bias when the instructor gives his or her students a grade. Stein said some of his students use the same tools that he does for social networking online.
"I believe that educators should keep a clear line separating educational relationships from social relationships," he said. "As long as the use of the tool is related to learning, education, or professional development, I don’t see it as being a problem."
Alec Couros, a professor of educational technology and media at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, said he uses online social networks in his teaching by creating a page on Facebook where current and former students have a space to network with each other.
"It’s a space that’s peripheral to the course [and] allows people to connect in different ways," he said.
He acknowledges that there needs to be a shared agreement between teachers and their students as soon as a social network is established.
"There should be a list of things that are OK. You can exchange messages about course assignments, but if you see that I’m signed on, don’t send me a message making small talk," he said.
Couros also said students who are "friends" with their professors online shouldn’t expect favoritism from their teacher.
"Just because I’m your Facebook friend doesn’t mean I’m going to give preferential treatment," he said. "Sometimes there is a casualness that students get into, like asking for permission to extend assignment deadlines. Things like that need to be done in a formal way and not on Facebook."
Although Couros and Stein communicate with their students through social networking sites, both agree there is a difference between K-12 and higher education.
Stein said that in higher education, teachers and students usually have more of a peer-to-peer relationship.
"It’s easier for a professor to befriend a student within higher education. In K-12 schools, the line between student and teacher is more distinct," Couros said.
To define that line, the Ohio Education Association sent a memo to its teachers last year warning them to be mindful of what they posted online. (See "Teachers warned about MySpace profiles."
"MySpace and Facebook present a unique set of problems for education employees," the memo said. "The OEA strongly encourages members to avoid MySpace and Facebook. OEA advises members not to join, and for existing users to complete the steps involved in removing their profiles."
Michelle Prater, OEA media relations consultant, said the fact that online pages can be used in possible investigations was one reason the group encouraged teachers to avoid social networking sites.
"We saw that teachers were finding themselves in these types of situations, so we came up with a policy to keep teachers out of trouble," she said. "Things like that can be very damaging to a teacher, so we felt we needed to take action."
Some school districts have taken similar steps, such as Lamar County in Mississippi. The school board there approved a policy in July that prohibits teachers from sending text messages or communicating with students through social networking sites.
Lamar Superintendent Ben Burnett said the policy wouldn’t keep teachers or students from creating profiles on sites such as MySpace or Facebook; it just doesn’t allow them to communicate socially through these sites.
The board approved the policy when it became concerned that casual contact between teachers and students would be unprofessional, though it said the policy was enacted at the suggestion of the district’s attorney and not as the result of a specific incident.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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