Facebook buttonShould teachers be able to “friend” their students on social media platforms? Do the educational advantages outweigh the potential risk of sexual predation?

These are important questions for the modern day. Facebook in particular is becoming a primary channel of communication for many people: educators, kids, the elderly from a nursing home, and just about every other demographic you can think of. As a result, it is hardly surprising that, like with all communications channels before it, there some people who exploit it for nefarious purposes.

The state of Missouri has weighed in with a legal ruling that puts severe limitations on the way educators are allowed to interact with students online. To some, this is a long overdue measure of protection; to others, it is a gross infringement on free speech. Let’s start with this quick video report by ABC 15 in Arizona that gives the basics.

The “Facebook Law,” as it has been dubbed by the media, is The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act (PDF), which was signed into law on July 14. The law is slated to go into effect on the 28th of this month, and the section that has many people up in arms is as follows:

No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a work-related Internet site unless such site is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian.

No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student.

As you may imagine, reactions are mixed, and highly polarized. Let’s take a look at some of the concerns voiced by both sides of the debate.

Jason Noble, a reporter for The Kansas City Star, brings us the perspective of the new law’s sponsors:

Bill sponsors and state-level education groups, however, contend the language does allow teachers to have presences on the sites, to be friends with students and to send them messages — but only if those messages are public and readily visible to parents and school administrators.

‘This law in no way stops communication with students,’ said Sen. Jane Cunningham, the St. Louis County Republican who sponsored the bill. ‘In fact, we encourage social-media contact with students. We just require it to be appropriate, meaning it is not hidden from parents or from school personnel.’

Then there are those in opposition, ranging from teachers and bloggers to the ACLU. One of the more common complaints is that the law, as it stands, seems to provide an assumption of guilt on the part of teachers in general. Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor at the College of Education and the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, was quoted in The Huffington Post as saying:

‘It seems to assume the worst about teachers, that teachers are sexual predators,’ he added.

Amy Mascott, a mother of three and former teacher who started Teach Mama, a blog focusing on education, said in an email that she’d be upset if this law affected the school her children attend.

‘I feel it immediately colors the teacher-student relationship in a negative way, assuming that all teachers are going to act inappropriately with students,’ Mascott said.

Since platforms like Facebook are increasingly the prime means of communication for the younger set, embracing social media interaction is viewed as a fantastic place to engage students. The question under debate is: “Engage them for what?”

Supporter Charol Shakeshaft, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, compares the situation to physical teacher-student interaction. Also from The Huffington Post article:

‘In the same way that in a school we would say, ‘No, you may not lock yourself into a room with a student,’ this law effectively says, ‘No you may not lock yourself into a website where only you can get to the student.”

There are a number of completely innocent private interactions that students and teachers can have via social media, interactions that have a good deal of positive educational impact. For instance, a student who is having problems with other students or with his or her work might not be quick to address the issue in a public forum.

For example: A student sees his teacher online and IM’s him through Facebook with a question. If this is a shy kid, the platform creates an opportunity to ask questions without having to do so in front of other students. If the child in question is too shy or usually afraid to raise a hand in class, this can be a way to allow better educational engagement and recapture a lost opportunity. Of course, if a child is that shy, he or she may well not want to communicate online if he or she knows that others are monitoring the conversation.

As you can see from even this brief survey, the issue is complex, and both sides present some solid food for thought. One thing that I think a lot of people are missing is that this shows a desperate need for privacy in education, both for adults and school age kids. A solid understanding of online privacy and an understanding of who can view what portions of your content is a major step towards improving the situation.

There are some steps that can be taken immediately to preserve as much engagement as possible while staying within the new legal guidelines. Here is a hypothetical case to illustrate what I mean.

John Doe is an 8th grade teacher in Anytown, USA. Timmy Smith is one of his students, and, like many that age, is a heavy Facebook user. Mr. Doe has a Facebook profile which he has locked down so that only friends and family can view it. In order to be more accessible to his students Mr. Doe sets up a Facebook page (rather than profile) for himself — John Doe, Teacher. The interactions on the Facebook page are public and may be viewed by anyone. Timmy Smith can “like” the public teacher page rather than “friending” Mr. Doe, which would create a link to his personal profile.

That example does nothing to address the type of private conversation that is at the root of the issue, but it does represent one way to capture student engagement without violating the new “Facebook Law.”

It is easy to understand why people are up in arms in a number of states. The archetype of the online predator has assumed a larger place in the public consciousness as untoward incidents come to light. Two notable and recent cases in particular come up frequently in debate.

First, there is last week’s arrest of a Georgia teacher for having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old student. It is often cited in this discussion because he allegedly used social media and a cell phone for contacting his victim. (Bulloch County, GA, is now planning a review of its school social media policies as a result).

Then, earlier this year, there was a similar case covered by Kyle Feldscher, the K-12 education reporter for AnneArbor.com:

Earlier this year, the Virginia Board of Education voted to encourage local school districts to set policies regulating social media use by teachers. According to The Washington Post, the debate began after a teacher at Virginia’s Manassas High School was found to be exchanging personal messages with several former students, eventually molesting one of them.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Feelings run high on both sides of the debate, and, since this is being addressed at the state level, we can almost guarantee a variety of approaches. It would be very interesting if Facebook were to roll out a new type of page or group specifically for educators.

What do you think? Should teachers be able to “friend” their students on Facebook? Where is the dividing line between protecting children and exercising freedom of speech? Let us know in the comments!

Source: “Washtenaw County school districts ask: How should teachers approach social media?,” AnneArbor.com, 08/01/11
Source: “Missouri teachers, students to be banned from interacting through social media,” ABC 15, 08/02/11
Source: “Missouri ‘Facebook Law’ Limits Teacher-Student Interactions Online, Draws Criticism And Praise,” The Huffington Post (Parents), 08/03/11
Source: “New Missouri law on social-media ‘friending’ confounds teachers,” The Kansas City Star, 08/02/11
Image by birgerking, used under its Creative Commons license.

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