on social networking guidelines for teachers

I was recently directed to a recent post on a blog called "Blogg-ed Indetermination" offering a first pass at a set of guidelines for using social networking tools in the K-12 classroom.

The blog's author, Steve Taffee, points out that while young people are taking to social networking "like ducks to water," adults are more conflicted about the appropriate uses for social networks in schools. He offers up a set of nine guidelines, not intended to be the final word but intended to start a conversation "in the best of social networking tradition." With this impulse in mind, I'll repeat the proposed set of guidelines and offer my suggestions for refinement.

Proposed Guidelines for Use of Social Networks by School Faculty and Staff*

New technologies, such as social networking tools, provide exciting new ways to collaborate and communicate. Nevertheless we must exercise care to be sure we use such tools with students in ways that are both age-appropriate and consistent with the mission of the school.

School faculty and staff are expected to behave honorably in both real and virtual (online) spaces. Activities which are improper, unethical, illegal, or which cause undue discomfort for students, employees, parents, or other members of the school community should be judiciously avoided in both physical space and cyberspace.

To that end, we offer the following guidelines for school employees who use online social networking applications which may be frequented by current or former students.

1. COURSE USE OF SOCIAL NETWORKING: In order to provide equal, age-appropriate access for students to course materials, faculty should limit class activities to school-sanctioned online tools. New social networking tools and features are being continually introduced which may or may not be appropriate for course use. The same care must be taken in choosing such tools as other tools and support materials.

2. MODEL APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR: Exercise appropriate discretion when using social networks for personal communications (friends, colleagues, parents, former students, etc.) with the knowledge that adult behavior on social networks may be used as a model by our students.

3. FRIENDING ALUMNI: Accept social network friend requests only with alumni over the age of 18. Do not initiate friend contacts with alumni.

4. UNEQUAL RELATIONSHIPS: Understand that the uneven power dynamics of the school, in which adults have authority over former students, continues to shape those relationships.

5. OTHER FRIENDS: Remind all other members of your network of your position as an educator whose profile may be accessed by current or former students, and to monitor their posts to your network accordingly. Conversely, be judicious in your postings to all friends sites, and act immediately to remove any material that may be inappropriate from your site whether posted by you or someone else.

6. GROUPS IN YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK: Associate with social networking groups consistent with healthy, pro-social activities and the mission and reputation of the school, acting with sensitivity within context of a diverse educational environment in which both students and adults practice tolerance and accept competing views.

7. PRIVACY SETTINGS AND CONTENT: Exercise care with privacy settings and profile content. Content should be placed thoughtfully and periodically reviewed to maintain this standard.

8. MISREPRESENTATION: Faculty who use social networks should do so using their own name, not a pseudonym or nickname.

9. PUBLIC INFORMATION: Recognize that many former students have online connections with current students, and that information shared between school adults and former students is likely to be seen by current students as well.


*Some of the ideas for this list come from a Facebook group I belong to, Faculty Ethics on Facebook. It is geared towards higher education, and so if you stumbled upon this post and really want to read about colleges and universities, head on over to Facebook. I also appreciate colleague Matt Montagne’s feedback via Google Docs on an earlier draft of these ideas.

In general, these guidelines offer a strong starting point for discussing the ethical dimensions of participation in social networking sites, both in the classroom and outside of it. The drive toward modeling honest, responsible networking activities makes good sense, especially in a world where faculty can lose their jobs and their careers for the material they post online. But these guidelines present strategies that have the potential to limit teacher and student access to authentic participation in online social spaces. Specifically, the slant against "misrepresentation" and toward using only approved social networking sites in schools present significant participation concerns. For teachers, the issue is about their right to engage meaningfully in a public sphere that may offer the potential for inappropriate or damaging material. For students, the issue is more drastic: It's a matter of social justice. Students who don't have access to new media technologies and can't experience the authentic online social spaces in the classroom will be ill equipped to experience those spaces when they leave school.

On "Misrepresentation"
The push toward "honesty" goes perhaps a few steps too far, overlooking the fact that engagement with media platforms that are increasingly persistent, searchable, and replicatable call for new approaches to disclosure. I'm pointing here to guideline 8, which Taffee labels "misrepresentation."

Anonymity and its close cousin, pseudonymity, have a long and storied relationship with the politics of identity performance. We've come a long way (we have, haven't we?) from the time when speaking up against a tyrant could lead to personal, financial, or social ruin. (We have, haven't we?)

But until recently, "misrepresentation" was generally viewed as the domain of the whistleblower, and members of everyday culture were expected to act in their own names. In a participatory culture, however, where people can increasingly engage with identity play in a wide range of online spaces, psuedonyms, nicknames, and even complete anonymity serve as a buffer against repercussion. Indeed, it may be the case that a teacher wants to use Facebook or a similar site to engage in NSFW conversations, photo sharing, and precisely the kind of social networking that these sites afford. In that case, the teacher might choose to design a "fake" profile in order to prevent students or students' parents from encountering this material. It's not "misrepresentation" so much as it's a version of protected self-presentation.

As our social lives increasingly occupy online spaces in addition to offline, in-person relationships, we need to offer new strategies for engagement with these sites--strategies that afford full participation in addition to protecting people from the risk of having material intended for one audience dragged into the public light of a different, unintended audience.

On Course Use of Social Networking

The impulse driving guideline #1 is a valid one. It is, as Lynn Sykes, a teacher and friend, pointed out to me, a great big social networking world out there, and the minute we introduce social media into the classroom we also introduce the risk that learners will stumble upon material that is inappropriate for the classroom setting.

But ignoring this risk doesn't make it go away; indeed, it leaves many students ill-equipped to make intelligent decisions about what to do when they encounter this kind of material in real life, as they are certain to do. Learners who have access to social media and adult support for reflecting on their engagement with it in their homes will be prepared, of course. It's the learners with less access and less extracurricular support--in other words, the poor, the disadvantaged, the learners who have historically been left behind in school, in work, in life--who can most benefit from the experience of engaging with social media in the classroom.

This isn't to say that the concerns about inappropriate material aren't valid concerns. This is why we need to work in two distinct directions:
  • Working at the policy level to develop regulations that allow for safe and guided access to the authentic social media experiences that will prepare learners for engagement with the participatory media, practices, and cultures that are becoming increasingly essential to success outside of school;
  • Working in the classroom to establish norms that can govern students' ethical participation in social media, such that they can immediately identify, and know how to respond to, material that's inappropriate for the school context.

Steve, I would recommend including the above guidelines into a revised version of these guidelines. I'm looking forward to continuing this important conversation.


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