Why your school needs clearly defined social media policies

pinnacleIt’s not to stop teachers from doing the wrong thing with social media; It’s to give them confidence to use social media well, knowing there is no appearance of impropriety.

If there were no balustrade on the ‘Pinnacle’ lookout in the Grampians, very few people would venture to the edge to take in the arresting view.  The barrier gives hikers confidence to go further than they would otherwise dare, because their safety is assured.  The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

Is it appropriate for a teacher to reply to a student’s electronic message at 9:00 pm? 11:00 pm? I don’t think there is a universal answer to that question, but I do think there should be a school policy about it.  If a student sends a text at 9:45 pm, and the school policy says 10 pm, a teacher can confidently reply, leaning against the balustrade of that policy.

I meet a lot of teachers who are reluctant to use “this website” or “that web 2.0 service” with their students for fear that doing so might make them the star of a story on 7’s Today Tonight (and not in a good way).  That fear can be soothed by creating well publicised, unambiguous and clearly defined policies.


“Upskirting” and mobile phone bans

A school’s principal said to me:

“Mobile phones are banned at our school and so long as I am Principal they will stay banned. Here’s why: lately we’ve been having a real problem with year 9s using their phone camera to take photos up girls’ skirts and sharing the pictures around!”

I do understand her righteous indignation.  But I also think her strike is misdirected.

My response is twofold:

Firstly, prohibition is evidently not working because the violation of girls’ honour that she described has been going on despite the school’s mobile moratorium!

Secondly, but much more importantly, the real issue this school faces is not really a mobile phone issue at all. Banning phones doesn’t address the real issue – that students in her school apparently have a flagrant lack of respect for others’ dignity!  Addressing that issue, however, is complex and difficult.  It’s far simpler to make a scapegoat of mobile phones. Blame the phones; ban the phones; enforce the ban. Problem solved. (But is it, really?)

“Victorian Teachers Who ‘Friend’ Students on Facebook will be Automatically De-registered by the VIT”

… or so said prominent child psychologist, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg during his presentation in Shepparton on the first of June.

But it’s NOT true.

Carr-Gregg’s presentation was clearly intended to shock parents and teachers out of complacency regarding unsafe Internet practice.  We all agree that cybersafety is important, and there is no doubt that many teachers and parents don’t fully understand the risks.  I applaud Carr-Greg’s mission to redress that situation.  But what I and others at the seminar were disappointed about, was Carr-Gregg’s use of half-truths (or in some cases untruths) in order to achieve the shock value he was aiming for.  When it comes to cybersafety, our goal should be to educate parents and teachers about the Internet’s dangers, not to frighten them by overstating the case.

Toward the end of his presentation, following inaccurate descriptions of the risks of nefarious technologies like bluesnarfing software and TigerText, he turned his attention to social networking and declared that the Victorian Institute of Teaching will automatically de-register any teacher who “friends” students on Facebook!

I and several others questioned him on that point after the presentation.  But he was adamant that this is a VIT rule, and that it is written in black and white on the VIT website.  “Don’t blame me”, he said, “I don’t make the rules; I’m just the messenger”.  But that’s just the issue that worries me.  Many teachers and parents will have listened to what he said, and assumed it to be true.  After all, they heard it from a well respected authority on child psychology who is also the author of a book on cybersafety.  Someone who assumes a position of expertise, claims to speak for the VIT, and then makes a sensational claim such as this has a responsibility to make sure his facts are straight.

That evening I spent several hours trawling the VIT website and Code of Conduct but finding nothing prohibiting social networking sites, let alone anything specifically naming Facebook.

The following day, I spent an hour with a representative of the Cybersafety and Wellbeing Initiative of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation (the body responsible for the eSmart Schools initiative).  She had not heard of such a policy either – and laughed that as part of her tour of Victorian schools using technology successfully, her next visit was to a school that uses Facebook extensively.

Finally I phoned the VIT, and spoke to several officers including a senior field officer, who each said that there is certainly no such policy, (and that furthermore the VIT does not “automatically” (without due process) de-register teachers for any action – even when the action represents a clear breach of the Code of Conduct). When I asked the field officer about Facebook specifically, she confirmed that the alleged VIT anti-Facebook policy was unfounded, but cautioned that teachers who choose to use Facebook should make sure that their practice adheres to Principle 1.5 of the Code: “TEACHERS ARE ALWAYS IN A PROFESSIONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STUDENTS IN THEIR SCHOOL, WHETHER AT SCHOOL OR NOT”  Part D of this principle says that a breach of this standard would include (among other things) “having contact with a student via written or electronic means including email, letters, telephone, text messages or chat lines, without a valid context”.

Therefore Facebook has no different standing to any other form of interaction, electronic or otherwise, between teachers and students.  It is the nature and topic of communication that is subject to the code of conduct, not the conduit of communication.  This is just as it should be.

To “Friend” or Not To “Friend”?

What is a Friend?

Firstly let’s be clear about the semantics of “friending” on Facebook because it’s a common sticking point for teachers.  Just because adding someone to your list of Facebook contacts is called “Friending”, doesn’t mean that all your contacts are friends in the normal sense of the word.  Looking down my own list of Facebook “friends”, Some are indeed friends but many more are professional colleagues, some are fans of my podcast, some are students, some past students that I taught 20 years ago, some are relatives, and some (to be honest) I don’t actually remember who they are!

What makes someone a friend is the fact that you share with them a relationship based on mutual respect and trust in which there is an equality of power.  Friendship is all about the way you relate to someone and not at all about the arbitrary terminology a website designer uses to group information!  Just because Facebook places everyone you know into a list it calls “friends”, doesn’t make them all friends.  It is irrational to think otherwise.

The Choice to “Friend”

I think the question of whether or not to “friend” students comes down to a straightforward choice.  If you are a teacher and you have a Facebook page, you should either:

(a) Use it for social interaction with your friends, and keep students out. or

(b) Use it for professional interaction with students and colleagues, where it represents you in your vocation as a teacher.

If the first option is chosen, you should carefully tweak the privacy settings to keep your students out.  Even so, you should still be aware that you will often lose control of things you post on facebook and they are likely to be on the Internet for ever. For example, if someone else comments on a photo you post, the photo will stay on their page, even if you delete it from yours.  It is also prudent to realise that Facebook is notorious for changing privacy settings without notice.  You should therefore still assume that anything you post on Facebook (or anywhere online for that matter) could become public.

If, like me, you prefer the second opinion and choose to “friend” students and use Facebook as a conduit of professional communication with them and others, then you should not post anything on your Facebook page that you would not say or show in class or in the presence of your students and their parents. I also think you should be vigilant in “pruning” any posts by others from your wall if they are unbecoming of a teacher.  I would “unfriend” anyone who repeatedly posts things that I am uncomfortable with.

Personally, I think the second option is more rational and it’s certainly more transparent.  Furthermore, it models to students safe and effective use of web technology.

Keeping Students Safe in a River of Content

How can we protect our students from certain kinds of information and content on the internet?  It used to be so easy to do. Ten years ago, most students’ only internet access was at school. Teachers really had complete control over what information students were exposed to, and importantly to this discussion, what information they were not exposed to.  If information were water, it was a trickling brook and it was not hard to build a weir, or divert water so that it missed our students, keeping them safe.

But carrying the same analogy forward, now, if information were water it would be a river.  Its impossible to divert water to avoid it reaching our students.  If we as teachers stand in the river, trying to divert the water to protect our students, it will just swirl around us as though we weren’t even there.  Instead we need to work with our students, and help them to safely negotiate the river of information that they are in.  “Put your foot on that rock there, be careful! there’s a deep spot there, look out for that eddy!”.

Now I am not arguing that we should stop filtering content altogether.  There are some things that we must do to try to protect students from inadvertently stumbling upon unsavory material.  But (and here is the crux of my argument) if students are going to deliberately SEEK unsavory material, the fact is, we can no longer stop them even if we try to. They have internet at home, the tech-savvy ones can often get around our filters at school, they have mobile phones with internet access.  The only way to stop students finding unsavory material is to influence them so they no longer want to deliberately SEEK it out.

At the moment, our failing attempts to protect the few ill-meaning students who deliberately seek out offensive content, are successfully frustrating the educational experience of the well-meaning majority of students.

HOW we change the attitudes of those ill-meaning students, is another (and more challenging) topic.  But in an information-rich world, the role of a teacher can no longer be “information-controller”, it must increasingly be “shaper-of-attitudes”.

Schools used to be able to choose between shaping the choices of students (“difficult”) and just blocking the content (“easy”).  I don’t think we have that choice any more, as blocking content is no longer “easy” but “nearly impossible”.