This passage recently appeared in a CBC story entitled “Ont. teachers advised not to tweet with students“:
The Ontario College of Teachers says teachers should avoid connecting with their students on Facebook or Twitter.
They are also told to avoid contacting them on LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube and MySpace.
It’s a great idea to offer guidelines for how teachers communicate with vulnerable pre-College/University students; it’s too bad that the College revealed little other than its own ignorance in the way it wrote them. In a sense, that’s our fault in IT, because we call a whole bunch of unrelated things “social media”, so we can hardly expect teacher-bureaucrats to distinguish between broadcasting publicly over Twitter and exchanging secrets with a select group of friends over Facebook.
Not where you are, but what you’re doing
So, let’s forget about red herrings like online vs. offline, social media, etc., and instead, propose two simple questions a teacher has to answer:
Is it all taking place in the public view (can the student’s parents, my colleagues, my principal, etc. follow the exchange)?
Is it related to my role as a teacher (am I using this information to help teach, or do I have non-professional motives)?
If the answer to both these questions is “yes”, then the communication is probably appropriate, whether it’s through the spoken word, paper, Twitter, Facebook, or any channel.
Good and bad communication
Here are some examples of how the questions play out:
It is OK, and often desirable, for a student to read public school-related information posted by a teacher, whether it’s on a bulletin board in the hallway, a Twitter feed, a blog, or a posting in a Facebook group. “Public” means that the parents and principal can read it too. It’s a good way for a teacher to communicate with the students (deadlines, assignments, study hints, etc.) and encourage discussion.
It is usually OK for a teacher to read public information posted by a student, whether it’s a letter to the editor in a newspaper, a Twitter feed, or a posting in a Facebook group. The key is whether the information is related to the teacher’s role — for example, reading a feed of public political. literary or math tweets from a student is being a good teacher; scouring tweets (or any other public information, such as Google Streetview or the phone book) for personal information is stalking.
It is probably not OK for a teacher to open private communication channels with a student, where the communication can’t be seen by other teachers, parents, etc. This would include passing private notes in the student’s locker, exchanging email (unless the parent or another teacher is CC’d on it), becoming Facebook friends, chatting privately using Jabber or MSN, or exchanging SMS text messages. This is a bad idea even if the communication is meant to be strictly professional, because it leaves students open to manipulation, and teachers open to accusation.
Sound reasonable? It’s not the platform (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) but the activity that matters. As long as you keep everything out in plain view, talking and exchanging information is a good thing, online or otherwise.