Teachers, students, and online behaviour

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:

  1. Is it all taking place in the public view (can the student’s parents, my colleagues, my principal, etc. follow the exchange)?

  2. 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.

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3 Responses to Teachers, students, and online behaviour

  1. johnwcowan says:

    Well, no, not really. Are we to say that there should be no private student-teacher conferences now? I was often asked to stop by a teacher’s classroom after school or between periods to discuss something, or did so on my own hook. Nowadays it might be thought wiser to keep the door open to prevent the exchange of information by non-verbal methods, but the general principle of professional but private interchange still makes sense to me.

    My daughter routinely notifies her college instructors by email when she must miss a class and expects to get a reply by email telling her what the homework assignment was. This was also true in high school (though less so — fewer teachers disclosed their email addresses then), so it’s not just a matter of her age.

  2. John: the original point of my post was to argue for more freedom for students and teachers to communicate (compared with the Ontario College of Teachers guidelines), but I respect your opinion that my arguments didn’t go far enough. I have a foot on both sides: as you know, I’m a strong advocate of openness and transparency in all communication, but at the same time, I can’t forget that dozens of boys of my age in Kingston — a number of whom I knew — suffered sexual abuse over many years from a popular, charismatic adult choirmaster (and some other men) operating under the shelter of our Anglican cathedral.

    I used the same open-door policy you mention for one-on-one meetings with students when I was a young university prof in 1992 – I think that’s adequately public and transparent for dealing with young adults at college or university, and is probably suitable for high school students as well (as long as it’s during regular school hours when people are likely to be passing in the hall).

    Email at college is a different situation than high school — college students are adults (if still young and vulnerable ones), and they have a right to privacy even from their parents. Most high schools deal with email risk by requiring teachers to use Board-supplied accounts, which, presumably, can be monitored and audited (I doubt that happens, except after an accusation); personally, I would also CC the parents on any correspondence, unless there were some concern about the parents themselves that prevented that, in which case I would CC the principal or guidance councilor.

  3. Teachers are playing very crucial role in student life because whatever they learn from teachers they will show off to others. If teachers play bad behavior in class so I think it definitely showing bad impression on students which are not good for their life.

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