Thursday, August 11, 2011

Do Social Networking Sites Have a Place in Education?

During the past three days, I've been away at an education conference.  As usual, it was equal parts invaluable and exhausting (our school team met way into the wee hours each night after a full day of workshops).

The gist, in case you're interested, is the significance of inquiry-based instruction (letting students guide the direction of their education through individual choice), authentic assessments (providing students with real-life chances to show their work, such as writing a complaint letter to an actual company instead of just having them write a generic letter to go into a classroom portfolio), and personalizing learning.

Yeah, really thought-provoking stuff.

One of the neatest parts, however, was that each school brought students with them to take part in the conference, and the kids went to workshops of their own as well as lending their voices to the conversation as a whole.

The final day began with a presentation of some technology-based work students had done in a workshop, and it brought up a topic of debate that I found utterly fascinating.

In 2011, most teenagers live a great deal of their lives online through social networking sites, Facebook in particular.  How amazing would it be for educators to tap into the potential offered there, to engage students in the technological language which is really their native tongue?

I'm a pretty technologically-savvy teacher, and the idea of Tweeting assignments en masse or offering discussions through Facebook is incredibly exciting.

But it's a double-edged sword, so to speak.  As one of the students attending the conference noted with regard to the issue, "With great power comes great responsibility."

And that can be scary.

Most school districts have policies in place that prohibit teachers from interacting with their students online.

Obviously, I understand the reasoning behind this.

At least once a month, I have to say to students, "Please stop talking about that [insert party, couple, thong you're wearing, pornography you bought, et cetera here]."  There are a lot of things that I, as a teacher, just don't want to know.

With Facebook, there would be no getting around it, and there are a lot of times that you have a responsibility to report things.  It would open a downright gargantuan can of worms.

I have a Facebook, but it is pretty well blocked.  The reason for that is that I'm human, and I've been known to put up posts such as "Oh captain, my captain" or "The doctor is in" when I'm out drinking with friends (speaking of double-edged swords, how about smartphones, which make it so easy to access Facebook when maybe you shouldn't be) that I would never want my students to see. There are also private pictures (such as this "phallic art" that my friend Andy and I once did with drink garnishes ... um, yeah, you really had to be there).


A possible solution, for me at least, is that I could potentially create a Facebook account as KLo, the teacher, not KLo the person.  I would, of course, keep it squeaky clean and completely focused on high school English curriculum.  I could even, I suppose, make a Facebook group intended solely for English class.

The remaining problem, however, is twofold.

1.  If I had access to my students' Facebooks and they posted something that should be reported, I'd have an obligation to do that if I was aware of it ... and the ACLU might well have a field day.

2.  I'm not a creeper and wouldn't go looking at my students' pictures and such, but there are unquestionably teachers that would.  There are predators all over the place, and the field of education is not immune from them.  Schools are, to a great degree, controlled environments where having inappropriate relationships take a large measure of skill and evil intent.  With Facebook, there would be no safety net for students (or for teachers, either, considering that accusations could be made in either direction).

Yeah, like that kid said, "With great power comes great responsibility."

There are sites out there for educators that simulate Facebook (Ning comes to mind), but as that same wise student pointed out, why would a kid bother to go on yet another site when he or she is already on Facebook?

It's a conundrum, all right, and not one with an easy answer.

It's a moot point for me personally since I wouldn't be morally comfortable exploring the far reaches of cyberspace with my students even in my school didn't have explicit policies on the subject.

It's a conversation that is going to have to happen sooner or later, though ...

The students were collectively convincing on that subject.