Policies that ban all uses of social media are as effective as sticking your head in the sand

Schools sort out rules for how teachers should use Twitter, Facebook

By Lolly Bowean and Kristen Mack CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Peter Kupfer has made it difficult for his physics students to claim they didn’t know about a homework assignment.
Not only does Kupfer outline the assignment during class at Lake Zurich High School, he also tweets a daily reminder to his followers on Twitter. On Facebook, Peter Kupfer has made it difficult for his physics students to claim they didn’t know about a homework assignment.
Not only does Kupfer outline the assignment during class at Lake Zurich High School, he also tweets a daily reminder to his followers on Twitter. On Facebook, he posts a status update and occasionally provides extra details on his fan page.

“I, personally, am not worried about sharing (online) space with students,” he said. “The kids can talk to me and I find it a useful avenue to communicate.”

But as teachers like Kupfer increasingly connect with their students online, school districts are working to define appropriate ways for teachers and students to communicate outside the classroom.

It’s a murky area with a variety of questions: Should teachers use a Facebook fan page to contact students? Should they allow students to “friend” them on their personal profiles, or post pictures on their walls? Should they notify parents that they are using social networking sites to communicate?

The Illinois school code requires that districts develop polices for social networking and teach students how to safely use chat rooms, e-mail, and instant messaging. Some districts have responded with vague policies open for interpretation. Others have banned all use of social media between teachers and students.

In Community High School District 128 in Libertyville, Ill., the school board approved a set of “expectations” for social networking between teachers, coaches and students, which are now incorporated into employee policies.

It deems district-provided e-mail and school-based Web sites acceptable forms of communication. However it warns that text messages are highly personal, can quickly get “off topic” and be easily misinterpreted by a parent.

“What you want to avoid is a parent seeing a coach’s cell phone number on their daughter’s phone and being surprised,” said Mick Torres, the district’s technology director.

While District 128 has specific rules, Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 has a broad policy. In the district’s general personnel standards, faculty are instructed to maintain a professional relationship with students and keep a safe and healthy environment.

“We’re trying to put information out there that is associated with the classroom and student learning,” District Superintendent Mike Egan said. “We encourage that kind of use, while discouraging any personal conversations or information sharing.”

At Lincolnway Community High School District 210 in New Lenox, administrators banned all forms of social media on school grounds—for teachers and students. That way, learning is focused in the classroom and there are fewer chances of misbehaving or misunderstandings, said Sharon Michalak, the assistant superintendent for curriculum instruction and staff development.

But Kupfer’s teaching style of posting homework assignments on Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t fly in districts where only school-based sites are sanctioned.

“With the advancement of technology and social networking, it’s not appropriate in the school atmosphere,” Michalak said. “Any information would have been communicated in the classroom. If teachers are going to use technology, it’s through a Web page developed here at school that the students have access to look up.”

In the absence of official policies, students have largely created their own rules of online engagement.

Anita Wota, 17, spends hours updating her status and checking up on her friends on Facebook, she said. But she didn’t “friend” her teachers until she graduated from Chicago Academy High School last spring.

“It’s not as awkward because they’re not my teacher anymore,” she said.

Meanwhile Ramsey Newton Jr., 16, refuses to engage in social media. It causes too much drama—even when teachers and school administrators are involved, he said.

“I’m just not into it,” the sophomore at South Shore High School said. “Teachers gossip too. They might get too much access or get to know too much. It can start a big fiasco.

“I don’t want my name in it, and I don’t want to end up on anyone’s status (update).”

That’s not the case for Kupfer. While he reaches out to his students online, he’s careful about how he does it: He doesn’t follow students on Twitter. And although he accepts friend requests, he doesn’t initiate them.

Kupfer said he views social networking sites as an opportunity to teach his students about both physics and online behavior.

“I’m careful not to post anything that is not appropriate,” he said. “I remember, my students will see this. My mom and grandma are on there too, so I have to be extra careful.”

Policies that ban all uses of social media are as about as effective as sticking your head in the sand. It ignores the educational potential of using these resource. Instead of trying to harness the power of social learning and extending the learning experience beyond the classroom they took the easy route and missed a very important teachable moment. Wouldn't it be better to develop 21st century literacies by highlighting the educational uses of social media, while teaching students how to monitor how and what they share as well how to think critically and behave responsibly when using online media.

Check out the list below if you aren't convinced about the benefits of social media.

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