Social networking sites pose "dangers" for educators?

No networking!The Ohio Education Association (OEA) put out a memo this fall strongly advising teachers to completely and totally avoid social networking sites. The OEA's memo states:

"OEA advises members not to join MySpace or Facebook, and for existing users to complete the steps involved in removing their profiles. While this advice might seem extreme, the dangers of participating in these two sites outweigh the benefits."

What exactly are the "dangers" you ask? There are two main threats the OEA is concerned about, according to the article in eSchoolNews.Threat #1: “The fact that a student can attempt to contact an OEA member who has a profile on these sites lends itself to the possible interpretation of an improper relationship."Threat #2: "The union is worried students will create 'imposter' sites, pose as adults and engage in conversation with teachers, or use online communication to make allegations later against educators." The union pointed to an investigative report printed in the Columbus Dispatch which found at least three MySpace profiles by people claiming to be Ohio educators that had inappropriate content, and some had students listed as their "friends" within the MySpace community.My thoughts on the "threats:"

  • I wholeheartedly agree that inappropriate relationships between students and educators is despicable, and educators who engage in such relationships should be relieved of their jobs.
  • The OEA doesn't seem to have much confidence in its members. I am confident that the vast majority of teachers understand the difference between an appropriate and inappropriate relationship despite the medium through which the relationship occurs. However, the OEA seems to assume that as soon as someone goes online their moral compass simply disappears.
  • In a somewhat related strain, MySpace & Facebook get blamed for inappropriate behavior by their users. In fact, the social networking sites may have helped school officials find teachers having inappropriate relationships before any felonious misconduct occurred. If these teachers didn't have MySpace profiles, how long would the inappropriate relationships continued before they were found out?
  • Threat #2 states students may pose as adults lure teachers into having inappropriate conversations. I'd recommend that when you're talking to someone you don't really know online (or even someone you do), don't have inappropriate conversations. I don't feel this is a threat unique to educators. Again, MySpace and Facebook get blamed for poor decision on the part of their users.
  • Threat #2 comes close to making a good point, but it seems to get sidetracked. It is possible for anyone to create a profile pretending to be you. If the creators of the profile then use the profile in an unbecoming manner it could seriously tarnish your image and cause plenty of negative attention to come your way. While law enforcement would more than likely be able to determine that you didn't create or use the profile, you'd have to have law enforcement involved, which means you're probably already in trouble. Possibly the best way to avoid this would be for educators to create their own profiles and utilize tools such as ClaimID so others would have more difficulty hijacking their (hopefully) good name (see this post by Wes Fryer for more on ClaimID).

The biggest problem I have with OEA's memo is it suggests sticking our heads in the sand rather than dealing with the real problem. There are safety issues when using online communication, but the decision to entirely shun social networking sites is moving in the wrong direction. Schools could be a place were students and teachers can learn together how to utilize these tools safely, instead of a place where they're told how scary and awful they are and that they should never be used. Too many school officials, teachers, and parents are frightened of technology in the classroom because all they hear is negative press about all the horrible things that can happen. What ends up happening is students miss out on powerful tools (other than simply MySpace and Facebook) that could enrich their learning both in and out of school.I'm not suggesting that MySpace and Facebook should be used to teach classes. I simply believe there is too much fear mongering about the horrible dangers of online environments. Will Richardson makes the point much better in his post, "Social Networks (No) vs. Social Tools (Yes) in Schools":

"Often in my presentations I ask how many folks are teaching MySpace or Facebook in their schools. Not teaching with MySpace, but teaching the literacies of networking through the lens of a [social networking site]. Rarely do more than a few hands go up. I wonder what would happen if we contextualized our approach not in the fears that our kids will get themselves in trouble by using these sites but, instead, in the spirit of encouraging them to experience the socialization that [has otherwise been taken away]. Not that we invade their spaces or friend them, but that we acknowledge the importance of Facebook in their lives, stop pretending like it doesn’t exist, and include it in the discussion of what’s important in life."

Too right, Will. It's time for school officials to realize that social networking sites and other online collaboration tools (wikis, blogs, etc.) aren't a fad that will soon fade away. Schools often seem so afraid of change; whenever something new comes along it's banned or blocked before its merits can be determined. Wouldn't it be wonderful if schools were led by digitally literate teachers, principals, and officials who strove to introduce technology to students instead of the other way around?I wasn't planning writing this long post, but obviously it struck a nerve. I'd love to hear some of your critiques and extensions on the topic.