This makes me ill. I realize that school boards are often made up of individuals who don't personally use tools such as Facebook, instant messaging, Skype, etc. I also realize that the disconnect between personal understanding of these tools by those that determine school district policy is quite often responsible for schools to be behind the curve in their utilization of technology. While I do push for change where I can in my own school, I've come to an uneasy acceptance that many decisions being made on the technological front are being made by individuals who aren't knowledgeable enough on the topic to make the best decisions for our students. Excessive filtering of internet content and the banning of cell phones are two indicators of that reality.
Then there's this:
School Board members voted Feb. 10 to finalize a policy banning communication between Elmbrook staff and students on social networking Web sites and instant messaging services, after deciding against a much more restrictive policy.
[...] The approved rule, essentially bans "personal communication via nondistrict-sponsored applications/devices between staff and students, including, but not limited to, the use of social networking sites and instant messaging."
(from the article Board finalizes policy on teacher-student communication by Isral DeBruin)
Thirteen months ago I wrote a post explaining my disdain when the Ohio Education Association recommended that teachers delete their MySpace and Facebook profiles. I won't repeat what I said there, though if you haven't read it already, check it out. Much of what I said there applies to this story as well. However, the recent decision by the Elmbrook School District Board is much worse¹.
The need to control
The reasoning is explained by (ex-)Elmbrook School Board member Chris Thompson: "There is absolutely no reason that any teacher right now should be on Facebook with their students. You cannot control it."
By banning communication between staff and students over social network sites and instant messaging, the board is effectively saying they don't believe teachers and students should communicate outside of class because that environment is uncontrollable. When I run into students at a restaurant, at the mall, on the sidewalk, at the beach (where I may even see students in *gasp* a bathing suit), or anywhere else, it is a situation that is out of the district's control.
According to the Elmbrook School Board's logic, they should ban those encounters as well. Thompson notes when using Facebook, "you're putting yourself out there, and it's a risk." Yes, there is a risk. The same risk I take when going to any public place where I might run into students. Simply because it's a virtual space doesn't mean everyone starts acting inappropriately.
What upsets me the most about the policy is the lack of respect it gives to the district's staff. The Elmbrook School Board obviously doesn't feel that its staff members are capable of interacting with students without someone looking over their shoulder. The school board feels it needs to be there to prevent anything unsightly from happening.
There are risks associated with social network sites and instant messaging. They aren't more risky than face to face encounters- it's just a different form of the same risk. If my district trusts me enough to put me essentially unsupervised in a room full of teenagers for 90 minutes, then they need to trust me enough to be able to act appropriately when I run into the students outside of that room- no matter if that contact occurs face to face or online.
A better option
Chris Lehmann wrote a post in October describing a conversation he had with a student on Facebook. The purpose behind his post had nothing to do with using Facebook to communicate with students, but he ended by sagely noting:
Oh... and yes, this all happened because kids and teachers "friended" each other. These are the conversations we can have when we all remember that we have to interact as people, not as subject and object, and not just teacher and student. If and when the technology facilitates that, all the better. (emphasis mine)
Tools such as Facebook and instant messaging allow for teachers and students to "interact as people;" to foster positive relationships. The MacArthur Foundation's report, Living and Learning with New Media points to these tools as positive forces in the education of students:
Contrary to adult perceptions, while hanging out online, youth are picking up basic social and technological skills they need to fully participate in contemporary society. Erecting barriers to participation deprives teens of access to these forms of learning. Participation in the digital age means more than being able to access “serious” online information and culture. Youth could benefit from educators being more open to forms of experimentation and social exploration that are generally not characteristic of educational institutions. (emphasis mine)
Will Richardson notes that in order to use these tools effectively "we have to understand it for ourselves." Instead of banning social network sites and instant messaging, perhaps school boards should ban the creation of policies for things they don't understand.
¹ Even more damning: Some school board members wanted a much more restrictive policy "which would have banned district staff from using text messaging, instant messaging and social networking altogether, even personally while off the clock." I'm not sure that'd be legal.