Schools Rethink Teacher-Student Contact on Facebook, Twitter

Schools Rethink Teacher-Student Contact on Facebook, Twitter

School districts are reviewing guidelines to better define the use of social media in classrooms, as educators grapple with the benefits and drawbacks of online relationships.

This fall, educators dealt with a rash of scandals over the blurred boundaries of students and teachers on services like Twitter and Facebook. At the same time schools saw the many benefits of social interaction in schools, the subject became embroiled in debate, sparking a patchwork of legislative and judicial remedies.

Some schools instituted outright bans of social media contact between students and teachers. Schools in Statesboro, Ga., this fall banned electronic contact between educators and students after they learned Facebook and text messages fostered a relationship between an eighth-grade English teacher and her 14-year-old male pupil.

“It can start out innocent and get more and more in-depth quickly,” said Lewis Holloway, superintendent of schools, to the New York Times. “Our students are vulnerable through new means, and we’ve got to find new ways to protect them.”

The teacher in Statesboro was detained on charges of aggravated child molestation and statutory rape, and currently awaits trial.

The state of Missouri investigated the matter of social media, teachers and students, finding 87 Missouri teachers between 2001 and 2005 lost their licenses because of sexual misconduct. Some of those were fired because they were exchanging explicit online messages with students.

As a result, legislators in Missouri passed a law prohibiting teachers from creating Facebook or other social network accounts that allow them to connect privately with former and current students.

State officials said the law, passed on July 14, was part of an effort to “more clearly define teacher-student boundaries” and is part of a larger bill that helps protect children from possible teacher sexual misconduct.

For its part, the Missouri State Teachers Association sought an injunction against the legislation, calling it “vague” and saying it “chills the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech, association, religion, collective bargaining, and other constitutional rights.”

Lawmakers revised the bill, deciding to drop the universal ban and instead direct school boards to develop their own social media policies by March 1, 2012.

The Missouri example highlights the complexity of the issue. On the one hand, some teachers have posted questionable material involving sex or alcohol on social media sites as well as had inappropriate contact with students that blur the teacher-student boundary. Still, many administrators believe the vast majority of teachers don’t use it this way and see great potential for the social media in the classroom.

These advocates are calling for guidelines and consensus for appropriate use so students and educators plan to benefit from the technology while minimizing the dangers, and startups are developing solutions to help bridge the divide.

Earlier this month, Edmodo, a social network for teachers and students, received $15 million in funding, aiming to address growing concerns about technology while boosting usage of social media in the classroom.

Edmodo boasts many Facebook-like features, such as profile pictures and a running stream of centralized posts, but capabilities includes teacher-student communication, homework assignments and even grades, so it functions more like a virtual classroom.

Edmodo replaces the traditional social context of Facebook with educational tasks and goals for student learning and teacher management, one element the founders expect will set it apart from others.

As school boards across the national review and revamp their social media policies and consider the use of the tool in the classroom, other offerings like Edmodo are expected to step in to offer alternative solutions.

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