To Friend or Not to Friend?
In an effort to adhere to my New Year resolution, which is to blog more (notice I said “more” not regularly) I would like to add my two pennyworth to the debate on social media and students. Josie Fraser, upcoming cyber guru, cites a report she contributed to, that advises us not to friend pupils or students. (Sigh) once again, I find myself on the wrong side of the tracks (or the status updates). Perhaps my biggest plea in this area, is for a proper debate and proper guidance, which, to be fair Josie Fraser is offering, but at ground level, it can seem as if the discussion is dominated by slightly alarmist reference to extreme consequences and predictions of doom. I sometimes wonder whether the authors of such advice really do have an interest in supporting teaching staff rather than berating them. There are issues, issues which centre on the possibilities of cyberbullying and professional boundaries, versus the benefits or not of allowing students or pupils to be “friends” on Facebook or MySpace or other social media, or, for that matter the implications of teachers blogging or twittering in public.
I joined FB maybe three years ago and was immediately requested by students to be “friends” there was, and still is, no guidance from my institution, other than “be careful”, which I am, and the advice from any other institution seems either paranoid or noncommittal. I have no favourites, I take all who ask, I never request, and they are on a separate list, that I rarely look at and I don’t have to inform, although everything I place on FB I would happily share with pretty much anyone, it is truly bland!
There is no doubt that cyberbullying is a problem. It is a worrying trend that extends from the offensive responses that the likes of Stephen Fry’s followers may receive on Twitter to the calculated construction of social sites that target individuals, create false and offensive identities or simply write rude things about them. What bothers me about the issue, is how does not being on a social media site stop cyberbullying or other types of inappropriate behaviour? In fact if you have no digital presence, whilst ignorance might be bliss, it might also be damaging. A greater presence might seem to lead to greater vulnerability, but it is a false idea to think that you are not already online in some way. If you have money in the bank, some part of you is online. You maybe on Youtube, and if you have an Facebook, you could be tagged in someone else’s album, tagged by someone you barely know and who is not your “friend”. When it comes to social media, if you liken it to the playground, what teacher in their right mind would leave children to play unsupervised in the playground? What responsible parent says “Here’s a box of matches – go play.” Supervision, modelling, leading by example, these are aspects of adult responsibility.
Fear dominates the debate, fear that children’s attention spans are lessening, that they are exposed to grooming, that teaching staff are allowing access to personal details that would not have happened a decade ago. Fear often led by an ignorance (and don’t those two always go together) of how to use social media and manage your digital footprint. There is the preconception that as soon as you place your identity online, everything, including the size of your shoes and the colour of your underwear becomes public property. First of all, you don’t have to put your full name, date of birth or house name on your public profile, you don’t even have to put your picture on your profile. You can lock access to your pages and your tweets, you can make lists so that only selected people can view certain wall posts, you can send and receive private messages.
Admittedly, social media is immediate and public, like conversation and, like a conversation you can do a Homer Simpson and say things you don’t mean. The students I teach are 16 – 19 and a lot live locally. They serve me at Waitrose, I see them in the street, some of them are friends of my own, similarly aged, children. Believe me, my contributions on FB are much more likely to be measured contributions to culture than my reactions when I’m in a rush at Waitrose, or standing in the queue at the cinema or the pub, or, for that matter, struggling with the photocopier, and yet all of these activities are public acts my students can witness. The fear that social media exposes teaching staff to more personal access than they might want is largely unfounded and the idea that you will not be cyberbullied or cyber exposed because you do not have a digital identity is an illusion.
One of the main problems is that the technology outstrips the ability of educational institutions to use it. There is an obligation on staff to employ IT in their teaching, but, in my experience, few go further than PowerPoint and few want to go further than that. Obligations to meet targets, in my area of FE to keep up retention figures, success rates and meet the requirements of impossible amounts of coursework, means that time for learning new software and develop an appropriate digital footprint is marginalised to the outer limits of summer training and the occasional twilight session. That being said, I have not always been a teacher and I am frustrated that teachers seem to think that IT is not something they need to be aware of, or to deal with in the classroom. I am fond of saying that I wrote my first book on a typewriter in 1984, good old fashioned cut and paste style, by 1985, I wrote my second book on a computer and my work has been digitally conditioned and adapted ever since then.
There is no doubt that staff who like using social media and VLE (or MLE) need guidance, there are pitfalls, but in the time I’ve been using it I have found only positive benefits. It has been particularly useful as students have left, to receive news of their progress, their chosen HE option and knowledge of their courses. No doubt, some of this would be considerably easier if institution VLEs were more savvy users of social media. Some institutions are on the case, some not so much. In some, it is hard to find senior management or IT technicians who really understand the principles of managed online learning, or even the use of IT in classrooms. Hence, whilst it continues to be a problem for staff to find satisfactory ways of managing learning, and fulfilling a need as a role model, if not as a friend, on social media, those of us who do risk it, are still on our own – such is pioneering.
Further reading: http://www.slate.com/id/2239560/pagenum/all/
Further Viewing for fun: