When do students and teachers cross the line through social media?

Should social media be used as a learning platform and tool in education, or are the 'risks' too high?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

The Internet arrived with both a bang and bubble. Once social media platforms came into being, sites including Facebook and Twitter began to permeate every facet of life. With the phenomenon's expansion, it raised a number of issues involving privacy, protection and responsibility.

Teachers are not exempt from these concerns. By being in a position of power and working with adolescents, their behavior is often scrutinized thoroughly. Naturally, if something happens to a child when they are in the care of the school, it is the organization and staff member who are liable. In relation to the Internet, not only is cyberbullying an issue -- especially when conducted on school grounds -- but social media is considered by some as an inappropriate way for teacher and student to communicate.

Therein lies the problem. Social media provides quick and effective communication, but perhaps is a 'too-open' channel that schools and parents might not be able to regulate. In a minority of cases, the teacher-student relationship line has been crossed, but is this really enough of a reason to ban an effective teaching tool from class?


Online communication is now part and parcel of lives in the West. Students can abuse this -- such as the group from a Nelson school who targeted a teacher online by doctoring and uploading a photo taken in class -- but teachers should also think carefully about what they write. After a direct message conversation between staff was leaked to Bay News 9, teachers faced outrage after comparing a student to an orangutan. 

The Nelson school's situation resulted in NZ's Law Commission recommending tighter controls over cyberbullying. Suggestions included setting up a Communications Tribunal which may result in offensive behavior online being criminalized, and force websites to take down content deemed "offensive". 

Bullying is one concern, however the hot topic appears to be student-teacher relationships, prompted or promoted through social media as well as text or email. According to the Guardian, a disciplinary case study found that more than one in 10 'inappropriate' relationships between students and teachers in England -- resulting in accusations of misconduct in 2011 -- were forged through social networking and email.

Out of 336 complaints bought before the General Teaching Council regulatory body, 43 cases involved the use of Facebook, Twitter, online chatrooms and email in "unprofessional conduct". Eighteen teachers were placed on probation, whereas 14 were suspended.

The regulators only deal with cases where an allegation resulted in a teacher being fired or a resignation, so this may not represent the full scale of the problem. Other governmental agencies appear to think the same way, as regulation is rapidly being formed to combat the problems social media causes.

On July 14, the "Amy Hestir Student Protection Act" was signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon in Missouri. The law included a number of amendments to help combat sexual abuse, but was deemed controversial due to one provision which stated that teachers were banned from creating or using a "work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian," as well as "having a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student".

"Everyday, there are more stories of innovative teachers using social networks as a valuable educational tool -- from answering simple homework questions online to helping identify bullying," a Facebook spokesman told Forbes. "It is imperative that this law does not limit schools’ and teachers’ ability to use technology in this way."

The law was repealed after interpretations suggested not only were texts and social networks banned, but also educational networks including Moodle. In addition, teachers with children attending school were worried they would be penalized, as the distinction between teacher and student hinted that any teacher and any student could not be linked -- even if they were family.

The New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) released new guidelines earlier this year defining how and when teachers and students should interact on social networks. These recommendations may be a more suitable solution to the issue, as social media does have value for both students and educators -- a tool which should be available without the fear of legislation but used appropriately.

Social media sites including Facebook and Twitter can not only help teachers keep an eye on student conduct online, but can be used for interactive projects and maintaining appropriate lines of communication. Teaching a student about how Twitter can be used in a future job search, helping with homework, using Facebook to find news reports or to create and find participants for a survey -- the possibilities are endless.

An example given by USA Today is that of English and journalism teacher Nkomo Morris. She has approximately 50 former and current students as friends on Facebook, allowing her to send mass messages as well as let students see posts relevant to their courses. In order to maintain a boundary between the personal and professional, personal information is restricted.

Limiting this technology and pretending it does not exist will not stop tech-savvy students using it. In some cases, the open-ending nature of social networks do spur on inappropriate relationships, but this isn't a common occurrence. Whether Facebook or Twitter existed or not, if a teacher and student are going to become involved, the Internet is only one way for them to communicate.

As long as lines are maintained between the personal and professional, the benefits of social media in the classroom outweigh the disadvantages. If schools and parents are aware of and approve of social network use for the educational benefit of studens, then a heavy-handed approach can be avoided -- as well as keeping children safe online.

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