Monday, February 25, 2008

Facebook, Education, and Cyberbullying

It seems that a lot of my posts involve facebook and now I'm going to talk about it yet again. I have found another reason why it isn't in my best interest to be friends with students on social networking sites such as facebook. As you may know, many employers use facebook to snoop in on their employees. Schools are no different and some schools including the one I'm at, access facebook in order to gather information about inappropriate or illicit behavior from students. In order to do this though, they need some sort of in, meaning a student or faculty member who is friends with the student on facebook and willing to share that information. Let me blunt, I would not be willing to participate in those types of investigations.

An important part about being a teacher is building a trusting relationship with students. I can't in good conscious build this sort of rapport knowing that I may be asked to use this trust in order to access student's facebook profiles for investigative purposes. I suppose I could just refuse the administration access, but that wouldn't sit well with me either. The other option would be not telling my administration that I was friends with students on facebook which would also violate my principles. There needs to be a level of transparency to what you do. I'm not saying that you need to be the perfect teacher at all times or that you discuss every detail of your teaching with your administration, but if you are asked about goes on in your classroom or in what manner you are interacting with your students, you should be able to justify your actions.

In regards to my students lives and facebook, what I don't know, I can't reveal. My attitude is that I should maintain some distance from my students' lives. I don't want to know the details of their hookups or alcohol binges. Hell, I know they happen, but I rather not have to play the role of the narc. If I did know the information, I would feel obligated to report it.

This whole issue becomes further complicated when we consider the issue of cyberbullying. Schools are being urged to not tolerate cyberbullying, but how do we do this without violating privacy? At the moment, I think the best option is education about the issue. Students should be made aware what cyberbullying is and what one can do to stop it. Students also need to be made aware of how their actions live on in the internet forever. In the days of gossipy notes and writing on the bathroom wall, those pieces of evidence could be erased and destroyed. This is not true with the internet.

I see schools acting in the role of conflict mediator. If a student wants to volunteer their information in regards to how they are being ill-treated by classmates online, then that that's their prerogative. However, I don't think schools should be acting as the policeman or investigators for these actions. Just because we're faculty and administration doesn't mean we can't put on a great witchhunt.

I have a slightly different attitude toward attacks made on the internet while at school, regardless of if a student is using a school computer or internet connection. In that case, I see schools as within their right to review web history and actions made. It's impossible to ban a website because students can use proxy websites to get around the ban. To be safe, schools and teachers should monitor student internet use and have them sign a technology user agreement in regards to what is and isn't appropriate use.

I suppose this is just another reminder of the dangers of mixing your social circles when there is a disparity in power and authority. Of course, I can still see advantages to being friends with your students on facebook. If a student were to write a suicide note or death threat, then being friends with a student could potentially save lives. However, it's more likely that another student would see the note and report it. It's a cost benefits analysis for me. If I were to be friends with students on facebook, it would be for an educational purpose, not social. I wouldn't really want to look through their pictures or read their notes and comments.

In summary, I refuse to be used as a tool for investigating students. If something life threatening was happening and a student was talking about a school shooting or killing themselves, then I see that as a probable cause for the school to search cyberspace. Bring the student into the office and have them sign into their account. If they don't want to cooperate, then turn them over to police for official questioning. However, leave me and other teachers out of that sort of investigation. I don't want to be used as a front line defense to find and report student behavior. Hopefully, schools would use approved protocol, but if they decided to skip a step or two, and gather information through more shadowy methods, then it certainly wouldn't be my facebook account or integrity they used.

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