Teacher/Student Social Networking Guidelines in Missouri and Beyond

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Establishing the glass door for digital classroom spaces.

Some of you know that before I dove headlong into PR practice, I was a high school English and history teacher.

I remember the year that the high school where I taught replaced our sturdy, solid wooden classroom doors with plate glass ones. It just made good sense, and as a teacher whose classroom was frequently jammed with students before and after school and during my free period (and their study halls), I appreciated the transparency that the windowed doors allowed.

I throughly loved teaching, really enjoyed my students, and had important relationships with them. Of course this was back in 1998, the pre-dawn era before social networking, Facebook, and MySpace altered … well, pretty much every interaction we now have.

In 2011, as a communications strategist I guess I should say that so much has changed, but I actually don’t think much has altered the way teachers and students can establish and protect appropriate boundaries that allow for terrific communication and great student-teacher relationships.

Then, as now teachers needed to be proactive about defining the boundaries necessary for facilitating healthy interaction with their students. Now, as then teachers, parents, and school administrators must work together to create clear, transparent communications behaviors that take extra care to protect students.

It’s all about keeping your guidelines clear and the focus on what is best for the kids.

But what do teacher/student relationships look like in digital spaces?

In Missouri, on August 28, 2011 Senate Bill 54 takes effect and answers that question for residents of the Show Me State. Go ahead and Google, “Missouri bans Facebook” and you will quickly find acres of media coverage connected to the bill’s passage (which is a first for any state) from Mashable to CNN to MSNBC, much with overstated headlines like, “Missouri Teachers: No talking to students on Facebook

As a former high school teacher, now communications strategist you can bet my email inbox was hopping this morning. And as a policy nut, the first thing I did was actually read the bill. Deep in the midst of an important piece of legislation that is entirely focused on protecting students from a range of victimization, you’ll find the following:

“Every school district shall, by January 1, 2012, promulgate a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communication. Such policy shall contain at least the following elements:

1) Appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with or included in any policy on sexual harassment; and
(2) Appropriate use of electronic media such as text messaging and internet sites for both instructional and personal purposes, with an element concerning use of social networking sites no less stringent than the provisions of subsections 2, 3, and 4 of this section.

As used in this section, the following terms shall mean:
(1)”Exclusive access”, the information on the website is available only to the owner (teacher) and user (student) by mutual explicit consent and where third parties have no access to the information on the website absent an explicit consent agreement with the owner (teacher);
(2) “Former student”, any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated;

(3) “Nonwork-related internet site”, any internet website or web page used by a teacher primarily for personal purposes and not for educational purposes;
(4) “Work-related internet site”, any internet website or web pages used by a teacher for educational purposes.

3. No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a work-related internet site unless such site is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian.

4.No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Nothing in this subsection shall be construed as prohibiting a teacher from establishing a nonwork related internet site, provided the site is used in accordance with this section.

So, off the bat it’s important to really understand what this bill is prohibiting and allowing. And to clarify a few terms.

We’ll start with the terms: social media vs. social networking.

(Although maybe we should add promulgate, that’s a doozy.)

Social media is comprehensively defined as the online tools that people use to share content, profiles, opinions, insights, experiences, perspectives and media itself, thus facilitating conversations and interaction online between groups of people.

Social networking is defined many ways, but I appreciate Danah Boyd’s framing of social networks as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.

Brian Solis offers a fantastic sort of petals-on-the-roses framework that expresses the myriad of social media channels out there, and between this visual and the definitions above it is clear that social media is not equal only to social networks.

Missouri SB54 addresses only social networks and the potential dangers that could come from teacher/student engagement in (as Boyd categorizes them), “semi-public profile(s) within a bounded system.”

I might be out on a limb to assume that the legislators in Jefferson City, Mo. had a comprehensive understanding of the differences between social media and social networks and thoughtfully chose only to address networks.

Regardless, it’s important that Missouri educators grasp the differences. Contrary to some of the loudest headlines, the bill is NOT closing down all platforms of social media interaction between teachers and students. This would be ludicrous and frankly detrimental to educating students to effectively engage and communicate in the post-analog world.

Next, let’s look at what the bill requires schools to do. 

In general, the gist is that schools need to think it through, which is a mantra you’ll often hear purePR invoke with our clients. You must, must, must have social media and social computing guidelines. Whether you are a small business, a big firm, or a school you need to give thoughtful consideration to how employees are to engage constituents both on company time and on their own time with company connections. It’s critical, and I am delighted that Missouri wants its schools to think this through.

At the heart, the bill requires schools to develop guidelines (and while the bill restricts it to social networking, I’d encourage my school-based Missouri clients to develop guidelines for a wide swath of social media that incorporates the whole enchilada).

The bill requires a policy that includes not the banning of texting and Internet use (and to be honest just about EVERY worthy website out there now includes a component of social media), but a policy that outlines what the school deems to be appropriate instructional use of these media.

So in this, the bill is useful and healthy. It’s a bit parochial to demand schools write policies (in another 50 years, social networking will seem little different than conversations in the hallway amongst the lockers, I am guessing), but it’s not an evil end.

But, let’s look at what the bill prohibits.

3. No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a work-related internet site unless such site is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian.

4. No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Nothing in this subsection shall be construed as prohibiting a teacher from establishing a nonwork related internet site, provided the site is used in accordance with this section.

This is where things get murky because the language used is “internet site” and not “social networking”, even though that is what the aforementioned policy (required by section 1) is supposed to address.

There are solutions here that would, for example allow teachers to still use Facebook. Easily solved, actually. Build a public page for your class that students can FAN, which does NOT make them friends with the teacher on his or her private page.

But what about wikis and blogs and other great Internet tools that teachers have been successfully using that are closed to the public? Allow an administrator in, sure. But the language of the bill says that such sites must be available to the student’s parent/guardian. That gets tricky. So, now Mom Smith can access her daughter’s literature wiki page, and not only read her kid’s poetry (which is fine), but also all the other students’ work (which is NOT fine).

Sticky. And this will require further hammering out (hopefully by enlightened people who get both educational pedagogy AND excellent social media strategy and theory).

So what would purePR tell our Missouri based school clients?

1. Teachers should not friend students until they graduate and never should have done this. It doesn’t take legislation to make that a no-brainer. Yes, that means you need to go unfriend them. Now.

2. Teachers should be taught how to properly set-up their own security preferences in Facebook to restrict student access to their content even when they are “not friends.”

3. Schools should develop clear, concise social media guidelines and conduct workshops with students and parents to engage everyone in what the school is doing and why the school believes there is instructional merit in using social media to facilitate educational goals (and there is!)

4. Parents and teachers should work together to develop a greater understanding of social media and its uses and proactively work to engage students in healthy, appropriate ways on the Internet. The message here is not “let’s abdicate adult supervision and guidance on social networks.” (Disclaimer, I generally work with private schools where there is a much more consistent values threshold at work that would undergird social media use and policies.)

5. If teachers are sold on using Facebook to reach kids, they should build public pages for their classroom that are connected to the school Facebook page. Go ahead and let kids fan you without being their “friend”; it’s much more appropriate anyway.

There is much, much more to be considered here (what about email and its integration into most social networks … what about Twitter, where you can’t really “confirm” those who follow you aside from outright blocking them …etc. )

The gut reaction from those of us who get social networking and who generally want to help young people grow, thrive, communicate in the new world, and be successful is to really, really dislike this new legislation.

BUT, it is healthy for us to take a step back, read carefully, and honestly assess whether or not this is truly anything more than adding the glass window to the digital classroom door.

I welcome your feedback on this post, and would be delighted to visit with you about constructing social guidelines for your school setting. Additionally, purePR is working with friends in Jefferson City, Mo. to see how we can put together an informational evening where teachers, administrators, and parents can ask important questions about how this bill impacts their ability to teach well the kids of the state.

We’ll post details here and at our Facebook page.

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