Social Media as a Learning Tool

19 Mar

Early last week a Board of Education in America voted unanimously to adopt a social media policy that encourages teachers to use Facebook and other social media tools to engage their students – as long as it is transparent, accessible and professional.

This is massive news, not only for the US but as with everything else it will trickle into our system, Down Under, soon.  I remember growing up and hearing that Australia was 10 years behind the US, by the time I was 20 this was 5 years… and now I think it is much less.  So how long will it take a decision like this to impact on our schools and what will the impact be.  Facebook is not a new thing, so surely we understand the pros and cons.  The Boards of Education in the US are, by entirety, very staid and cautious in their ‘innovation’ – so surely they have considered the implications of their decision.

Facebook: Friend or foe?

That is the question education leaders across the country have been wrestling with ever since Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites became ingrained in our culture.

Teachers use them. Students use them. But should teachers and students use them together as part of the traditional teacher-student relationship? Or should all electronic communication between teachers and students be banned altogether?

The new policy, in Nashua, is the result of more than 18 months of work by the board’s Policy Committee, which began the process after the Manchester School District adopted its own policy in August 2010. That city’s policy discouraged teachers from any interaction with students on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or similar sites.

Nashua school officials initially considered doing likewise before choosing the opposite approach, wisely concluding that electronic communication is not only here to stay, but can be used as a teaching tool to enhance the educational experience of students in the district.

Under the policy, the goals are to protect students, staff and the district; raise awareness of acceptable ways to use electronic communication with students, and raise awareness of the positive and negative outcomes that may result from using these tools with students.

The policy seeks to achieve these goals by ensuring all communication between educators and students passes the “TAP Test,” where TAP stands for “transparent,” “accessible” and “professional.”

As such, the policy makes it clear that all electronic communication between staff and students should be done through district-sponsored email or other programs, will become part of the district archives with no expectation of privacy, and that the choice of words and subject matter should be professional at all times.

“If your communication meets all three of the criteria above,” the policy states, “then it is very likely that the methods of communicating with students that you are choosing are very appropriate; moreover, encouraged.”

Would it have been easier to adopt a zero-tolerance policy, forbidding all communication between teachers and their students? Sure.

And it certainly would have been less risky. Any time you open the door to communication outside of the classroom between adults and children, there is always the potential for inappropriate behaviour.

But such a draconian approach also would have deprived teachers of a wonderful opportunity to engage students on their own turf.

Students use Facebook, Twitter and the like not because they have to, but because they like to. They find them fun, exciting, challenging, even stimulating.

So why would a school district knowingly put a policy in place that makes it impossible for teachers to plug into that pent-up energy? And what teacher wouldn’t want to hear his or her own classroom described as “fun” or “exciting”?

Yes, school administrators will need to be vigilant in ensuring electronic communication between teachers and students remains appropriate at all times.

But given the two basic choices before the school board – social media or no social media – count me among those who “like” what it did.

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