Social Media and My Students, Part 1: Is “Online” the New Wild West?

A really interesting series of comments is happening over on Shawn Cornally’s blog Think Thank Thunk about teachers and students communicating through Facebook.

The central question seems to be:

Can my Facebook account model an appropriate way for my students to live in the online world?

At the same time, some of the themes that emerged seemed to imply (probably inadvertently) that

  • either a community trusts its teachers completely or distrusts them completely
  • either I friend students on Facebook or I can’t be a good model of online living
  • either I friend them on Facebook or I am a Luddite who shuns the entire online world (or, worse, I am hypocritically pretending to be one)
  • either I have a rapport with my students, or I don’t.  There might be different levels of rapport, but there aren’t any different kinds.
  • they make better decisions when I’m around; this is a good reason to friend students on Facebook
  • my online life and in-person life are inextricably linked; this is a good reason to friend students on Facebook
  • Facebook is strictly for socializing
  • nothing about Facebook is inherently social
  • including social media in the curriculum is inherently detrimental
  • including social media in the curriculum is not in any way detrimental

I hope this doesn’t come across as inflammatory to any of the comment authors. I can relate to most of these sentiments, including the contradictory ones. And I realize that people post simple statements in short blog comments that can’t be expected to tell the whole story.  At the same time, I think it’s worth digging into how we talk about social media in education, and whether our conclusions follow from our premises.

My point is that “online” isn’t a single place that we can make generalizations about, and we need to develop a much more robust language to discuss it.  Picking a path through the shifting ground of an emerging technology requires us to discern the subtle differences in the terrain.  I think this is in the spirit of Shawn’s opening paragraph where he writes that “searching for information has never been difficult for them but discernment is.”  Let’s be honest: it’s difficult for all of us.

This is going to get long, so I’m going to write first about some things that I think are red herrings.

Non-issue #1: The word “friend” is a smokescreen

Yes, but that’s not the problem.  Following someone’s feed on Facebook doesn’t have to be strictly social; it could be about business or philanthropy or whatever (see especially Facebook’s effect on the 2008 American primaries, or the recent Egyptian revolution).  Let’s stop calling them “friends” and start calling them “contacts.”  It doesn’t help us answer the central question.

Non-issue #2: Facebook ≠Online

Let’s be careful about talking as though Facebook is the only online space that matters, or is representative of the entire online world.  It confuses our debate.

Have you noticed that the strong feelings that come up around Facebook don’t seem to come up when we’re collaboratively editing a Wikipedia page, making a GoogleDoc, or even commenting on each others’ blogs? Not only is Facebook only one of the online interaction possibilities, it’s one that has a uniquely problematic model (Part 2 — coming soon).  Focusing on the content of Facebook’s status updates while ignoring its underlying structure is like solving a math problem without noticing that it’s about a nine-pound orange.  As with pseudocontext, this generalization can lead our thinking toward “bizarre unrealities” such as “Facebook is only about socializing” or “Facebook has nothing to do with socializing.”  My way of staying conscious of exactly which part of the online landscape I’m talking about is to spell Facebook and other tradenames with a capital letter — it reminds me that it is a registered mark owned by a corporation, not a generic label for an idea about society (that would be “social media”).  Use mine if it helps or make up your own reminder.

Non-issue #3: The problem is not the perception of inappropriateness or the threat of lawsuits

As educators, we not only have to do right; we also have to be seen to do right.  But that’s no truer online than it is offline.  This is a problem; but it is not the problem.

Non-issue #4: The problem is not just people’s preconceptions about social media, or inexperience, or lack or imagination, or technophobia

There are people who are uninformed about or afraid of social media, and there are those who just can’t imagine its usefulness in the classroom.  Obviously, no technology matches everyone’s teaching style.  Also, it’s easy to develop a knee-jerk reaction to nay-sayers, since explaining the difference between  Facebook and Twitter for the 92nd time can feel as exasperating as explaining that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are not the same as Aerosmith.  Not. At. All. Mom.  😉  These are not good reasons to assume there are no legitimate critiques.

Non-issue #5: Online communication is not inherently richer than offline

Online communication can be deep or shallow.  So can offline.  Even the process of integrating the online and offline parts of our lives is not inherently an enrichment.  This reminds me of debates about interactive whiteboards.  As with EIWBs, it’s worth asking “does the pedagogy demand it?”  And then being very careful with our answer.

Non-issue #6: Do I need to know about their breakups?

This is a perfectly legitimate question, but I don’t think it helps us figure out the answer to the central question.  Some questions I propose instead:

  • Do my students need me to know about their breakups?
  • Would my students benefit from a private space to discuss their breakups where they are not monitored by authority figures?
  • Do my students even notice that their breakup updates are going to their teachers?
  • How does this affect the kind of rapport we have, and how does that rapport affect their education?

Conclusion, Part 1

We owe it to ourselves and our students to critique communication technology.  That critique must be respectful, informed, and nuanced.  “Technology X is good/bad” or “they just don’t realize its potential” or “just trust me” are not going to cut it.  And we’d better learn to do it fast, because our students need to know how to critique it too.


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