How Close Is Too Close?

One of my most respected virtual friends (who will become a “real” friend if Educon 2.3 doesn’t get snowed out) recently blogged about five reasons to avoid Facebook in the classroom.  His post was a response to another by Jeff Utecht advocating the use of Facebook in classrooms.  While it might seem a bit odd, allow me to take a position that is tenuously negative and positive at the same time.  The way I see it, in reality, Doyle’s post was less about Facebook and more about teacher-student communication in 2010.

Facebook in education

Let me start by saying that Facebook might be something interesting for education at some point.  As for now, I avoid Facebook as a purposeful classroom tool.  Do I have students and former students as “friends” on Facebook?  Yes, I do.  I do not initiate those connections, but I do reciprocate them.  I am consciously aware of the potential of the idea of the “creepy treehouse**” and so I act accordingly.

a very big birdhouse

I live and work in a town/school district that has one of the more liberal filtering policies I have seen in public education.  We don’t get too hung up on tools.  Within the rule of law, we open things up and allow our local curriculum to be addressed however our professionals see fit.  That does allow students and teachers in my little corner of the world to use Blogs, Wikis, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, Ning, ad infinitum, to achieve our stated goals.  That said, we do currently block Facebook and MySpace in house.  We do not forbid the use outside of the school day.  For example, the LMC at Benton High School uses a Facebook fan page (among a dozen other ways to connect the world of learning to the world of kids).

So why do we block those two entities in a sea of social connections?  The answer is rather simple as of now.  The signal to noise ratio on FB is just too low for what we are trying to accomplish locally.  This does not mean that we will not one day open FB during the school day.  What it does mean is that for now…  we haven’t yet developed rigorous educational landscapes in that realm to a value point that overcomes the bleed-off due to just being “social.”

In my own scheming toward social connectedness and global awareness, I stepped into the realm of Ning several years ago for the two courses I taught as well as for building and district-level professional development goals.  This is a direct repurposing of social tools to fit an educational goal.  In short, those networks were created by an educator for the sole purpose of learning and sharing.  FB is social space defined by the user.  Students colonized that realm before we did.  With aging demographics in the teacher ranks, that will soon change.  Herein lies an essential element of the discussion as I see it:  Many students resist the idea of being forced to relay educational “stuff” within their Facebook lifestream.  I get that.  I’m not excited about pushing my way into someone’s social space either.

He parked kinda close

Too close?

So I’m not yet an advocate of FB in the classroom.  True.  I’m not yet willing to dive educationally into a social tool currently dominated by silliness and pablum.  That said, my argument is not one of a “digital divide” between students and teachers.  I get the need for clear lines between professional and otherwise.  I’m late to Facebook.  I was a professional when I arrived there, and I am a professional in those spaces.  Sure, I connect with family and friends there.  However, one look at my profile will give you mostly a list of the blog posts I have recently written, the most current photos from my Flickr stream, and a host of distant family members I have recently befriended.

Let’s now take this one step further.  Let’s look at AT&T or Verizon, or any other entity facilitating instantaneous communication…….

During each of the past four years, I have been a building-level instructional coach.  My daily teaching duties included one course (Dual-Credit Biology) and my Marine Biology course which includes students from three local high schools and meets during 22 Monday nights throughout the year.  In general, I work with good students, but that schedule is a “21st Century” challenge if such a thing exists.  I’m most often not present in the flesh.  I potentially visit classrooms in 26 buildings.  I engage students from all corners of our town and we spend a week abroad in the Bahamas on sailboats in what could best be described as the middle of nowhere, North America.

Perhaps “trust” is already implied in those relationships.  Perhaps the fact that I meet with parents early and often tends to change the dynamic a bit.  However, at some point within our first meeting of the Summer (prior to students heading home with laptops to work on class projects) I scribble my mobile number on the board.  I don’t “teach” responsibility at that point.  I merely say:  don’t message me unless it is important.  If you’re stuck in a snowbank headed to class at 7:00pm, I want to know.  If you’re 500 yards away on a sailboat in the Bahamas, and you have an allergy medicine question…  I want to know, etc.

What emerges is good for all involved.  You’re current or former student “X.”  You’ve decided to do your Ph.D. research on…   You’re thinking about switching to university X because…  You wonder if Chilean Seabass is an environmentally-responsible menu choice.  You need someone to give you a ride to class tonight because…  whatever.  This isn’t about the device used for communication.  It IS about making things happen for kids.  It IS about being professionally available.  It IS about boundaries.  It IS about teaching those boundaries…  step by step.  Message by message.  Txt by txt.  In a comment to Doyle’s post, Alec Couros said it rather well:

“…I think a genuine type of closeness is what we are missing most in schools. This doesn’t have to come via Facebook (by any means), but the tendency to have more sterile relationships with kids is a huge detriment to any lasting relevance of our school system.”

I stand by this:  some folks freak about digital communications between students and teachers.  And yet they think nothing about the face-to-face conversation in the hall where no one else is listening.  This is merely lack of comfort with something new.  I find comfort in digital.  Let’s be honest, while any authority can check a cell or FB account, no one…  no one can check a face-to-face conversation.  Am I wrong?  Stand by your interactions as a professional and a model for children, and frankly- there’s a digital record to go along as a bonus.

iPhone 4

I care what my kids are doing.  We all do.  But when they care enough to stop and tap out a text to ask a question about whether the dish they are about to order is ecologically sustainable…  or to celebrate being the smartest kid in their Bio class half a world away…  I see value.  Life moves pretty fast in 2010.  That waiter isn’t waiting.  When you’ve acquired a resource, you use it.  I like to think I’ve instilled that in my students.  Case-in-point, a former student in my Dual-Credit Biology class sent a text to my phone out of the blue a few days ago:

hannahs txt

A day or so later I asked if I could add this to a simple little blog post (that was supposed to be 15 lines long or less before Doyle’s post).  She obviously said yes.  I’m not entirely sure of the details.  Was her friend uncomfortable with digital communications?  Was she stressed when asked to respond to a rigorous discussion?  Was it a combination of both?  I’m not sure.  There’s a better than fair chance that Hannah will grace us with that information in the comments section.  Feedback from my students of this sort helps me be the the relevant professional I strive to be today.  Regardless-  Hannah is a confident learner in these spaces, and for that I am largely thankful and a slight bit proud.  I get it if you’re in different circumstances.  That’s exactly what I’m trying to convey here:  context matters.  Rules here are different when applied there.  Your reality should dictate your professional choices.

Bullet the blue sky

If I were forced to do this post as a set of bullet points it might roll out like this…

  • Facebook isn’t evil, though in my opinion, it rarely has proven a valuable classroom tool in our world at this time.
  • Kids (and teachers) today need boundaries between professional and casual conversation.
  • Boundaries must be clear and must be maintained.  A line in the sand is a boundary.  A good boundary needn’t be a wall in all cases.
  • Relevant communication is different from what it was years (even a few) ago.
  • Be a pro.  No doubt that looks different on the surface in 2010 than in the past, though the rules are still the same.
  • You’ll never cease to be a member of your local community.  Act accordingly.
  • Relevancy.  Do smart professional values equal the need to be irrelevant in the modes of communication of today?
  • It’s not the media, it’s the boundaries negotiated by wise adults that matter.

Social media in eduction isn’t a simple topic.  There is no one answer for all.  Nothing in education escapes the powerful pull of context.  What works in one situation doesn’t in another.  What is amazing for one teacher is scary for another.  What is scary for one is freedom for an entire set of children begging for leaders.  Children look to adults for leadership.  They always have and they always will.  Those of you reading this likely know the communications landscape has changed (for better or for worse).  No matter how you feel about it, this isn’t your father’s education.  Pick your battles.  Make your choices.  Be a leader.  Make the world a better place for the children in your charge.  Be ethical.  Be smart.  Be available as only you know how.  Millions of our children need the absolute best of what you have to offer.

Take my hand

**This link was edited in September of 2016. The original link that nearly the entire educational web was pointing to was: [http://flexknowlogy.learningfield.org/2008/04/09/defining-creepy-tree-house/] It is, unfortunately, now dead. I have replaced the link to a similarly-worded post on the same topic.

Artwork

*”A Very Big Bird House” by James Gray-King on Flickr
*”He parked kinda close” by Vagabond Shutterbug on Flickr
*”iPhone 4” by Brian Wilkins on Flickr.
*”Take my Hand” by Gregory Bastien on Flickr.

.

Sean Nash

District Online Learning Coordinator (eCampus) in a large public district of over thirty individual schools. Most recently, a district instruction coordinator. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at http://nashworld.me

13 Comments

  1. Touché.

    I still think Facebook is evil (as much as I use it) because I think Mr. Zuckerberg has some issues.

    But I am bleeding–thanks for putting this in a separate post. It might not be a fatal wound.

    • Yeah… I can’t argue with that.

      Really, if I hadn’t droned on long enough already, I would have mentioned the FB policy issues as well as evils of forced advertisement. I’ve certainly never been influential enough to be called by the NY Times to comment (on Channel One), but I’m in full agreement there as well. Channel One “came to town” in Saint Joseph during the first year or two of my career (’92-ish). It’s still here. In my opinion, even if you were in favor of it to begin with… it is a mere vestige in 2010. Those silly little Orwellian monitors peering forth from the corner of every room. Weird.

      Your quote in the Times just cracks me up. Starts out perfectly stolid with:

      ”I would hope that our children wouldn’t be sold at any price,” said Dr. Michael Doyle, a pediatrician from Bloomfield, N.J., where the local superintendent wanted to bring in Channel One earlier this year but was overruled by the board of education.”

      But then you bring it home swift and clean with:

      ”But goodness, if you’re going to sell them, why sell them so cheaply?”

      I love it.

  2. At this point Facebook doesn’t add much value to the classroom, but like everything else involving technology that will probably change and we all must learn to adapt with it. Your point about clearly enforced boundaries is probably most important.

  3. I think that you’ve laid it all out neatly. I work at an international school and our reasoning for blocking facebook is similar. I sometimes wonder what my role and my school’s role should be in changing the perception of Facebook and other such tools as a learning tool rather than just a social/fun tool. But yes, for now I agree that “the signal to noise ratio on FB is just too low.”

    • Do you think the school has a role in shifting perceptions about the purpose of Facebook? I know you said you wondered about this. Have you thought any more along those lines? Do you use Facebook as a learning tool yourself, or is it more or less social space? If so, how? I certainly use it as “professional space.” I wouldn’t have student connections there if not. However, I’ve yet to engage there to this point in much of an academic “learning” capacity.

      At this time, I can certainly understand schools taking an active role in addressing smart uses of Facebook (along with any other online spaces). Being a wise citizen in digital spaces is just as important as being a wise citizen as one walks through life in real spaces. While I hesitate to assert that the online world holds anywhere remotely near the same value as the concrete world… it is quite clear that the rapid pace of communication there can exacerbate any potential issues at light speed. And that, is worth a conscious focus for sure.

      Thanks for stopping by. It was good meeting you in Denver.

  4. Believe it or not, as a high school student, I completely agree that facebook should not be used in the classrooms. I think that it would be just another distraction, and also another excuse for not doing homework. Facebook is strictly just a social networking site, I don’t think it has any educational value.
    I do however, think that there are sites that help students learn tremendously. Nash is the one who introduced me to them.

    As you already know, I was in Mr. Nash’s Dual Credit Biology course last year. I made it very clear that I did not want to use the computers for every assignment. I thought that the whole “social networking” idea was stupid. When Nash started off the course introducing us to our class ning site, I really was not too excited. It took a while to adjust to, but after I LEARNED HOW to post a blog, reflect, and more importantly respond to my classmates posts, I came to love it!

    Colleges and Universities are using social networking sites more and more as the world around us becomes technologically advanced. The problem is students who are entering college with no experience blogging, reflecting, or responding, have no idea how to do it.

    When I was helping my friend with her home work, (mind you, I’m a senior in high school, she is a junior in college) she kept saying, “Hannah, I just don’t want to post something and sound stupid.” I remember that was a huge fear of mine when we first started out. She wasn’t even sure what a “good” response looked like. After a long crash-course on learning how to reflect and respond, my friend had published a pretty decent post.

    Like I told Nash, it feels so good to know that I am already prepared for college by learning how to do these things on sites like ning, grou.ps, and other social networking sites. I think that in order for students to be better prepared for college, they need experience doing things like reflections and responses online. It really is something that you have to learn to do. It’s like playing a sport, you will never get better if you never practice. I think that the time when students need to “practice” is in high school so they are well aware of what a professor is looking for when they get to college.

    Thanks again Nash!

    • Thanks for that, Hannah.

      As you well know, however, there is far more to being “ready for college” than being comfortable with digital communication tools. I know you know that already. I had a hunch that the “difficulty” you helped your friend work through was more centered on the rigor of the prompt/question being asked… and less about the button-clicking aspects of the technology. (not to discount the value of being able to fluidly move in and out of digital spaces)

      I’m just guessing here, but I’d bet you soon find out that the skills you gained were more about thinking… reflecting on your learning… carefully articulating an argument… engaging in discourse with others who may hold opposing views, etc. We certainly did learn to find the tools we need to get all sorts of academic tasks done… but don’t sell yourself short.

      You’re no “techie” — but you sure can think and defend that thought in the forums of today and at least the near future. And seriously, thanks again for stopping to reply. Far too seldom do we get honest student voices out in the open on these topics. And without that, we all might as well be talking to ourselves. 😉

  5. Facebook’s/Zuckerberg’s privacy flippancy is one of the top reasons why I feel we should continue to block Facebook during the school day. Last week in class, we were discussing how our classroom website is available for everyone to view, and how having this audience should affect how/what they write. During our discussion, Facebook came up, and when I asked them if they knew that they had to change their privacy settings so that aspects of their profile weren’t viewable by everyone, I received mostly blank stares. A few head nods, but for the most part, most of them didn’t realize that the default setting was “little to no privacy.” My gut tells me that FB knew that most users (especially its youngest users) wouldn’t pay attention to this change, and this really bothers me.

    However, the other drawback for me is that this site is currently a social site primarily, and I just don’t want to fight the usage battle when I could just use another site.

    I think FB has potential as a marketing tool, but I would rather use something else within my classroom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *