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Funny-face

There was a time my teachers existed only within the four walls of their classrooms. At the end of the day, after they ushered us to the school yard (the school’s lobby when it rained) for dismissal, they faded back into the dimly lit corridors of the school. Not to be seen until the next morning when they came to collect us again.

When my wife learned that our eldest would have a new teacher this fall, she did an interesting thing. She looked up our son’s teacher on Facebook. His new teacher had a profile.

I found it “interesting” because for one reason or another it hadn’t occur to me to use Facebook as a serious professional tool. Up until that moment, Facebook was a novel way to poke my friends, old and new. After all it is called a social networking site. I hadn’t internalized its professional applications. At least not yet.

There is a lot of information/opinion available about creating an online profile on Facebook and other social networking sites. For the most part, authors agree that the danger of TMI – Too Much Information – is always lurking.

Andy Carvin writes succinctly about the impact of Facebook on academia. For the most part it has been positive. He quotes the Dean of Students at Purdue University, who sees Facebook as a powerful medium for professors to communicate with their students. He also does not deny the negatives. He was targeted online after suspending a group of students for selling drugs. The suspended students started a hate group targeting him. It included his personal contact and home information. The police were brought in. However, the Dean places the blame on the behavior of the students and not on the vehicle they used for their threats.

Carvin concludes his piece questioning whether the positives of Facebook in academia can be translated into a K-12 environment? I think,”Yes.” However, students need to be taught how to behave online. I agree with the Dean of Students’ quote that Carvin includes, regarding negative incidents on Facebook: “The behavior is what you deal with, not where it occurred.”

As with any skill, the more you practice, the better at it you will get. The motivation to practice lies in the belief that what you are learning has practical applications in the real world. If you wish to create a functional online citizenry, you must provide multiple opportunities to logon in a “policed” environment where mistakes or trespasses can be corrected expediently.

Being online means that there is no expectation of privacy (or that your privacy is only thinly veiled) with regard to blogs, social networking profiles, and the comments you may leave on other sites. The lack of privacy in the 21st Century is not so much the disclosure of secrets but the weakening of the lines between personal tastes and professional personas.

On the Finding Dulcinea blog, Jen O’Neill, cites the difficulty teachers have had keeping their “teacher personas” while making full use of their social networking profiles. She writes that she cringed at first when a teacher friend of hers said he used Facebook in his classroom. She provides a link to several articles about teachers in trouble because of their Facebook accounts. However, she concludes in support of his use and provides a link to Didactalab, a teacher’s resource for effective utilization of Facebook as an educational tool.

In a reaction piece to an article, the Gypsy Librarian offers thoughtful commentary on the thinning veil between teacher persona and personal identity.  In examining the teacher persona in a social network, he cites from the article that “students are more likely to communicate with teachers online who utilize immediacy behaviors (e.g., use students’ first names, ’emoticons’ to convey emotion) in email messages.”

But also cautions that “teachers may violate student expectations of proper behaviors and run the risk of harming their credibility if they utilize Facebook.” I think this is the point that makes Facebook so controversial. Using math as an example, while there may be new developments in mathematics or the teaching of mathematics that would require the teacher to attend professional development courses, social networking rules change based on the sensitivities of the user’s generation.

Facebook is effective when all users involved share a common etiquette, which is challenging because unlike the Three Rs, it is still evolving. A conversation I had with a former coworker comes to mind. It was over a decade ago when email was changing the workplace. She had written a message in all capital letters, a vehicle now widely agreed to as “screaming” in the message but back then it was just being accepted.

Despite its downsides, social networking tools like Facebook are the future of interactions between student and teacher. Parroting Perdue’s Dean, I believe it is the behavior of the individual that will determine just how effective an educational tool these social networks are.

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