Control is a Worthless Pursuit

On first reading, this story from a Wisconsin school district, bugs me. The district is planning to ban any communication between teachers and students on social networking sites and instant messaging services.  I realize there are two sides to every issue but to me, this represents so much of what makes school irrelevant for students.

“There is absolutely no reason that any teacher right now should be on Facebook with their students,” Thompson said. “You cannot control it.”

Control? When will we realize that the type of control some schools are still clinging to is over? Read Pesce’s article for more thoughts on that.

Social networking services are implicitly interconnected, and Thompson argued that unintentional communication between student and staff members could too easily occur.

That’s the point. The ability for teachers to connect with students in whatever space works for them has to be seen as a step forward.  Not every teacher is comfortable with a relationship that extends beyond the classroom. But many are and they shouldn’t be prohibited from that. It may not be via Facebook but goodness knows there a gazillion other spaces and ways in which people connect. One of the very best discussions on this is found in this podcast featuring danah boyd and Marc Fisher.  They do a wonderful job of critically analyzing the current climate of teacher-student relationships and offer some balanced perspectives. The bottom line is the potential is great and many teachers are genuinely interested and able to connect and foster relationships that do indeed extend beyond the classroom walls and district created spaces.

“There are a million different uses of Facebook, and many of them are legitimate,” Thompson said, “…but you’re putting yourself out there, and it’s a risk.”

Anybody who’s ever posted a comment, photo or video online is at risk. Why is Facebook so different? What these folks fail to get is what I’ve often referred to as the leaky boat syndrome;  plugging one hole in the internet is only going to help you for so long, another one will emerge in about 17 seconds. Educational institutions that are trying desperately to maintain control over this are simply entering a battle they’ll never win. Instead, why not develop some principles or policies that aren’t about control and avoiding liability but that encourage and honor thoughtful and healthy relationships and place a level of trust for its employees? Why are most policies of this nature intended to curb the behavior of a very small minority instead of supporting the great work that could potentially come when teachers can, if they choose, be a part of student’s lives? If we believe that learning is not an isolated event, why would be make policies that assume it is? These policies are in keeping with filtering policies that on the surface are said to protect students but in reality are done to reduce liability.

Superintendent Matt Gibson said the district should still take an official stance on the issue. Elmbrook is “not equipped” to be responsible for inappropriate use of technology, he said. Greater supervision and control means less liability.

What is the cost of this control? Not only are there dollars involved in monitoring this, but the cost of mistrust, loss of innovation and demoralizing relationships might be difficult to recover.  If I’m missing something here, I’d be happy to hear the other side. But these attempts at control continue to reflect a lack of vision and understanding about 2009.

Image: Leaky Boat #1

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  • This sounds like another case of a school district not considering their teachers to be professionals. I think it is important to allow educators to connect with their students on whatever level they feel is professionally appropriate. I personally won’t accept friend requests from my students on Facebook because I don’t feel comfortable doing that. I will, however, interact with them by exchanging emails, commenting on their blogs, visiting with them after school in my classroom, by coaching a team or by facilitating a club. The web has added another level to connect with others. It should be up to the teacher to be professional in their contact with students and decide what is appropriate and necessary to foster the relationship required to have that student learn and grow as a person.

    Joanna Sanders Bobiashs last blog post..The need to inspire and to motivate…

  • It is very clear that the school board and administration of this school district is not interested in the quality of education of their students. Instead their “job” is to limit liability for the school district by making policy that will obviously drive away many quality teachers. I am also not clear about the legality of their position. They may have created legal problems instead of avoiding them.

    wmchamberlains last blog post..I Know That!

  • Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. I’m fortunate to be in a district that allows for social networking. But colleagues in neighboring districts are having a frustrating time in their battle to take their students beyond the confines of the school community.

    Thanks for the resources, Dean, and for starting the conversation. I’ll be passing both on.

    Gail Deslers last blog post..Happy First Birthday to The Edublogger!

  • Dean thanks for this. I just added my 2 cents on my blog. – Mark

    Mark Ahlnesss last blog post.."99 pictures of friends on the wall, 99 pictures of friends…"

  • When I see policy making like this I always wonder what prompts it. Most of the time this kind of policy is reactionary. Something has gotten out of hand, has led to something inappropriate, or just plain given some administrator the heebie jeebies. I blame the technophobia on one thing.

    We have done too good of a job regarding public awareness of internet safety concerns.

    It seems that all internet and online interactions and conversation is considered somehow more sinister than face to face interaction. When policy like this is enacted it works. It keeps the honest, diligent and respectful teachers from using online resources to connect to their kids. The adults who are already edgy and willing to flout convention and the rules are by default the only ones left for young people to interact with online. When are we going to be able to take back the territory. Sure, ban Facebook and leave the students to the wolves, or create sensible policies and structures that allow people to make the healthy and useful connections that the internet enables. Online interactions are not by their nature any more sinister than face to face interactions. A predator who wants to harm students has many tools open to them. I admit that because of the pseudo-anonymity of the web it can be easier to reach a casualness and level of comfort that would not necessarily develop in face to face interactions with students, but online is not always sinister.

    Policy that bans online communication seems simpler on the surface. Some online interactions can be bad so let’s ban all of them, seems to be the philosophy, but again. Who are students interacting with if all the wholesome teachers in their lives are banned?

    Mitchell Jorgensens last blog post..Posted in Response to Remote Access

  • I know quite a few teachers who have great outside the classroom relationships with their students. Certainly there are those teachers who don’t, or don’t have good intentions. But they are the minority. I agree that online interactions are not necessarily more sinister than face to face interactions.

    Students need to communicate. They desperately need to communicate. It’s a necessary part of making them well rounded human beings.

    Lindsay Prices last blog post..The Great Baltimore Change Plane

  • Dave

    It’s important to take some risks when teaching and not be too tied down, but I really fail to see the appeal in this particular risk. Do you think that, by communicating with students on Facebook or their personal blog that you will magically help a student learn Algebra? Do you think you’ll counteract the effect of parents who say that education is silly and encourage a student to drop out and start working?

    If you believe that, then do you believe that this is something you couldn’t accomplish in a way that the school could monitor and keep records of? Could you accomplish this with email? Moodle? Don’t fight to use the outlawed tools, fight for something better: a solution that gives you the benefits of the outlawed tools without the risks.

  • Dave,

    It’s not about this being the magically tool but more about an attitude around how we view technology as having some mysterious aura that we have to try and control. I think Mitchell said it pretty well.

    To me this simply represents a way to mold our learning into silos and boxes that we can control. I have nothing against using district tools. In many cases these serve us well. But when a district tries to restrict communication, that concerns me. Facebook, I think is seen as a space that is less professional and certainly without a district stamp or logo, it may well be. The key here is that many tools like Skype, Facebook and others contain both professional and personal content. That’s not going away.

    Ask Chris Lehmann of the Science and Leadership Academy how often he as multiple skype chats and Facebook chats open at night with students. That’s simply the best way for them to interact. It’s not for everyone. I don’t say every teacher has to use these tools but I know of many teachers that take advantage of these spaces to build great relationships with their students. Many teachers would never friend a student on Facebook and that’s fine and I totally understand the rationale. But I also don’t want to judge those that do. In my view it comes down to meeting kids where they are at. I think by participating in their world at some level it buys them credit but more importantly simply facilitates a natural communication. Let me try an analogy. It might be like saying “all communication in schools with students must take place in certain rooms under the supervision of at least 2 teachers. Teachers must not communicate with students in hallways or on the school grounds without another adult present.” Grant it, that’s a little absurd but it does illustrate that many of those passing comments, discussions or encouragements won’t take place if we restrict interactions to certain places. The use of IM and Facebook are spaces where students already are and if they are willing to meet with teachers there, why not? The benefits far outweigh the risks.

    The “risks” are in my view a mindset of control that has to be relinquished.

    Dean Shareskis last blog post..Control is a Worthless Pursuit

  • To chime in here… restricting access to powerful communication between students and teachers is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Surely, we have to be smart and thoughtful about the ways teachers and students interact in the age of ubiquitous communication, but to simply ban it is to miss the point.

    I’ve had midnight conversations with students about academic work, about their lives, about sports and politics… you name it. I’m always careful to let them know that I’m still the adult / principal that they see in school, but those conversations are priceless. The teachers who take the time to set up those dynamics find powerful bleed-back into their classrooms.

    One of the challenges of teaching / raising kids today is that social media has created an even deeper level of disconnect between adults and kids, as kids can now communicate faster and more easily without adult supervision than ever before. When we put ourselves into that world, we act as guides for our kids in ways that are absolutely invaluable.

    Chris Lehmanns last blog post..Old Ideas, New Tools, Teaching… and a Quick Thought….

  • Jim Dornberg

    Perhaps Shakespeare said it best: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” I think superintendents have consulted with their school district’s attorney and are scared to death that inappropriate contact between a teacher and student will leave their district liable. Granted, 99.99% of teachers would never consider doing anything inappropriate, but it’s the .01% that make the headlines and the evening news that ruin it for everyone.

  • I dont’ know how I missed this story – this is a district only a few miles from my house, the same district my wife attended. It seems to me the district is fearful of something bad happening. Instead of being proactive, and perhaps hold some discussions with staff, students, and families, they’ve decided to be reactive. I would guess a Board Member or Administrator found out about some communication they thought was inappropriate and decided to do something about it. I live in an elementary world right now, both at work and at home. My children are young, but I certainly could see my 3rd grader connecting with a teacher in the evening about homework help or something of the sort. Who knows what tools will be available in a few years for my children to communicate with their teachers. We are all probably preaching to the choir here because we see the benefits of communication. What’s interesting is that the District is not really saying communication can’t happen, they’re just singling out Facebook – which I agree, is wrong. The communication will continue, the learning will continue – those wanting to communicate will find something other than Facebook.

    Chad Lehmans last blog post..Web 2 Many

  • Katie205

    I think that is interesting that a school district is trying to put control on teacher/student interactions over the internet. I know that interactions through social networking can be a touchy subject, but not one that should be obsolete. I think that school districts can take precautionary measures by setting up guidelines or suggestions of proper interactions that teachers can take to make sure they don’t cross the line. I personally think that relationships with teachers and students through social networking could be a very positive experience. I know that there are teachers from high school that I got really close with through classes and after school stuff. Our relationships have lasted, and I can only imagine how great they could have been in high school if we had had a way to connect outside of the educational setting. Some of my high school teachers are people that I admire and look to as role models.

  • My question is where does it end? Most tools that we use now have a social element to them, including things like Gmail. So if teachers and students are using gmail and google docs to collaborate on a project, should this be blocked?? Okrut is googles social networking tool and it is just a click or two away from gmail. I’ve seen teachers do some incredible things in history class with Ning where they use the space as a way to recreate historical time periods. Students enter the ning and take on the persona of a character from the era and engage in a host of rich and engaging activities. See this “Civil Rights Facebook” project from an 8th grade US History teacher to see how social networks can be leveraged in extremely positive ways:

    Like you said, this policy shows a complete lack of trust in this district’s teachers…and that is too bad.

    Nice post, Dean.

    Matt Montagnes last blog post..Dallas, TX Teacher Online Review Session

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  • Thanks for this post, Dean…It was much needed affirmation for me, as I’ve been struggling with my own thinking about whether or not digital communication between teachers and students was “safe,” both for me professionally and for our districts from a liability standpoint.

    Your comments about the punches such restrictive policies make to innovation and moralization (is that a word?!) remind me of Barry Schwartz’s Ted Talk: [www_ted_com]

    Rock right on,

    Bill Ferriters last blog post..TWIT: They Always Wonder

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  • Roben


    I’m really happy to see this discussion coming up. Schools are really limiting the potential that technology has to offer. I understand their need to consider liability but eliminating resources does not seem like the educated thing to do here. School is the place where students should be able to learn about technology and how to use it responsibly. It should be okay for students to realize their teachers are people outside of the classroom. In fact, it would help many students feel more connected.

    In addition to limiting the use of social networking, I’m seeing schools eliminate the use of other technology as well such as not allowing mp3 players. We could be encouraging them to expand their musical horizons or leading them to podcasts and other applications for their ever diversified “toys”. Instead we treat technology like it is the root of evil instead of highlighting the true learning potential that it offers.

  • vanhookc

    I use FB to share Book Club information with my high school students regarding upcoming events. I value this tool as an open line of communication. Many students have sought homework help from me on Facebook, 24-7! Regarding Facebook as a 21st Century Literacy tool, maybe this will help explain its value: *Collaboration–Students practice cyber-etiquette by listening and responding to others with respect and giving positive feedback, when appropriate. *Collaboration–Students understand how social media tools can be used effectively in the learning process. *Using writing skills to communicate new understandings effectively–Students compare / contrast emerging social media per best choice of global communication. *Connect learning to community issues–Students develop a willingness to share learning with a community of learners. *Ethics and safety–Students follow ethical and legal guidelines in acquiring and sharing information. Students practice online safety in the exchange of information, ideas and communication. Most importantly, this last one shows that social media tools allow our students to learn: *Students understand their online behavior in exchanging ideas and information enhances self-enlightenment, academic pride, and social and ethical responsibilities. (Note: Students should be carefully guarded in their use of any Internet resource by parents and teachers.) Now, isn’t Facebook an appropriate online tool to practice these 21st Century learning behaviors?

    I view Facebook no differently from Twitter, Flickr, PBWiki, etc. I am an engaged 21st Century Educator, modeling appropriate online behavior and providing assistance to high school students and former ones, too. As a teacher librarian, I am compelled to teach responsible use of 21st Century communicative tools. These are great public spaces, or networks, for the educator to provide professional guidance, no different than if I saw these same students at a game, mall, or other public space. If asked for homework help, or if they were acting inappropriately, or if they wished to just say hello, I would respond the same as if I were speaking to them in Facebook, or other networked environment.

    I do value Facebook for touching base with family members across the country and personal friendships which I have developed over the years. As for students, I use this environment to:
    1. publicized upcoming Book Club events or Library happenings
    2. promote reading and discuss new titles
    3. give homework assistance (no different, from my “Ask a Librarian” services in our online research resources)
    4. guide a student towards responsible online use

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