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