Social notwork


There is a frivolous and a serious side to this title.

A few days ago, I came across the story titled “Teachers banned from contacting students on social networking sites“. It was an unnerving read about a knee-jerk reaction by Education Queensland over several incidents involving contacts between teachers and students by way of online social networking (SN). Unnerving because I have been successfully using social networking tools to connect with a number of current and former students over the past year.

My first reaction was – this stinks! The reaction of several of my (ex)students on Twitter and in class was – this stinks! The fury of fellow ed-tech folk was palpable on Twitter and in the blogosphere, the phrase “21st century” got mentioned a lot. The comments on the story’s website were an expectedly polarised mixture of “about bloody time” (mostly from people who don’t REALLY understand the methods, let alone the principles of social networking online) and “outrage” by people who have actually used social networking with students and benefited from it.

I didn’t leave a comment on the story but chose to sit on it for a few days, thinking.

Firstly, while the ban and particularly the lunacy of keeping teachers websites “private and appropriate” is unenlightened at best, I am sure that Education Queensland had the best interest of kids in mind, no matter how misguided the edu-crats may be. There clearly had been some breaches of trust and some inappropriate behaviour (I don’t condone it but then the number is relatively low considering probably tens of thousands of such ‘communications’).

As I reflect on this debate, I think this matter goes beyond the domain of education and a “few bad apples” causing others who use SN responsibly to suffer. It is a matter of divorcing education from the culture and society in which it is embedded into a kind of narrow technical pursuit by ‘experts who know’ (more on that in our ‘Why is everyone an expert on education?’ series, next installment close to publishing).

For better or worse, we are swimming in social media (see the stats above), it is a growing part of our cultural, social, political, economic and with it (why not?) educational life. Unless we make some enlightened and wise choices, decisions on such awesome tools of (ab)use will continue to be made by educators who have increasingly little power in the broader culture but fear losing their modest power in the educational establishment. To put it simply with a question: Ban it? Until when exactly?

How about leave it to the teachers and students? By all means, provide guidelines and warnings on content with sexualised nature, innuendo and stupidities like that. Social networking tools do make abuse easier to commit and distribute in time and space by people bent on abusing children or plain idiots. They can also be a wonderful way to connect, extend, humanise our teaching and learning in ways consistent with the century we live in. On the abuse prevention flipside, because these networks ARE social, they can quickly spot, even track and police (potential) offences. After all, friends are still one of the best weapons against bullying and abuse, aren’t they? Let’s talk with the kids (not AT them) and become wise TOGETHER about online behaviour, what is appropriate and why so. The idea that you control the mouse but don’t control the signal still needs to be bedded down in minds of kids, parents and educators (and politicians, obviously).

So is student-teacher social networking all good then? Not so fast, not just yet …

Online predators and abusers are a real problem. But let’s not make a leap that every teacher online is a predator or at least has stupid, if at least unsavoury intentions. If anything, it is the students that are probably more likely to be predatory and abusive. Don’t believe it? Just wait till a disgruntled teenager unleashes an MSN fury about you being a ‘crap teacher’ because she failed that test by 2%, and which you marked with utmost professional integrity.

Another issue is one of time. For all its benefits, social networking can become quite taxing on teachers’ time. Teaching is a caring profession, one where  relationships do and should matter. Caring for too many students online, usually as a supplement to face-to-face contact, could spread one’s teaching resources thinly. It could even breed misguided resentment “he doesn’t ever reply to our posts, he doesn’t care” or “he doesn’t want to be friends on Facebook, he is not friendly” etc. There is also a danger that because of the ‘always on call’ attitude, students will come and ask questions and seek help for problems they could be better off solving and struggling with themselves. And they will do that at often inappropriate, inconvenient times. Being a node, to use connectivist lingo, is OK but being a hub with the approval switch for all traffic would probably often work against the independent learning of students, something social networking tools have such a wonderful potential to support and sustain when used wisely.

And let’s not forget that old nut… While privacy is a button to click and filter to turn on in this hyper-connected world, it should not be dismissed lightly either. Invoking the platinum rule (“Treat others the way they want to be treated”) could be increasingly important or the SN tools may deliver disappointment and, at worst, abuse.

Final thoughts

This reflection began with the question “should teachers be allowed to connect with students over SN?” This is an edu-technical issue – ban or not ban. At a much deeper level, SN is about the potential to rock the boat of the restrictive, binary teacher – student divide we are so comfortable with and used to. For now, we (can) run projects and tinker on the edges with SN occasionally bridging that divide. However, it can be very taxing and quite possibly (un)helpful in many ways to be a (traditional) teacher, connector, assessor, judge, evaluator, crying shoulder, confidante, ‘buddy’ and many other things to cohorts of students 24/7 online and face-to-face. Context rules – let’s have a mature conversation about it.

But if we genuinely open up spaces where these roles are re-defined, re-imagined, in some cases even completely reversed, social networking could be an incredibly useful, perhaps essential tool in fundamentally re-shaping education towards a (post-industrial) model of cross-generational mentorship. I am passionate about working towards it but I’d continue to wisen up on social networks and by all means use them with students and colleagues … judiciously.

‘Judiciously’ not because I don’t use, like or trust my social networks (I love them!) but because the ‘bleeding edge’ we are at sometimes requires its pint of blood I’d rather donate than have it drawn without my approval.

And the punsy title?

What else is education other than a social network, seemingly supressed, blocked and banned in its 21st century incarnation. Not work? You be the judge…

21 thoughts on “Social notwork”

  1. I agree with you, Tomaz. We have a whole lot of new tools available to us to teach with and to teach. The new tools are creating new ways of communicating and we haven’t yet learned the rules. The traffic laws that worked for the horse era of transportation haven’t been sufficient for newer forms of transportation; we’ve had to expand the rules a bit. It will be necessary to do that with the new ways of communicating. That means we’ve got to get to work and not pretend that the world isn’t changing. The schools that some folks think they’re maintaining are also social networks, just a different kind of network.

  2. We agree. Its stupid for all the reasons you say. But it will get worse. At the root of this is a fear of a loss of control of education itself. A need to accept that those who have risen to power will not be held aloft by virtue of time served or their office seeking peons who aspire to sit at the foot of policy makers – who neither use or care about social media. The only way to engage with this is to lobby though associations for wider change, before even more policy is forced upon teachers – and don’t for a moment think that a few teachers won’t go under the blade if it suits them, just to illustrate who is in power and how power is to be distributed.

    The solution lies in Sweden my friend. The system itself is not going to change, unless a new system forces it. Associations too need to add a degree of brevity – get past being a resource or a professional development provider – advocate change. Who’s doing that in Australia?

    Social action needs organisation. Or a new organisation. Don’t care which comes first.

  3. Excellent article Tomaz. It’s these types of knee-jerk reactions that give education in the 21st century a really bad name. It’s like in New South Wales in 2002 when the teachers union banned email for teachers because they were concerned that teachers will have to answer emails from parents and students at 11pm. That ban lasted four years, and was only lifted on the proviso that teachers could “opt-out” of email if they wanted to (not get an email address at all).

    I believe the Queensland action is more related to the government not wanting to deal with social networking “scandals” involving teachers and students in the media than any real concern over protecting one side or the other from themselves.

    How can we ever expect to teach responsibility, ethics and appropriateness if our first action to any new development we don’t fully understand is to block it?

  4. Personally I’m a little tired of the sexual predator viewpoint of social networking (while at the same time taking pains to point out the privacy issues to my students currently studying social networks and their implications), as well as the issue of inappropriate conduct.

    Both of these ideas are just as applicable to any other aspect of how we interact with our students, and it doesn’t make sense to ban for example talking to students who we meet down the shops simply because that conversation may be inappropriate.

    My personal view of including students in our own social networks does however tie into the issue of appropriateness, but not in the direction which the media (and policy) tends to travel. I don’t include my students in the spheres of social networks which I travel in because there are times when I want to stop being a teacher and simply be human, which I feel is something which we get precious little opportunity to do. Reversing the perspective, I see enough from shoulder surfing at work of the sorts of things that many of my students share in their social networks to know that I don’t really want them to share that much with me either.

    I feel that there’s a distinction between social networks as a predefined tool and social networks as a form of total (well, moreso than usual) disclosure. I’m much more a fan of the former than the latter, although I’m not certain I would want that personal opinion to be made policy. I don’t think that social networking should be banned, but I don’t think I agree with the “embrace! embrace! embrace!” crowd either (sorry Tomaz! :).

  5. @Dan @Dean @Stu

    Thanks. I knew before I am not alone but it is bloody nice and valuable to hear it. I mostly hear ‘nah’ in person and feel like some kind of zealot (probably true, we are all a matter of degrees on someone’s continuum…) but asking for a mature dialogue is a shared professional responsibility.


    Aren’t we all over the sexual predator label…oh yes!

    No apologies needed, you explain yourself perfectly. I think we are closer in the views one may lead to believe. It is precisely why I use the word ‘judicious’ and bring up some of the less palatable sides of social networking that so often get drowned by the hype. I connect with whom I choose and I choose wisely (at least I believe so).

    But you know… if SN is another alley to change this antiquated system and ways of thinking in which we educate kids, then I am for it! (caveats included). Instead of re-defining, reimagining learning environment we reflexively restrict, ban and with it rob a chance to actually learn and wisen up on it.

    Oh, and I like my weekends too, I just don’t care who sees that I don’t like mowing the lawn if I happen to whinge about it. I am human, not a teacher first.

    Cheers Rob and thanks for sharing your ideas, appreciated.

  6. We’re peddling Moodle in the USA and schools push back against that as well (especially if you talk about the messaging feature). I think it all boils down to risk management and control. Sites not owned/managed by a school become liabilities and are risky to the school (especially in this litigious era). I don’t blame the schools, because the 1 in a million/billion odds that something bad might happen justifies the knee jerk reaction.

    I don’t agree with that reaction, but I see why it happens. That being said, I think there are options that would allow for social networking that could be very well put to use in schools, without the risk but retaining the benefits. The issue though is replication of effort. Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are established modes of communication, adding another to the mix may/may not be successful.

    I’d be curious what tech that school that banned all SN is using. Do they Moodle and use Elgg? Is that enough? (and if it’s not, what is enough?)

  7. So many good points have been mentioned. The basic problem in the action of banning is that it is based on fear and not the mature dialogue needed. In the incidents of inappropriateness, those individuals will be inappropriate in other contexts as well. That does not make the rest of us inappropriate.

    In thinking about appropriateness, we have this “plugged in” generation who have created the rules of the new and upcoming technology. They jump in, embracing each new thing and don’t have the maturity to pause to think about appropriateness. It is up to us as teachers, parents, adults to pause to have the mature dialogue about what is appropriate and acceptable.

    To use an example from my college days. I had a friend invite me over for dinner with his family. While I was there his phone rang, but he did not get up and answer it. I asked him about it and he said, “I invited you over for dinner and am going to give you my attention. They can leave a message and I will get back to them when I can give that person my full attention.” Despite the nowness that technology allows us to have, we as humans still need to stop and manage what we give our attention to, when and how much.

    Banning social networks is not the answer, teaching people how to better manage themselves with the technology is.

  8. “hello,
    This is about online payment.There is a massive change underway in the mobile media market as it becomes unshackled from the operators’ portals that have dominated it for a decade, all without having made any significant inroads into the content use of mobile users. The new capped data packages, fuelled by further competition, will see a total revamp of the mobile media market. It will no longer be based on portals but on direct services by content and services providers via open source phones and mobile-friendly Internet-based services. The next step is the continued emergence of m-commerce and in particular m-payment services. 

  9. Hey Tomaz it was really good to read your article atleast you step forward to write an article regarding this issue, I appreciate you.

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