Do we need Social Media policies?


Web 2.O promotes sharing, openness, transparency, and collective knowledge. Web 2.0 tools  are low cost (sometimes free) and accessible anywhere with Internet access. These tools are available in several mediums (video, text, audio, images). They don’t require a great deal of computer or tech knowledge to use and are generally usable on any computer or mobile device and from almost anywhere in the world. These characteristics would at first glance seem like a perfect recipe for any teacher, classroom or student. But they come with a price. Content is public. Anyone can post anything about anyone at anytime, from anywhere. Regardless of skill, knowledge, age, or ability, anyone can publish his or her work. And yet, even knowing this price – this risk, some teachers and their students across our globe are doing it anyway. Some have fully implemented social media into their classrooms and in their own professional development often without policy, without guidelines and without district support or professional development. They use social media to empower students, to promote discussion, critical thinking and problem solving. But often due to the lack of public or community understanding, these educators face scrutiny in the media.

I argue that social media policies in education are lacking and require attention. However, because of the fast changing pace of social media and the lack of knowledge and research of its use in education, policy makers are taking a cautious stance.

The recently published, ‘Professional Advisory – Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media(Ontario College of Teachers, 2011) is an excellent example of this – where the problem is defined and framed by focusing on teacher behaviour and appropriate conduct, rather than framing the problem as being the lack of teacher preparedness and lack of district initiative for ongoing professional development about the appropriate use of social networking tools at all level of education.  The intended message of the advisory is very clear  – in large blue font on the cover of the document reads,

This professional  advisory  is  intended  to  provide  a   context  for  the  responsible,  professional  use  of     electronic  communication  and  social  media  by   members  of  the  College. For the  purposes  of  this  advisory,  electronic     communication  and  social  media  encompass     software,  applications  (including  those  running     on  mobile  devices),  e-­mail  and  web  sites,  which     enable  users  to  interact,  create  and  exchange     information  online.  Examples include,  but  are     not  limited  to,  sites  such  as  Facebook,  Twitter,   LinkedIn,  Flickr,  YouTube,  Wikipedia,  Picasa     and  MySpace. (Ontario College of Teachers, 2011)

In this case, the Ontario College of Teacher intention is to set guidelines about teacher use of these tools. Since many teachers have already been using these tools in their classrooms as instructional practice, without these guidelines in place, it will be interesting to see what changes, these cautions will have in Ontario classrooms. Will teachers stop using these tools? From the point of view of the College, whose mandate is to provide guidelines for the teaching profession,  the recently published advisory would seem appropriate. However, the real problem should be the lack of training and knowledge that the members have about the use of the tools as they pertain to education since professional conduct is nothing new. And, it is nothing new that some teachers and educators  breach their professional conduct, as told by our history. Further, simple searches on the Internet lead to thousands of blogs, Wikispaces, classroom Youtube videos, and even classroom Facebook pages. Almost every night (or day) of the week, teachers from around the world are gathering to discuss strategies and research based methods both using synchronous and a synchronous learning methods. Real people around the world are using these tools to advocate for change and social justice. Teachers across the world are using sites such as Skype in the Classroom™ or Voice Thread (and so  much more) to connect students with other students and classrooms, authors, and experts. School districts, directors of education, superintendents, trustees, teachers and students can follow and contribute to the same news feeds and respond to one another in real time using social media tools. I am fully immersed in this world of knowledge mobilization and interactivity and yet I still find it incredible.

Regardless, policies continue to focus on those teachers that are not using these tools effectively, instead of addressing the issues at a system level. Policies need to be putting the responsibility on the districts to provide proper and ongoing training for teachers which includes professional conduct. Policies need to allow districts room to move and grow at the same speed as the tools our students are using when they go home.  Such policies should insist that schools are teaching proper use of social media tools rather than discourage it. Above all, such policies and guidelines need to be considered priority. If schools are not teaching and modeling these tools, who will?

As educators, are we content with letting our children use web 2.0 social media tools without proper instruction? They are doing it anyway, so lets bring it into the classroom and teach them to use it safely and properly. Policies and guidelines should take a proactive approach

Consider the following questions –

1.     Why are some teachers and schools making decisions to use social media tools into their instructional practice without district policy or guidelines?

2.     Has the growth in cloud based instructional tools and individual use of social media forced districts to develop related policies?

3.     Are teachers putting themselves and their students at risk by using tools and strategies that are not addressed by policy?

4.     Finally, is it possible to create a policy about social media when the tools and programs are changing at exponential rates?