Several people have asked me questions (following the social media policy webinar I did with PaperClip Communications last week) about how faculty should interact with students using social media. It’s a pressing issue first, because there have been several high-profile cases of inappropriate conduct, and second, because social media provides an opportunity to share relevant information to an entire class (or multiple classes) if it’s handled well.
Here are a few tips:
- Stay “On Campus“: If they’re available on your campus, course management software like Blackboard, Banner or WebCT can do nearly everything Facebook can do and there’s a “check” in place in that the school is able to oversee the interaction. In addition, it allows other students to view, participate in and learn from the interaction. We at GRCC use Blackboard and we also use a set of tools from Wimba (like Wimba Pronto which is a client that builds in collaboration, video chat, instant messaging, chat, etc. into one tool). Most of these systems are also able to publish content to Facebook through an application like CourseFeed (so that students can still remain in Facebook – but participate in the class and get notifications and announcements).
- Don’t Friend – Be Friended: Faculty(and supervisors)should never initiate friend requests – they need to respect the fact that the power inherent in their position might make students fearful to refuse the request. If a professor wants to invite students to connect with them – it should be done in the form of a general invitation to the entire class(no different than providing their email in the syllabus).
- Stay Public: Conduct discussions in the open (ie through wall posts as opposed to personal messages) to help ensure that they stay focused on the course and don’t deviate into personal areas that might be inappropriate. It’s the same as the principle behind conducting an after-class meeting with a student in a hallway as opposed to a classroom so that event he appearance of impropriety is avoided.
- Use the Buddy System: It would be ideal if faculty would let their department head, dean or another colleague know that they’re using social media to interact with students AND to “friend” them to give themselves a system of checks and balances. If you’ve got another pair of eyes helping you keep tabs on what you’re doing, they may be able to help you watch out for interactions that may be problematic.
- Be Transparent: Behaving as though others can see your conduct is always a good policy. Anyone trying to maintain a public face that is markedly different from their private behavior is bound for epic failure in an age where online content is easily shared, and students (and consumers) have audio/video recording equipment with them at all times (on their mobile phones). An “abstinence-only” approach to social media is bound for failure just as much as the “abstinence-only” approach to reproductive health education. Content about you will go online whether or not you want it to – ultimately it’s best to have a say in the conversation.
In the end, as more of our communication moves to social media – eventually this will become the dominant paradigm for faculty as well as professionals in the private sector. Better to get a head-start on familiarizing yourself with its nuances now than wait until it’s mandated as part of your contract. Not only that -but I think you’ll find (as I have) that your teaching experience is richer for the relationships you’re able to maintain with students after the class has ended. I’ve been amazed and humbled by the pursuit of scholarship that some of my students maintain outside the classroom – and I often learn just as much from them as they hopefully do from me.