Facebook is the world’s largest social network, reaching 1 billion active users at the beginning of October. People across the globe use Facebook to connect with old friends, share news about their lives and even to maximize their brand’s social reach.
In its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, Facebook lists a minimum age requirement of 13, which means that more and more students in high school and college are signing up for the social network. As a teacher, what should you do if a student sends you a friend request? Does age play a factor? Should you be careful about what you post, even if it’s from your private account?
We spoke with teachers, professors and other education professionals about best Facebook practices to help answer these questions and more.
Understanding Facebook’s Atmosphere
Each social platform exhibits a preexisting tone or atmosphere, and Facebook has a large focus on personal, one-on-one interactions. This is one of the main reasons why teachers engaging students (and vice versa) can be problematic.
Bree McEwan, an assistant professor of communication at Western Illinois University, says that it’s important for educators to consider each platform when using social media. McEwan wrote a chapter in a recent edition of Interpersonal Boundaries in Teaching and Learning called “Managing Boundaries in the Web 2.0 Classroom.”
“Social media can be a great way to extend the walls of a traditional classroom,” she tells Mashable, but adds that faculty should take care when exploring the benefits of various networks. McEwan uses Twitter, for example, to share links and other things she finds interesting regarding her field, so she lets any student follow her there.
Facebook, in contrast, focuses more on the individual.
“I view Facebook as a bit more personal, so I generally don’t friend students there until they have graduated,” McEwan says. “Whatever one’s policy is, it is important to create the same policy for all students.”
McEwan says that if a teacher feels comfortable being friends with students on Facebook, the teacher should let the student come to him or her.
“Students may feel awkward about making decisions regarding accepting or denying their instructor’s request,” she says. “Don’t put them in that position.”
Teaching Students About Social Media
At Beaver Country Day School, a tech-centric school that comprises grades six through 12 just outside of Boston, Mass., teachers are encouraged to use social media in the classroom.
According to Nancy Caruso, assistant head of school at Beaver Country Day School, Beaver’s policy encourages the use social media as a tool to expand learning, often leaving its specific application up to the teacher.
“Beaver teachers facilitate conversations with students around appropriate digital citizenship and social media behavior,” Caruso says. “Teachers are encouraged to review carefully the privacy settings on social media and networking sites they use and exercise care and good judgment when posting content and information on such sites.”
Caruso gave an example of using social media at Beaver from a few years ago, when an English class posted a video to Facebook, inviting bestseling author Mary Karr to the school to speak about her book, Lit: A Memoir. After seeing the video, Karr made a last-minute change to her Boston book tour schedule to go to Beaver’s campus and meet the students.
“Our school is very open to social media,” says Melissa Alkire, Upper School history teacher and tech integration specialist at Beaver Country Day School. “In our classes we seek to engage in authentic discussions targeting multiple perspectives, and accessing this through social media has allowed us to build relations with schools around the globe, including Pakistan, South Korea, Egypt and Afghanistan. Social media has extended the classroom walls and broadened our audience.”
As for Facebook specifically, Alkire says she doesn’t personally accept friend requests from students until after they’ve graduated. “If students are working on a Facebook page as part of their project, I will Like it,” she adds. “While having strong relationships with my students is a priority, I leave Facebook out of it until they are off at college, and then it becomes an excellent way of staying in touch.”
Considering Your Own Privacy
Even if it’s your policy to not be friends with students on Facebook, you should understand that nothing posted to Facebook is ever completely private. Your posts could potentially reflect poorly on your career or school.
“It used to be fairly common to see people say, ‘Look at what my student said,’ or ‘what my student wrote,'” says McEwan. “I hope that educators are becoming more aware that even with privacy settings, that information might be seen by someone you’d rather not see that. In terms of social life — is it a problem for people to see a teacher or an instructor with, say, a glass of wine? You’d hope that people would be reasonable about such things. Of course, this brings up some important questions about how those standards are set.”
Aria Finger, chief operating officer of DoSomething.org, an organization for teens and social change, says that it’s important to be careful on private accounts no matter what — for professionalism, to avoid offending colleagues and peers, etc.
“I’m probably less careful with my personal account because people know that it’s coming from me and that I have strong personal views,” Finger says. “On the other hand, on the DoSomething.org account, we’re more careful because we want to serve and appeal to students of all ages, backgrounds [and] political orientations.”
Finger, who is also an adjunct professor of public administration at New York University, says that many of her friends who teach at the elementary, middle or high school levels use their middle names as their last names on Facebook. That way, it’s more difficult for students to find their profiles.
“Once you’re at the college level, I think accepting friend requests from students is fine,” she adds.
Using Facebook Pages
A simple and popular workaround for awkward or potentially unprofessional interactions is to use Facebook pages, groups or separate accounts in the classroom. Pages are essentially separate profiles that students can Like in order to receive updates, and you can add students to groups in order to stay connected. Creating a separate profile for yourself is an easy way to prevent students from seeing any personal information that you would normally have on Facebook.
Susanna Cerasuolo, a guidance counselor for high schoolers in the Seattle, Wash. area and the CEO of public counseling site CollegeMapper, has three Facebook pages. One is for her students, one is a fan page for CollegeMapper and the other is her personal page.
“I use a specific guidance counseling Facebook page for my students, and it deals only with college guidance,” Cerasuolo says. “I use the Facebook page to make announcements for the students. It is helpful because they share, Like and forward information this way.”
Cerasuolo says that she will friend her own students with that page to keep them in the loop, but assures them that she does not look at their profiles. “When students do not accept my friend request, I always respect that. If they mention it, I tell them that they can accept my request and just set all of their privacy settings to exclude me. They are usually fine with that,” she says.
Teachers can also use Facebook’s Subscribe feature. If a student subscribes to you, he or she can only view what you post publicly.
Promoting School Initiatives and Communication
When used effectively, Facebook can be a good tool to keep students updated with important information. Eric Thiegs, founder and CEO of Stage of Life, a digital literacy blogging initiative for teenagers, and the musical director at Red Lion Area Senior High School in Red Lion, Penn., says that his school district encourages teachers to promote activities through social media.
“I personally friend students and accept friend requests from students (and their parents) to help communicate things going on with our all-school production of the spring high school musical every year,” Thiegs says.
In the past, he used phone and email methods to communicate changes in the school’s musical rehearsal schedule, but social media has made the process much easier.
“Now, it’s so much simpler and quicker for me to communicate rehearsal changes or important reminders about the musical to our Facebook group,” Thiegs says. “With one post, I can update more than 120 student actors, crew [members], pit [musicians] and their parents, over half of whom are probably on Facebook at the time of the post. To ensure complete transparency on using Facebook, I also ask the student’s parents to friend me so that they, too, can be in the know about the group discussions and understand how I’m using Facebook as a tool for the musical.”
As a result, Thiegs explains that he’s careful about what he posts, and stresses the importance of monitoring what people tag you in without your permission first.
“I don’t post anything on my Facebook account that I wouldn’t want a school district official to know about, my grandmother to read or my seven-year-old daughter to see,” he says.
When you set a social media policy for your classroom, it’s important to delineate clear guidelines with your students on how they should and should not interact with you.
Ellen Bremen, a tenured professor of communication studies at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash. and the author of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success, says that educators need to maintain the proper teacher-student relationship on Facebook.
“If a professor uses a course management system and also interacts with the student on Facebook, the student may perceive that it is fine to conduct school business on Facebook, too,” Bremen says. “This can get a professor and student into hot water. I would never want a student asking me a question about grades or other school business on Facebook. That information needs to be documented via an official school channel — that is, school email or through the course management system.”
Bremen does not believe that faculty should friend students or accept friend requests until after a term is complete. “During the term, I perceive that friending a student creates uncomfortable boundaries for the student-professor relationship,” she says. “After all, students post information about their personal lives and vice versa.”
In her book, Bremen discusses that students and professors should speak in person or via email about Facebook before sending a friend request. “A simple question at the end of the term is fine: ‘I’d like to stay in touch with you. I’m on Facebook and wondering if you are, as well. Would you feel comfortable if I send you a friend request?’ This is also a great time to ask about other types of social media connection requests, such as LinkedIn,” she says.
Are you an educator on Facebook? Share your advice for using social network in the comments below.