(image from Wikimedia Commons by Pmox)
I think it essential that a school or system of schools has policy that covers the communication behaviours that are considered acceptable as part of school operations, and, furthermore, details those behaviours that either need regulating or banning.
There are several aspects to the use of social media use that relate to schools. These include consideration of:
- Official school and school system use of social media channels – news / parent information / promotions / advertising
- Educational use of school mediated social media – hosted inside or outside the school or system – Facebook groups that students can join / School LMS functions / educational Web 2.0 tools / external course material / chat rooms
- Personal use by staff and students of social media for educational purposes – personal email addresses / twitter accounts / Web 2.0 tools (wiki’s, blogs, socially mediated groups, photo sharing etc.)
- Social, non-educational use of social media between staff, staff and parents, staff and students.
Generally I don’t believe in setting policies that:
- Cannot be policed
- Are based on a specific type of device, object or service
Probably weapons such as guns and knives are an exception, and even here there are grey areas.
Policy should be based on behaviours as we can police devices and service use about as much as we can (or should) police and regulate thoughts. We can see behaviours, measure them, count them or have them reported. It is very hard to see a mobile device or an installation, such as a Twitter client on a phone or WiFi enabled pocket game console. As our devices converge to one multifunction device (my phone is a graphics calculator, calendar, camera, flashlight, music player, video library, weather station, GPS, voice recorder, game console, ebook reader, internet browser, note-taker …..) counting devices and installations becomes more and more meaningless. Some current school ‘mobile phone’ policies are examples of this.
Many schools have a mobile phone policy that is directly related to regulating the devices that students have and, through that measure, infers the behaviour that is to be controlled. Usually the school policy states that mobile phones are not to be brought to school. In the best cases, the policy works most of the time. However, it is only an arrangement of convenience that makes it work (which is OK!), because students don’t want the hassle of getting their phones confiscated. It is as though there is some kind of unspoken agreement that we all understand that the school is unable to police the device but, in the main, the students abide by the spirit of the policy, that is not to use phones during the official school day.
In due course, schools and systems will need to reframe this type of policy to directly relate to the behaviour and not the device. There are holes emerging even now. Schools tell their students that we do not permit students to bring their phones and even their laptops to school. Students abide by this, but at the end of the day internet enabled mobile phones, tablets such as iPads and mini game consoles appear as students wait to be picked up by parents or to catch buses.
At my school last week I was on duty at the end of the day, I stood behind one girl who was sitting on the footpath sending a text or email on her iPad. She was telling her friend that she would really like to go and live in New York as she could have heaps of fun and get away from her horrible Mum who made her clean up her room. I was quite pleased as the message was quite long and the grammar, punctuation and spelling were perfect – ‘yay for education’!
We have filters set up that prevent the use of some forms of social media and not others for staff when we know that professionally and educationally there are many great uses. Indeed some professional groups only work over social media in the form of Ning sites, Twitter Facebook groups.
Some school policy covers the issue of ‘official communication’. Even this issue is becoming blurred over time, starting with phone calls but now including teacher emails, tweets, Facebook messages, website forum entries and so on. This is an area of policy that needs careful consideration. What is official communication? How do we make sure it is regulated to ensure accuracy, quality and reflects school standards and values? Is this a manageable feat?
A few years ago my previous school mandated that teacher communication with parents must be approved by one of the senior administrators. At this time this was probably manageable. However, in the modern era of social media or even just good email use this would be unmanageable. As an example, in teaching one of my classes this week I have sent about 10 emails to parents. There are over 80 teachers at my school. If only half of them sent half the number that I have for one of their classes (most teachers have the equivalent of 5 or 6 classes), this would amount to around 200 emails. Now I accept that this is probably an exaggeration as many teachers use other means to communicate and some do not communicate this regularly, but, who would we employ to vet this significant emails load each week? These are emails that are doing exactly what schools want, which is to communicate individually with parents to keep them informed and involved in the school – parent partnership.
I have no solutions to this need for policy. But I suggest its better to take away all reference to the mechanism of the communication (Twitter / Facebook / Blog) and the device to be used (phone / iPad / Tablet / laptop / internet enabled toaster) and educate staff as to the expected quality, form and style of communication that they are bound to follow while employed at the school. We should give guidance to subjects that staff are not to comment on except through moderated official school channels of communication – maybe child safety / internal issues / bullying etc. But again, the focus should be on the behaviour required and not the mechanism, website, service or device. Otherwise we build in a cycle of rewriting policy everytime the hardware or software, features or uses of our technologies changes – say every 6 months – or our policies very quickly become outdated.
Would we have the same policy if the device had evolved from a piece of electronics called an Organiser, but just happened to have a camera feature built in, and a camera, music player and video library, GPS and file store, and (blow me down), a phone!
Anyway, I’ll stop now. Someone else wants to use my soapbox!!