Social Media and Schools

A few years ago, Avery Doninger posted a message on her personal Livejournal account from home one evening criticizing the administration of the high school she was attending. As a result, she was barred from serving as class secretary in her senior year of high school. This raised many important issues about freedom of speech in the age of the internet which are being explored in a case proceeding through the Federal Courts.

Last night, the Windsor Locks Board of Education met to discuss a personnel matter. The agenda included an executive session to discuss the Superintendent’s position/contract. All of this comes in the wake of comments that Superintendent David Telesca posted on Facebook. According to the Hartford Courant, Superintendent Telesca commented online that “my first day on site involved counseling an administrator to retire or face termination”.

The Courant article goes on to say,

A spokesman for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education said Tuesday that he could not recall any instances in the state when social media usage was a problem for a school district.

Apparently, the spokesman is not aware of the Doninger case.

There are many interesting aspects to this. Policy and law often lag technology, and few, if any school boards seem to have policies on the use of social media. On the other hand, an underlying question is whether or not online communications are substantially different than other forms of communications. Online communications are often more persistent, easier to search, and may reach a broader audience, but is this a difference of magnitude or something more substantial? One board of education member observed that boards do not have policies on ballpoint pen usage.

It may even be that the difference of magnitude is fading. As ‘trackers’ become more common in the political sphere, what people say when they are talking to a politician in a coffee shop may become as persistent, searchable and broad reaching as anything else. The line between the personal and the public continues to blur.

In would be wrong for the Windsor Locks Board of Education to terminate their superintendent because he made his remarks on Facebook. If, however, the content of the remarks are deemed to have violated Board policy, for example, saying too much about personnel cases, that would be a different issue. I do not know what different school board polices are about a superintendent talking about the hiring or firing process without mentioning individuals involved. It would seem as if there is benefit to these sorts of discussions, such as letting it be widely known that a school is searching for certain types of employees or discouraging certain types of behaviors.

This is not to say that schools should not be paying close attention to social media. If anything, they are currently failing by not focusing enough on it. Social media is the new place for kids to hang out. Teachers and administrators need to understand what is going on in the lives of their students. They should be providing skills to help students make the best possible use of tools in the twenty first century, which includes social media.

Indeed, some of the best teachers and administrators I know are the ones that make ample and wise use of social media. Students are encouraged to share their work with the public online, in ways that protect the students’ privacy. Administrators are using social media to communicate with teachers, parents, tax payers and other stakeholders about what is going on in the school districts.

Social media, like any other tool, can be used wisely or stupidly. It can be used for good or for ill. Some people will have backlashes against any new tool since the tool could be misused or used for ill. It is better to understand new tools and help people learn to use them in the best possible ways.

(Cross posted at deliberateCT.)