Social networking- a concept that has changed the way we communicate forever. When we think of social networking, we think of reconnecting with people we lost contact with for many years- family, friends from high school and college, and in some cases, former students and colleagues with whom you worked with. We also think of social networking as a way of exchanging information and ideas, marketing one’s entity to the rest of the world, or even having people follow you when you post an update on your project or other endeavor you are doing.
But social networking can be rather dangerous if it is not used properly. One of the dangers is that it is being used as a way to defame people by making false allegations that can be damaging to one’s reputation to a point where it is irreparable. Also known as cyber bullying, these victims suffer a great deal from it, almost to a point where thy take their own lives in the end. The most dangerous part about social networking is that more and more people, ages 18 and under, are joining the social networks, whether it is Twitter, Facebook, Myspace and VZ (a German social network), without knowing the dangers of posting comments and pictures. After all, anything you post on there may be used against you in the long term.
Many schools have been tracking down and even disabling social network pages that have been deemed inappropriate. In Worthington, Minnesota, west of where I grew up (in Jackson), a group of students established the WHS Trojan Gossip on Twitter, which opened a forum for people to gossip about other people. That page was shut down last month after it was brought to the attention of high school administrators and the police department. Further action (including legal actions) are pending against those involved in this scheme. Interestingly enough, a similar page was created and shut down in a short time in Jackson, and other high schools have dealt with this issue not only in Minnesota, but also the US and parts of Europe.
But another development in the use of social networking has come in a form of compulsory involvement of students and teachers in the social networking. At about the same time as the crack down on Trojan Gossip, a proposal in Germany (specifically in the eastern part) would have required students and staff to register on a social network (namely Facebook) as a way of keeping track of each other, exchanging homework and information and ensure that no students are engaged in any type of activity deemed illegal, such as cyber bullying. That measure was rejected clearly for reasons of privacy and because it would force people to register on one social network when there are many to choose from. Instead measures on how to handle social networking without obliging teachers and students to join have been proposed.
There are two sides to being involved in social networking, even from my own personal experience as a teacher. Social networking is one of the quickest ways to communicate to each other and be up to date on the latest with regards to class scheduling and homework. Students with questions could contact the teacher right away without having to telephone or visit the teacher’s office. And it allows for teacher’s to be mobile and take care of business quicker and easier. By the same token, involving oneself in social networking can carry substantial risks. Many people outside your group can read the homework that is posted as well as other items posted that are none of anyone’s concern at all. Some like to comment on the postings, which can be irritating because the matter is clearly within the group. And the involvement of teachers and students in one group in a social network is almost the same as having a 1-1 personal relationship outside the office- something that is clearly forbidden in many academic institutions, while in some states and provinces, it is against the law, and teachers caught could be fired from their jobs and/or have their licenses taken away. And while social networks like Facebook have closed groups, it is better to deal with questions and homework in person in the classroom, instead of hunkering down and being solely dependent on the computer and the internet, as an addiction.
While it is difficult to judge whether social networking should be involved in the classroom or not- each school/university, municipality and state has to decide on whether social networking should be compulsory for the teachers or students, or if should be forbidden for people up to a certain age, from my personal experience, I find that social networking is better off when it has nothing to do with course studies. I experimented with social networking via Facebook for a year at my Alma mater in Erfurt as a way of providing information, announcements and homework to the students and answering the questions they might have. It was not obligatory to join, and a few either did not have a social network account or were not forthcoming on the fastest way to communicate, which resulted in me using e-mail as well. I found that students were quicker to respond to my postings than with e-mail and that when there was a question, I could get it answered right away. Yet when it comes to homework assignments and attachments, they were better off being sent by e-mail as there are limits to the contents that were being sent. Plus it is safer than people from outside my classroom having to read up on the announcements and posts when they know that they were for my groups only and none of my concern. When I ceased with the experiment at the beginning of winter semester last year, I realized that despite the success there are many who felt that the easiest way to convey the information is through a word of mouth and not with the computer. Privacy is a commodity that is sacred for many over here and having a social network actually invades this aspect.
And this brings me up to the topic of privacy. While there are some characteristics that we love to show off, there are some flaws that are best kept private. And this is what social networking does to one’s private sphere- it exposes it and in the worst way and puts it in the yellow press for others to read. While many of us (yours truly included) have been really careful about what to put in and how much, many others still do not grasp the concept of posting items, which can produce some harmful effects on themselves in the future. By being involved in a social network in the classroom, we are taking a risk with our privacy while compromising our own abilities to decide what can be posted and what not. It is something that we need to be educated on through obligatory seminars in the schools and universities, not just as teachers and students, but also the parents as well. Forcing someone to join a network just to have a close eye on the students’ activities is the same as having a helicopter hover over you. It will make the student feel even more threatened. The most viable is to be educated about social networking, have a set of ground rules referring to social networking and identify any problems involving social networking to the right authorities straight away. All users should be held accountable for their actions and parents with children should ensure that social networking is used appropriately and at an acceptable level.
While many of you may not agree with this suggestion of not having compulsory social network involvement in the school, there are many who believe that we do have a responsibility for how we use social networking: what we post, who we are on contact with, and many times, how long we should be contacting people in these networks. We also know that there is more to communication than just the computer, meaning it is better off to communicate in person to handle all the problems and exchange the information that is vital. But both sides of the debate will agree to one thing: what we say or post can be used against us, which leads to a quote of the 8th Commandment: “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” The best way to explain that is through the TV series Little House on the Prairie and the episode of Harriet’s Happenings, a story of the Pen and Plow and its way of defaming the people of Walnut Grove. While such gossiping websites may have been taken off line and the debate on social networking in the classroom still lingers on, we should ask ourselves if social networking is really a help or a hindrance to the education of the student. Once that question is answered, it will make action regarding this topic much easier for the teacher, the student, the parent, the administrators of the educational institutions, government officials, and all those involved in one way or another.