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As I reported yesterday, the state of Missouri has passed legislation that will restrict teacher-student relationships via social networking sites. Although you wouldn't know it by the headlines about "banning Facebook," the new law is actually designed to protect students from sexual misconduct in schools, and just one section of it actually pertains to social networking. But that one section is enough to effectively curtail a lot of the efforts of educators to incorporate social networking in their classrooms.

So what now?

What the law actually says

Well, first it's worth looking closely at the exactly language in SB 54 in order to ascertain exactly what will happen when the bill goes into effect on August 28:

SECTION 162.069 - By January 1, 2012, every school district must develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications. Each policy must include appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with sexual harassment policies, and appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites. Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Former student is defined as any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated.

So, deep breath: Facebook isn't banned as of August 28. Not quite. But as of the first of the new year, schools will have to have a written policy that details "appropriate behavior" between students and teachers -- something I bet a lot of schools already do have -- including how teachers can communicate via electronic media -- websites, cellphones, and other non-pen-and-paper-non-oral means -- something I bet a lot of schools have not yet tackled. And it's pretty damned unfortunate that a lack of a widely accepted and strong "acceptable use" policies for electronic communications has come to this.

Missouri's new law does require that teachers not participate in any social networking site in which they have "exclusive access" to students. Unfortunately, the law doesn't define exactly what this means, but it's easy to imagine that this could be interpreted to include the ability to private message, instant message, direct message, chat, phone, or text with students. And yes, as such, this does mean that teachers can't "friend" students on Facebook. It may mean they can't follow students on Twitter. It certainly means no using SMS to send out homework reminders. Will a parents' approval for such activities suffice? It's not really clear, but such is the nature of The Law, I guess.

What next for Missouri educators?

In the meantime, there are alternatives for educators who realize the importance of social networking -- to boost communication, collaboration, and students' confidence. One of those alternatives is Edmodo. While Edmodo is indeed a social networking site (gasp!), it's designed specifically to be used in schools, and as such already has measures built in to address the sorts of concerns that the Missouri law claims to tackle.

Students can't create their own Edmodo account, for example. They have to be invited by a teacher as part of a class. When students receive that invitation, they actually get an invite code from their teacher (something that places them in a specific class, in a specific school) and when they join the site, no private information is needed. This means that even if students enable SMS updates via their cellphone, their teacher never knows their phone number.

Private messaging is restricted on Edmodo -- particularly between the students themselves. (Teachers can create groups for students to work on projects within specific classes, and they can respond individually to students.) But here's the key that might save Edmodo from the Missouri state legislature: parents can also sign up for Edmodo accounts, giving them access to an overview of their children's grades, assignments, activities and progress and giving them a way to communicate easily with their children's teachers (and to see any communication that goes on between a teacher and a student). Similarly, schools or districts can have super-administrative accounts and monitor communications.

Edmodo has seen a pretty phenomenal adoption by teachers and students -- it's approaching 2 million users. No doubt, that uptake comes from the fact that the site was designed with schools in mind -- offering a social networking environment for teachers and students but one that recognizes the needs of schools, the restrictions of Web filters and, well, the whims of state legislators.

So yes, Edmodo and other education-oriented offerings will let educators in Missouri (and elsewhere) continue to reap the benefits of social networking in their classrooms. But that doesn't mean we don't need to continue to rail against Missouri's law and do our best to demonstrate why the importance of social networking vastly outweighs the risk that yes, somewhere out there, there are bad guys on the Internet.

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Audrey Watters


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