"Why would a teacher want to "friend" a student on Facebook?" my 18-year-old said when I told him about Missouri's new law banning teacher-student messaging via social networking. "That's creepy."
No doubt, "creepy" behavior -- to put it mildly -- is the rationale behind Missouri's SB 54, ostensibly designed to protect students from sexual misconduct at school. The law was a response, in part, to the 87 some-odd Missouri teachers who lost their teaching licenses between 2001 and 2005 due to sexual misconduct, many of whom were found to have sent sexually explicit messages to students. And hence, the ban on teachers having "exclusive access" to students via social networking sites.
I've already written a diatribe about imposing communications restrictions on the tens of thousands of teachers in Missouri because of the crimes of less than a hundred. But let me say this: it isn't just friending teachers on Facebook that my teenage son finds "creepy." It's creepy, in his estimation, to friend aunts, uncles, grandparents, other kids' parents, and of course, me. He does it anyway -- when he must -- and he has mixed results when it comes to keeping his social media updates out of the eyes of grownups. It's "creepy," I think, that we watch (out for) him.
But in a lot of ways, that's all the more reason that I like it that we do get these small insights into our kids' worlds thanks to social media. And as such, I'm not necessarily opposed to a teacher friending my son. "It takes a village" and all that. Indeed, there are lots of reasons -- despite my son's initial reaction -- why we should be reassured and not frightened when adults want to interact with kids on social networks. Kids need mentors, role models, guidance, teachers, friends. (And I use "kids" loosely here. These are teens we're talking about here -- you must be 13 to join Facebook and most websites after all.)
As many observers, including Missouri legislators, have pointed out, schools will still be able to utilize "fan" pages on Facebook if they're interested in using the tool to communicate with students (and by extension, with parents and with the community). Teachers just won't have the option to "friend" students directly on the site, as the law prohibits any social networking site that gives teachers "exclusive access" to students.
It's the impact on Facebook that seems to have made the headlines, but there are lots of other social networking and social learning sites that could be impacted by the law. No following students back on Twitter. No class Nings. No sharing Google Docs. I started collecting a list of them on Google+ and came up with over 30, including social bookmarking sites like Diigo and learning management systems like Blackboard.
"Wait a minute," I hear you say. "These aren't social networking sites!" But they are. See, almost everything on the Web nowadays is "social" -- there are opportunities to follow, "friend," share, "like," and (private) message via almost every site. Indeed, when I asked on G+ what tech tools could be impacted by the Missouri law, one person responded wryly (but pretty accurately, I think), "The Internet."
So the question "why would a teacher want to 'friend' a student on Facebook?" seems like the wrong one to ask. It's a question that's already steeped in suspicion (suspicious teens, as my kid demonstrates, or suspicious legislators, as we have in Missouri). Instead, we should be asked "why would a teacher want to utilize the Internet to communicate with her or his students?"
And seriously, if your answer is "so the teacher can be a sexual predator," well, I don't know what to say. But it sure feels like the fear and suspicion this law engenders could hurt the kids in Missouri -- who now may miss out on a lot of opportunities to work with the latest Web tools -- just as it claims it's going to protect them.