Sunday, April 26, 2009

To Facebook, or not to Facebook; that is the question…

Social networking sites have been a source of debate for several years. First is the topic of safety. Will young people meet up with strangers intending harm? Will bullies abuse others via such sites, emails, and text messages? There is no doubt that some Internet users have alter egos, pretend they are other than themselves, and have ill intentions. Caution should always be used when confronted by a stranger, both online and off. I think everyone would agree that those under the age of 18 should be protected by limitation of their access to risky sites and chat rooms. But, if it is true that on the Internet “no one knows you are a dog,” can risks be entirely eliminated? Probably not. Education is one of the best answers we have for Internet ignorance. Teach people responsible use, online common sense, and best practices for Web activities. Teach them early, reinforce often. Then there’s a chance to limit the dangers by preparing the vulnerable. This task falls to both the teaching and parent professions.

Next is the possibility of ruining your job opportunities as prospective employers peruse social networking sites to gain an inside look at possible hires. People over the age of 18 have posted controversial photos and ill-advised comments. Employers quickly eliminate such candidates from their lists. First amendment rights aside, a job seeker should use discretion in keeping a private life as private as possible.

Now an entire profession is being singled out for social networking cautionary tales. (For the sake of the "debate," read an NEA article on the benefits of using social network sites.) The teaching community, the same group of people that should be entrusted with half of the responsibility I mentioned above, has demonstrated some of its own foolishness, naivety, and ignorance. The NEA has published an article called “The Whole World (Wide Web) is Watching; Cautionary tales from the ‘what-were-you-thinking’ department.” Cases of foolish, and sometimes reckless, teachers from across the country have come to public attention. (Disturbingly, reporters from one local newspaper actually sought Facebook profiles of teachers working in a particular district. They wanted to expose the less discreet employees to their administrators!) See the articles in the Washington Post, eSchool News, and the News & Observer. Perhaps it’s risquĂ© photos, or derogatory comments about a school system, or even online friendships with students. All these can land you in the unemployment line. If what you do online interferes with the integrity and functioning of your school or district, the first amendment will not help you keep your job.

I used to think I was staying away from Facebook or MySpace because there were tales of students posing as teachers, setting up nasty, phony pages under teachers’ names. Who would want to deal with that?! Now I choose to find other ways of connecting with people in my profession and other options for students to collaborate online. Facebook will wait for me, if it’s worth waiting for. The other options still require a lot of common sense and caution, but Web 2.0 offers too many exciting and creative opportunities for teachers and students; I can’t wait on the sidelines. For those who use Facebook, et al, the challenge is to be vigilant - with your own pages as well as those of your friends. Keep everything private that should be private. Teach yourself to be a wise web user before you teach others.

“It is the unknown that excites the ardor of scholars, who, in the known alone, would shrivel up with boredom.” Wallace Stevens, poet (1879-1955) So embrace new technologies, but do it with a bit of sense. “The key to keeping your balance is knowing when you've lost it.” Unknown author

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