New guidelines released this week by the New York City education department make it clear that social networking has a place in education, but they call for restrictions on how educators and students interact in such spaces.
The guidelines recommend prohibiting students and teachers from being "friends" on popular social-networking sites, such as Facebook, and instruct teachers to create school-related email accounts that are separate from their personal email accounts, for example, for interacting with students. The guidelines also call for principals or educational supervisors to closely monitor social-networking sites that are set up for educational purposes.
Despite the restrictions, city Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott touted the use of social networking as way to engage students and boost learning. In a letter to school principals released April 30, he wrote that the responsible use of such digital tools is important.
"We seek to provide our students with the opportunities that multimedia learning can provide--which is why we should allow and encourage the appropriate and accepted use of these powerful resources," he said.
Matthew Mittenthal, a spokesman for the 1.1 million-student district, emphasized that the guidelines do not recommend banning social-networking sites or interaction between students and teachers on such sites. The district will continue to collect feedback on the guidelines and will review them every three months and update them as needed, Mr. Mittenthal said.
Nancy E. Willard, the director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, based in Eugene, Ore., called the guidelines "noteworthy" in their "obvious concerted effort to recognize the importance of social media for instructional activities and the effort at distinguishing between professional and personal socializing."
But she and others expressed worries about how the guidelines will ultimately be carried out. For example, the recommendation that principals and supervisors oversee educational social-media sites and review their content closely is unlikely to work in the real world, she said.
"There is no way ... a principal can effectively manage a multitude of professional social-media sites," she said. "Impossible."
In crafting the guidelines, the country's largest school district is following in the footsteps of other districts, including the 664,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District as well as the 9,000-student Minnetonka, Minn., district, which Mr. Mittenthal said were both used as models for the guidelines.
In response to inappropriate behavior, many districts have adopted or considered restrictions on interaction between teachers and students on social-networking sites. Teachers have been fired for improper communication with students through such sites or for inappropriate comments about their jobs or students on their own personal online pages.
National Education Association affiliates in Missouri and Ohio have issued statements saying teachers shouldn't participate in social-networking sites even for personal use. Missouri lawmakers ended up repealing a law prohibiting teachers from using websites such as Facebook, which permit "exclusive access" to students, after mounting objections and legal action.
Experts say it's important for districts to have policies that address social networking in education to benefit both teachers and students.
Marcus Artigliere, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at John J. Pershing Intermediate School 220 in New York City, said he believes his district's new recommendations will give some teachers more confidence to use social networking, since they'll have guidelines to follow. He often uses Gmail and Google applications with his students, but he said colleagues are often reluctant to move into such media.
Mr. Artigliere said he already has a separate professional Gmail account for use with his students and maintains a personal one for his private use, just as the new guidelines recommend.
Maeve L. Gavagan, an English teacher at the district's High School of Art and Design, said she's active on Facebook, but has long had a personal policy of not being an online "friend" with students. She makes it a point to neither accept nor reject friend requests from students, instead taking no action on them.
"Even the act of declining has an impact on them," she said. "All these social-media platforms can be helpful and innovative in teaching, but they can also create relationships that aren't appropriate for an academic setting."
The new guidelines, however, suggest that teachers decline student friend requests with a message citing the new social-media guidelines.
The recommendations acknowledge that social media can be useful for educational purposes. But it says that teachers must get supervisor approval before setting up any such site, and that supervisors are responsible for monitoring such sites on a regular basis.
Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the New York City-based Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said her organization is concerned "that our principals will be expected to bear the burden of monitoring social-media activities that are, in fact, almost impossible to monitor."
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