Entries from April 2010 ↓

Does blocking access to students make any more sense than blocking employees?

I’ve been intrigued, since launching this site, by the inordinate number of comments left by high school students. After all, the Stop Blocking initiative is aimed at business, not academia. But Voce Communications’ Doug Haslam pointed me to a notice that Newton North High School — close to Doug’s Boston home — is considering shutting down student access to Facebook.

According to the Newton North Library’s Learning Commons website:

This is being debated at SFA (Student Faculty Administration). Your input will help SFA decide. The next meeting is April 13th @ 7:00am in the library. It is open for all students and staff to attend. (Note: Facebook is currently blocked at all Newton Public Schools.)

A poll included with the item currently stands at 370 votes against blocking and 87 in favor. The cynic in me suspects it was mostly students casting the opposing votes and parents voting yes.

The comments left to the item on the Wicked Local blog that directed me to the Learning Commons site, however, got me thinking more about the issue. The impetus behind the ban is at least partly based on the worry that kids use Facebook to bully others. One comment, for example, reads…

I am a private tutor in Newton. Just this year, I have had 3 Newton students (2 from North, 1 from South) who have been involved with the Newton police due to cyberbullying via Facebook. I am not sure what the outcome was, but I know for a fact that there were threats and there was police involvement.

Bullying is a problem, to be sure. It was a problem when I was in school, and when my parents were in school. The recent case in South Hadley, Massachusetts — in which nine teens were indicted for their roles in relentlessly bullying a 15-year-old girl who was driven to kill herself — is another tragedy that points to a serious need for action.

But blaming the Internet or Facebook is a mistake. In fact, I don’t care for the term “cyberbullying.” Is bullying that takes place over the phone called “phonebullying?” The venue is irrelevant. The channel isn’t the problem. The problem is the attitude that some kids have that bullying is okay wherever they can engage in it.

The situation reminds me of hospital CEO Paul Levy’s reaction when he learned that another hospital in the area was blocking Facebook because some staff members had violated HIPAA — the regulation that protects patient privacy — on Facebook. Levy, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (also in Boston), wrote on his “Running a Hospital” blog:

Any form of communication (even conversations in the elevator!) can violate important privacy rules, but limiting people’s access to social media in the workplace will mainly inhibit the growth of community and discourage useful information sharing. It also creates a generational gap, in that Facebook, in particular, is often the medium of choice for people of a certain age. I often get many useful suggestions from staff in their 20’s and 30’s who tend not to use email. Finally, consider the cost of building and using tools that attempt to “track utilization and monitor content.” Not worth the effort, I say.

Interestingly, the use of Facebook under consideration at Newton North involves a portal for parents, where they could view information relevant to their childrens’ education, including homework and projects.

I see multiple problems, though, with blocking kids’ access. First, many of them — like their counterparts in the business world — don’t need the school’s computers to access Facebook; they can do that just fine on their mobile phones. Lack of access from school won’t stop cyberbullying, either; they’ll just do it when they get home to their own computers.

But what’s really at issue is starting to teach using the channels that kids are already using in a manner that reflects the way peopale will be working and learning with increasing frequency. Collaborating on team projects makes more sense on Facebook than a proprietary school system because Facebook is (for now) the network they’ll continue to use in college and then in the work world. (A recent study (PDF file) from the Society for New Communication Research (SNCR) determined that decision-makers in the business world are making faster and better decisions by tapping their Social Media Peer Groups (SMPGs) via Facebook and LinkedIn. Failing to guide students in the use of the resources they’ll be required to use just to get their jobs done by the time they graduate is a failure of the education system.

I’m not talking about unrestricted Facebook use while students should be focused on schoolwork. But teachers need to begin figuring out how to incorporate social networking into their teaching plans in order for the coursework to be truly relevant. The idea that people work in isolation is fast becoming outdated, as the SNCR study reveals; teaching kids to do schoolwork in a vacuum is not preparing them for the processes they’ll need to understand when they go to college (where online collaboration is just the extension of the age-old study group) and then when they enter the world of work.

That is, teachers should be teaching the ways social neteworks can benefit their learning while actively discouraging bullying of any kind. The issues are, in fact, mutually exclusive.

Doug Haslam himself gets the final word, from a comment he left to the Wicked Local blog:

The thing is, people will form their own groups where they want regardless of what is “blocked.” It makes sense for schools to have some presence on Facebook — not to supervise or watch, but to participate as part of a community.

A proprietary network makes sense as far as assignments, but experimenting — as class groups, in the right circumstances — with Facebook and other social tools is a way to tap into how people are now working together in the real world.

That doesn’t mean students should be using Facebook during school hours to play Farmville, just as it shouldn’t in the workplace (where, for the most part, Facebook should not be blocked either. But, there are some applications. As someone astutely said (in an earlier comment), high school kids are on Facebook anyway. Maybe we should teach them how to use it to be better community citizens (online and off) rather than ignore it at our peril.