At a Tech-Savvy School, Smart Questions About City's New Social Media Policy

Email a Friend

Students and teachers at the NYC iSchool in Manhattan greeted the city's recently announced social media policy with a shrug, because it won't change how they operate. But the topic inspired thoughtful discussion at this small high school that routinely collaborates around technology.

A few wondered whether it was too restrictive, or would scare off some teachers from experimenting with new technology.

The guidelines state that teachers cannot "friend" or follow students through sites like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube. But they can ask students to join professional school pages or forums related to a particular class.

“It seems to me it’s just a lot of common sense: don’t get into inappropriate relationships with kids,” said the iSchool's assistant principal, Jesse Spevack. “I didn’t get the impression they were saying don’t use social media.”

Mr. Spevack and his colleagues said they already refused to “friend” any of their students through their personal Facebook pages, and have turned down requests by children. But as he thought about the policy, he realized he would have to suspend his Xbox Live account for video games because it’s not school-related, and he was using it to monitor his students.

“What was useful was I could say to a kid the next day, ‘Hey I saw you playing video games at midnight; I saw you have a test in the morning,’” he said.

Students at the school said they were not interested in friending their teachers, whom they describe as “second parents.” But they don’t see a problem with other forms of contact.

Some said they are Facebook friends with the school’s former principal, who no longer lives in New York City. That is allowed under the new policy. Some also play the online game Draw Something with teachers.

“I’m playing against, like, half the teachers in the school,” said Alexis Lamb, 18. “Mr. Spevack’s a good drawer.”

The students and teachers wondered whether this online game would be allowed now. “You can’t really get any information from teachers,” explained Ms. Lamb, defending the game. “It’s like Pictionary. You get a word, you draw a picture and they guess the word.”

Mr. Spevack said Draw Something was a way for him to “stay connected to my kids’ culture” and have positive relationships with them. But he’ll now rethink that, as well, he said.

The students participate in many social media projects for classes, including one called Sixteen in which they use Skype with teenagers around the world, and another that involved making a Web site about Zimbabwe. The school also has a social studies class called Disaster Camp in which they develop social media applications to help victims of earthquakes and hurricanes. They use Twitter to collect information.

The city’s new policy wouldn’t affect class work on social media sites so long as students get consent from their families. Such projects would also need a principal’s permission. The union representing school supervisors has said this could pose a headache. And the teachers' union has posted its own guidelines for members.

Christina Jenkins, who teaches the Disaster Camp class, said she thought public forums weren’t risky for educators.

“I feel like the more dangerous thing is private interactions,” she said. “If we’re direct messaging young people on Twitter or even texting, that could potentially become dangerous. But I feel that public interactions are not that serious because they’re fully public.”

Scott McLeod, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky who teaches law and technology to aspiring school principals and superintendents, said New York’s guidelines weren’t as restrictive as those used by other districts that have tried to police the Internet. But he worries the new policy will end up discouraging some nervous teachers from using social media.

“It’s the demonization of a particular tool,” he said of social media, noting that conversations between kids and teachers already occur in other public forums.

“They occur at church, in neighborhoods, scouting groups, volunteers,” he said. “Other offline places. Is the school organization also discouraging teachers from being ‘friends’ with students in those realms?”

Mark Kagan, 55, a social studies teacher at the iSchool who considers himself a “Luddite” compared with his younger colleagues, said he was feeling a little nervous now about wading more into the world of social media. And an English teacher, Francesca Fay, wondered about the potential for the Department of Education to interfere. “What will they deem appropriate or inappropriate?”

But John Palfrey, a Harvard Law professor who co-wrote the book "Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives," said the city's policy was reasonable. Still, he said, technology-specific policies won't hold up in the long run, noting that standards "work better than bright line rules."

Chris Ortiz, 16, a junior, noted that teachers were now feeling the same pressure as students, who have had to watch themselves on social media because of incidents in which they’ve made negative comments on Facebook and Twitter. “We’ve already been careful about it,” he said.

The principal, Alisa Berger, offered this advice to her staff: “Every time you interact with a student from the school you have to be your best professional self.”

And when it comes to Facebook, she tells her students, “After graduation at 4 p.m., I will accept all of your friend requests.”

In the meantime, the city's Department of Education blocks Facebook and YouTube from school computers by default unless a principal requests a change. A spokeswoman, Marge Feinberg, said, "At this point we are still using this policy and we will let you know what filtering functions will be available next year when we implement the new policy" on social media.