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Teaching Moment: Social Media Law Holds Lessons for Students, Teachers and Parents

As school gets underway in Creve Coeur and around the state, class is in session for a debate of the role of social media and email in education.

Missouri’s students are in new classrooms for a new academic year. Meanwhile, many of their teachers have a lot more than lesson plans and grades to consider.  

Near the end of August, the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) sued the state over a new Missouri social network law that prevents students and teachers from having electronic conversations that cannot be accessed by school administrators and parents. , “this also means (students and teachers) cannot be friends on Facebook.”

Talk about a real civics lesson in the virtual life.

Adding Up the Arguments

Many Missouri teachers say connecting with their pupils via Facebook and email is an important part of reaching today’s students where they live: online.

Lawmakers who support the law say that’s the problem. Kids today live online, and with no cyber-chaperones, the potential for inappropriate activity is rife. Gov. Jay Nixon seems to see both points of view.

“In a digital world, we must recognize that social media can be an important tool for teaching and learning,” Nixon said on Aug. 26. “At the same time, we must be vigilant about threats posed to students through the Internet and other means.”

Senate Bill 54 went into effect on Aug. 28, sort of. A court ruling put the section dealing with social media on hold. As a special session got underway at the Missouri State Capitol on Tuesday, the bill was on the agenda—along with such other items as the China Trade Hub and changes to Missouri presidential primary system.

Subtracting a Section

Nixon wants lawmakers to repeal parts of the law, which both the House and Senate passed unanimously.

Specifically, he wants them to reverse the section that requires “school districts to adopt by Jan. 1, 2012, a policy on student-teacher communications and which specifically addresses electronic communications between school employees and students.”

State Senator Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, sponsored the bill. She said its aim is to protect students from teachers who have something other than education and instruction in mind.

The lead plaintiff in the case is Christina Thomas, a seventh-grade communication arts teacher at . , Thomas alleged that the law, which limits electronic communications between a teacher and student that aren't monitored by a third party, infringes on first and 14th amendment rights. Thomas said the bill would prohibit her from communicating with her own children, who are students in the Ladue School District.

A Teaching Moment

As a former college professor, I got started on Facebook in 2006 because my students urged me to do so. Granted, these were students age 18 and older.

Still, I had a policy: I would not “friend” students; but would accept their invitations. To me, it felt less creepy to accept invitations from—rather than extend them to—people two decades younger than me.

Now I keep in touch with my former students via Facebook, sharing leads on jobs and career advice. Of course it does my heart good that they remember to update me on their lives from time to time.

Facebook Groups can be a great tool for creating a safe, semi-public place for teachers and students to share information, resources, and ideas.

When it comes to email, I can’t imagine teaching without it. What a powerful tool for reminders about assignments and tests! And getting assignments emailed to me? Priceless. No more “the dog ate my homework.” I also used email to send syllabus updates, links to articles for my students to read and resources for their academic tool kits.

Patch readers weighed in via Facebook and on many of our St. Louis sites:

“Teachers who want to be friends with their students should not be teachers, it's bad netiquette, http://www.networketiquette. The Missouri legislature has decided the role teachers should play in their students netiquette development, and it's not as a friend, it's as a teacher.” David Chiles, Creve Coeur Patch

"Big Brother has gone too far...this is a ridiculous law." Kim Raile Smith, Town and Country-Manchester Patch

"Finally, we're going to get a fair hearing for the teachers and come up with a better plan. Glad to hear the Neo-Cons aren't winning everything they want." Paul S., Ladue-Frontenac Patch

“Teachers who wish to post homework assignments via Facebook for their students can do so by creating a organizational page for their class (without personally "friending" students). Students can then post questions to the site directly instead of directly emailing teachers. Teachers can also share their site with parents as well. With social media being an everyday thing for most people, particularly the younger generations - being able to remind students of their homework by posting to their feed/wall can be a valuable resource if done right.” Robert Chandler, Maplewood-Brentwood Patch

Ladue-Frontenac Patch contributor Cole Kelley struck a conciliatory note in the comments section of

“There has to be a balance between protecting children and going too far. Who knows where the line is drawn,” she wrote. "I hope both sides can achieve a peaceful resolution.”

New Tools Create New Rules

I first heard these golden words at a Patch training session in June. Our instructor was quoting Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation, speaking on April 7 to journalism students, faculty, and parents at the University of Nebraska.

Newton's speech was about how journalism is changing with technology, but the sentiment "new tools create new rules" is applicable to the world of education.

As a society, we need to be present in debates and decisions about educational tools, including social media.

Brian Jarvis September 07, 2011 at 12:35 PM
Barring "electronic communications" is dangerously vague wording. How do lawmakers plan to enforce a law that prevents people from becoming FB friends? Is someone going to monitor text messages as well? The concerns are legitimate, but the last place that high-tech privacy issues should be decided is in the hands of Missouri legislators.
Holly Edgell September 07, 2011 at 02:33 PM
Thanks for weighing in, Brian!

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