High school students, teachers see value of social media communication

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 | 6:27 p.m. CDT; updated 9:14 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 21, 2011

COLUMBIA — Twitter, Facebook, texting and calling are useful ways to communicate with teachers to stay up-to-date on classes and organize school-related activities, high school students said.

Sophi Farid, a 15-year-old student at Rock Bridge High School, said she has a mobile number for one of her teachers and follows him on Twitter. She plays on the school tennis team and can contact her teacher outside of class if she misses school for a game.

“When I miss something, I can ask him about it,” Farid said. “For all of us missing school, it helps us stay updated.”

It will likely be up to the Columbia School Board to decide whether communication like that will continue to be permissible. Last week, the Missouri Senate voted on a revised version of the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act that requires districts to form their own policies about electronic communication between students and teachers. The new act has been in the state House of Representatives' hands since Monday.

The district has guidelines for student-faculty communication that focus on the type of communication but not the medium. That was intentional, said board member Jan Mees, who was on the committee that formed the contact policy in 2010.

"It seemed that appropriate conduct, as outlined in the policy, in any type of communication between student and teacher was inherent regardless of the mode — in other words, we took a global view," Mees said.  "Now it looks like we have to go back at it."

Electronic communication for school-related activities

A 2010 Pew Research Center study on the use of social media by teens and adults stated that in 2009 (the most recent year data was available), 73 percent of U.S. teens with Internet access were using social networking sites, up from 65 percent in the previous year.

Phil Overeem, a language arts teacher at Hickman High School, said that although students have school email accounts, they view them as “corny” and are more likely to view information he posts on Facebook.

“I know they’ll look at it that day,” Overeem said.

Exclusive forms of communication students use regularly for academic purposes, including Facebook and texting, would have been prohibited under the act's previous language if they involved a teacher. 

Maddy Kayser, 16, said she uses social media to stay organized.

“I find it really useful as a student athlete,” said Kayser, a Rock Bridge tennis player.

She and Farid said the tennis team set up a Facebook group that members use to communicate with each other.

Hillary Pfeffer, a 17-year-old Hickman student involved in theater, said she wouldn’t be able to reach the director if she didn’t have access to her phone number.

“If I have no way to get in touch with her, I can’t start a rehearsal,” Pfeffer said.  

Tausha Reed, 17, also at Hickman, said when her speech and debate team competed at different schools, she often called her adviser so the team could keep track of each other on an unfamiliar campus. She has some of her teachers' phone numbers now for job references.

Pfeffer and Reed are members of a steering committee for a forum next week that will discuss these issues. As part of the ongoing "Speak Your Mind" series on current events, Hickman students voted to look at electronic communication between students and teachers in the first of this year’s forums on Sept. 27.

Panelists such as school board member Jonathan Sessions and MU associate professor of sociology Wayne Brekhus will discuss ethics, policy and law in Internet issues including Facebook friendships between teachers and students and cyberbullying.

Teachers see an effective tool

Hickman language arts teacher George Frissell is the faculty adviser for the forums. He said it is possible to organize student groups using social media without the teacher being directly involved. 

“I ask the president of the student organization to create the page so it’s not through me,” Frissell said.

Overeem said two of the three student organizations he sponsors have group pages on Facebook, and he plans to let students take the lead in managing them. 

Overeem said Facebook is a great way to post dates, links and discussion questions. He said it was essential for his role as director of the Academy of Rock by allowing him to contact student bands for a battle of the bands competition. 

“This past year, it was totally essential,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it any other way.”

Students said they sometimes form social networking friendships with teachers, but this usually occurs after the student has left that teacher’s class.

“We need them on a more personal basis for a lot of things," Reed said. 

“In some ways, you get really close to them,” Pfeffer said. “You spend an hour with them each day.”

Pfeffer and Reed agreed there is a line in personal communication that should not be crossed.

“I think you would feel the weirdness of that if the line was crossed,” Reed said.

Still, she said the situation might be different when the teacher and student have a connection based on family friends.

“When some teachers are family friends, the line is a lot broader,” Reed said.

Overeem said he has only initiated friendships with students if they are interning with an Academy of Rock program or doing an independent study with him. He said he only accepts friendship requests if that student is out of his class.

Frissell said the same, adding that inappropriate communication would be inappropriate regardless of technology.

“Look at other forms,” Frissell said. “It would be just as inappropriate in telephone conversations or in a letter.”

Limiting the use of technology would not solve the problem of inappropriate contact as the legislation intended, Overeem said.

“There’s still the problem of the kind of teachers they’re trying to find being in the classroom,” he said.

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