Sunday, December 18, 2011

School districts start making rules at personal social media for teachers; what about regular employers? What about pictures taken by others appearing on the Web?

Although it used to be that the rules for computer use just applied to workplace computers, now employers are having to pay much more attention to employee Internet and cell phone use at home with their own dimes.  
Jennifer Preston has a front page story in the New York Times about school systems and their new policies for teachers and probably administrators, “Rules to stop pupil and teacher from getting too social online”, link here
The obvious issue would be friending between students and teachers, but there are many others.  There have always been implied barriers between teachers and students, like teachers didn’t socialize with kids or call them at home. 

Actually, in some of the newer charter schools, some of those barriers are changing, because teachers are required to be available to help students with legitimate work off hours. 
But the broader issue concerns what teachers post on the Internet .  (Yes, some teachers post their course syllabi and materials on the public web, when they could restrict it, for openers.)  Some school districts have policies against postings that show teachers in "questionable" but lawful behavior like drinking.  Why is this a problem. Teachers are adults. (Yup, I wouldn't like to see a pix of a teacher smoking cigarettes now, but when I went to school, teachers had smoking lounges and everyone accepted it.)  What if a teacher appears in a picture drinking, in a picture taken by someone else at a bar or disco and then posted on a blog – and then a student (or school district administrator) recognizes it?  Actually, as I’ve noticed recently, people have become antsier about photography in bars in the past year or so, possibly because of this concern, and possibly because of tagging – although Facebook has supposedly made it easier to avoid being tagged if you don’t want to be. 
Another question could concern whether a posting had been intended to be public, or was restricted to a private list.  Social networking sites are refining their capability to target content to specific circles of friends, almost making the postings circulate the way they used to with listservers or virtual offices. 
The obvious extension of this question becomes, what about the workplace as a whole? What about online friending between boss and subordinate?  
I have, on my blogs, previously discussed my own history with “conflict of interest” and public blog posting.  I’ve said, in the past (as far back as in a 2000 white paper) that people with direct reports in the workplace, or who grade others (many teachers) or make underwriting decisions, have to proceed with great caution about making their views known in public and searchable areas in the web.  Even subtle postings that give hints of various personal prejudices (let’s say, about personal appearance) could create legal problems in the workplace later, if it could be shown that the person “in power” was predisposed to hold certain prejudicial beliefs. 
But, in theory, restricting the audience of a posting on a social networking site could answer some of these concerns, if it’s unlikely that subordinates (or students) will actually be able to find it and see it.
As for school districts, there would be a question as to whether the policies apply to substitute teachers as well as regular teachers, especially those who take only short term assignments and don’t grade students. 
I’ve had my own personal experience with this sort of issue, actually with a “fictitious” screenplay that I had posted on the web in 2005 in which I “appeared” to be a character who did some bad things.  This led to an incident at West Potomac High School near Alexandria VA in the fall of 2005 when I was subbing there. The details are on the “BillBoushka” blog July 27, 2007.  I also mentioned this yesterday on the Drama blog because of a “coincidence”. 

It's only fair to mention that the argument goes in the other direction. Some school districts try to teach social media use in the technology and sometimes English curriculum. Around 2006, a Fairfax County English teacher (at another school) created some controversy by teaching blogging in her English class -- keeping all the content rated G.  

Picture: Proof of concept.  The disco picture is vague, but theoretically someone in the picture could be presumed be drinking if employed in a school district with such a policy.  No tagging.  But in theory facial recognition software might someday be able to troll the web for violators.  Bring on the “troll hunters” as in a well-known Norwegian horror film. 

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