Learning Goes Social: The New Age of Teacher-Student Communication


By Devon Stoeber

One school night, sophomore Madelyn Lunder gets ready to begin her homework by checking her planner. After she realizes she forgot to write some assignments down she logs on to her Facebook. Lunder is a member of her sophomore English and social studies Core class Facebook group where she can ask fellow students about the upcoming homework and projects. Afterward, Lunder checks her cell phone to read a message from her science teacher Erin Ashley explaining the night’s homework assignment. “The text reminders and Facebook Core group are always very helpful in reminding me of upcoming important assignments,” Lunder said.

These are just some examples of a trend of students and teachers taking advantage of social networks. While email remains the most common way for students and teachers to communicate after school hours, teachers are finding faster and easier ways to connect with their students, such as Facebook and text messaging. If teachers are successful in getting their students to read what they are posting, social networking could change the way students learn.

Physics teacher David Lapp created a Facebook group this year for his students where he and students can post information, including demonstration videos, for absent students or students who want to review. The group is a place for students to discuss and ask questions. Also, students can post relevant pictures, videos or websites. If Lapp decides to use these posts as part of his instruction then he will give extra credit to the student.

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Physics teacher David Lapp: “It’s almost like the physics class can happen twenty-four-seven.” Photo by: Devon Stoeber

Lapp feels the Facebook group has been the most efficient way yet to communicate with students. “For the early part of my teaching career, I allowed students to call me by telephone during certain times daily. They could ask about homework problems, but this was individual,” Lapp said. “It worked well, but only directly benefited the student who called me. With the advent of email, I could respond to individual queries, but also with all students through a group email. Now with social media, the exchanges can be much richer. It is a good thing. It’s almost like the physics class can happen twenty-four-seven.”

Fellow science teacher April Tucker uses a site called Remind101 to communicate via text message with her students. The site, designed for educational purposes, allows students and teachers to enter their cell phone numbers in a way that neither one has access to each other’s personal number. Students also do not have the ability to respond to the text messages sent to them by Tucker.

“I feel like this generation is more a texting generation than email, and I wanted a more immediate way to communicate with students,” Tucker said. “I continue using [Remind 101] because it is working so well. If I’m suddenly going to be out and we had one plan to go out to the [environmental science] garden and I tell them to dress a certain way, I can let them know immediately the plans have changed. If we’re on a field trip and I need to change where we’re meeting or what time, I can.”

Tucker isn’t the only teacher at Tam who has found text reminders helpful. Science teacher Erin Ashley has also had positive experiences using the technology to remind students about homework and other large assignments.

At Tam, the adoption of these technologies seems to be most common in the science department, however, students feel it could be helpful all around. “[The text reminders] are very prompt and explain exactly what [our teacher expects us] to do,” Lunder said. “It would be really helpful if other teachers used them because some teachers don’t always clarify what the homework is so the students are confused.”

An increasing number of teachers are using social media to communicate with students outside of the classroom. Graphic by: Mae Puckett

However, both Tucker and Ashley agreed that their preferred way for a student to reach them remains email. They felt that having students be able to contact them through text messaging would be overwhelming. “If students had my number they would text me more than I could handle,” Ashley said. “I need my own personal time, too.”

Most teachers and students feel technology plays an important role in communicative learning, however, tools such as text messaging and Facebook may be too casual or even inappropriate forms of communication. The Tamalpais United School District’s (TUHSD) Code of Ethics states, “Employees of the District must exhibit professional and appropriate behavior with students including maintaining a professional barrier between the employee and the students.” The Code of Ethics also prohibits employees from “making personal telephone calls, writing personal notes, writing personal emails, writing personal text or instant messages or writing personal blog notices to students that are unrelated to school business.”

How far is too far when teacher-student communication extends beyond the classroom? Is texting and social networking violating the privacy and personal life of students?

“I think that [communicating with teachers over Facebook] would be really weird,” freshman Andy Strike said. “It would seem like they were invading on my personal life. I feel like there should be a clear border between school and social things. Anything besides email, online surveys, and [a teacher’s website] would be too far, especially if it isn’t strictly school-related.”

Some students felt that there should be an online relationship between the students and teachers as long as there are boundaries and it is specifically school-related.

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Freshman Kenna Kuhn: “Teacher-student relationships should be strong and personal, but not to a degree where a teacher becomes a part of the student’s life outside of the classroom.” Photo by: Devon Stoeber

“I am a strong believer that teacher-student relationships should be strong and personal, but not to a degree where a teacher becomes a part of the student’s life outside of the classroom [other than] school-appointed teacher emails,” freshman Kenna Kuhn said.

Social studies teacher Bettina Mow will not add students on Facebook from her personal account until after they have graduated from high school. Many students agreed with Mow’s policy and found it very common to be “friends” on Facebook with former teachers that they had grown close to.

“Depending on the previous relationship between the teacher and the student, it can be appropriate to add one another on Facebook after graduation,” Kuhn said. “I am currently friends with two of my music teachers from elementary and middle school because I worked with them both in and out of school and developed a relationship with them, but I would not be comfortable with some of my other past teachers adding me on Facebook because I [did] not maintain the same relationship to them.”

Senior Alexa Swartz agreed that becoming Facebook friends depends on the relationship formed between a teacher and student. “[Adding a graduated student] is really the teacher’s preference,” Swartz said. “I think it depends on how close they are with the student.”

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Social studies teacher Luc Chamberlin: “Students need practice in speaking with, listening to, and responding to people. Texting [and] Facebook give the form without the substance of communication.” Photo by: Devon Stoeber
Social studies teacher Luc Chamberlin, however, feels that text messaging and communicating over Facebook takes away from the actual experience for a student of forming relationships with their teachers and staff face to face.

“Students are losing much of their capacity to communicate in meaningful ways,” Chamberlin said. “Students need practice in speaking with, listening to, and responding to people. Texting [and] Facebook give the form without the substance of communication.”

Another issue is the fact that not every student has a personal computer or cell phone. Students who do not have access to these resources cannot get the same help and reminders as students who do.

Junior Noah Barrengos does not have a smartphone or a cell phone with text messaging, however he does not think of it as an issue at the moment. “I don’t want to pay for [a smartphone]. I have a computer, and if I really needed to [contact a teacher], I could use my friend’s,” Barrengos said.

So how can teachers take advantage of new technology without creating a bigger problem? Many teachers and students said the ideal solution would be finding a way to have the benefits of fast communication over tools similar to Facebook without teachers actually connecting with students through personal accounts.

“There are sites that offer the social nature of what Facebook does that are a little more secure and designed for an educational setting,” Tucker said. “I think those are great resources, but it could easily be taken too far [over Facebook]. There are a whole list of privacy issues.”

Teachers all over the district are finding sites they can use to connect with students without having to use Facebook.

Some teachers use the website called Remind101 to confidentially text their students. Photo by: Sarah Asch

“Learning management systems such as Moodle and Edmodo are being used fairly widely by our district teachers,” TUHSD Senior Director of Instructional Technology Tara Taupier said. “These are sites on which teachers can post work, assessments, links, etcetera. They also support student responses and discussion threads. Teachers are creating vodcasts as a method of delivering content and homework help via video. Many teachers also have websites and Twitter accounts for disseminating information to students.”

Schools all around America seem to be adjusting to new social networking tools. In New Hampshire, the Concord school district is developing a new social media policy. The policy will address how students communicate with each other and teachers and how the district can increasingly use social media as an educational tool.

“Early on, districts said teachers may not have Facebook pages with students, may not go on or start one, and there was a huge reaction to that, saying ‘Wait a minute, these things are tools that we can use to educate, that’s not a very progressive way of thinking,’ ” Concord School District Superintendent Chris Rath said in an interview with the Concord Monitor. “So what’s happened most recently is we’re thinking kids have these, it’s part of our life, [we] need a policy that enables people to use the tools for education purposes.”

Technology isn’t going to stop advancing, and most students and teachers interviewed said there needs to be a way to make sure schools take advantage of these new tools without violating people’s privacy. “I’ve been teaching 23 years and [technology] continues to completely change [how teachers and students communicate],” Tucker said. “I think technology is wonderful but you have to use it thoughtfully. We shouldn’t use technology just because it’s cool and we want to, it should just be a way of getting to the same goal faster or better.”