Regarding a Jewish Educator's Guide to Facebook Interaction

In yesterday's Lookjed Jewish Educator's Listerve, Shalom Berger posted a link to A Jewish Educator's Guide to Facebook Interaction which had elicited a healthy discussion back in August when it was posted and asked from feedback by members of the List. Below is my response which should appear in a future Lookjed issue. I welcome your feedback in the comments section to this blog.

Dear Shalom and List:

In reference to the posting on a Guide to Facebook Interaction, I think a balanced approach is the most effective. Facebook is neither "good for the Jews" nor "bad for the Jews". It is a neutral platform which can be used for great positive or negative effect. Our students, even those in high school, need guidance and modeling on how best to navigate this powerful new medium which has increasingly become a major part of their lives. Therefore, for an educator or school to have a policy to never use Facebook with students, I believe is shortsighted. However, at the same time, as a seasoned teacher, I understand the importance of professional distance. Our students are not our friends and even if we never post anything objectionable on our personal pages, which I would hope we would never do, we still might want to shy away from the informal social interaction with our students that we would have with our friends and family members on Facebook and similar social media platforms. This is why in the past, I have recommended against "Friending" students on Facebook. (See my blog post on this here.)

So what is an educator to do? How do we guide our students in Facebook without being their "Friend"? I believe that Facebook itself provides an easy solution. Let me explain. There are a number of ways that one can interact with others on Facebook. On one side of the spectrum, one can "Friend" someone. This allows the other person to see all status updates, pictures, videos and other postings that you have shared with your "Friends" which for most people includes most of their Facebook activity. I would recommend against a teacher "Friending" students although I am friends with many alumni and use it as an essential tool to keep up with my many former students who have moved on to college, the work force, and started families of their own.

On the other side of the spectrum, a school, company, or organization can create a Facebook Page to push content to their constituents. This allows others to see content from your school even if they are not your "Friend". For example, my school has set up a Frisch Facebook page for parents, students, faculty, and other stakeholders to see a window into the daily happenings at school. These postings are all marked "Public" for anyone to view and if one "Likes" this page, then one can get the updates from this page loaded directly to their newsfeed. In this way, as a school, we can provide timely news to our community and model for our students a healthy use of social media.

Facebook also allows for a third approach, a Facebook Group which is something in between the free interaction of "Friends" and the more one-sided interaction of a Page. A group is a way for like minded people on Facebook to freely interact with each other even if they are not their "Friends". This I believe can sometimes be the most powerful way to interact with our students informally. It allows the teacher to on the one hand not be the student's "Friend" and not allow students to see all of their Facebook postings (and not see their student's postings as well) but on the other hand communicate and collaborate online with students within the Facebook Group. This is where the important guidance and modeling of online behaviors can be most effective as long as the teacher or school creates the group and closely monitors and moderates the activity on it. We used this very successfully in our recent Shiriyah which you can read about here.

In summary, as with most things in education, Facebook requires a nuanced approach. Facebook does not seem to be going away (until it is supplanted by some other social media platform) and our students continue to struggle with the proper use of this powerful tool. How could we abrogate our professional obligation to provide them with valued guidance? At the same time, one should think carefully and plan out in advance one's approach to interacting with students using social media as one should carefully plan out other areas where one interacts with students. I hope that my posting, although a bit technical, can help a bit in this planning process.

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky
Director of Educational Technology
The Frisch School