Are you uncomfortable knowing that many of your college professors could instantly know when you break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend or party too much the night before an exam? What if they could know immediately if you were hired for a prestigious internship or job or when you meet a famous figure in your career field?
Many Americans today use the popular website Facebook and are active in social networking. The majority of college students and professors have a Facebook account. Students have lists of friends ranging from family members, real life friends, classmates, and colleges to members of on-campus clubs or sororities and fraternities. But should students’ current professors at the university be included on their list of Facebook friends?
Facebook is a frequently used resource on many college campuses today. An overwhelming 96 percent of college students in the U.S. have an active Facebook profile according to ABCnews.com. The social media site is used for both social and academic purposes, with many study groups, class pages and even assignments occurring on the site on a daily basis. Some classes, such as sociology and psychology, study data or use data from Facebook for class assignments.
“I do think that Facebook can be a valuable resource for students and professors. Groups for classes and/or ensembles can be extremely valuable. I know in our department, Facebook is used to promote and remind everyone about concerts and events. The saxophone studio has a Facebook group and uses it to post saxophone-related videos, audio clips, etc. regularly. I think it can also help students to connect with their professors’ research or creative work,” said Kurtis Adams, director of jazz studies at Shepherd University.
“A lot of my classes have groups on Facebook to share information about projects. Most of the time it’s more convenient for scheduling purposes to communicate over Facebook through group chats where you can see if all or some of the members have read each message,” said Brian James, a senior vocal performance and music education major.
“There are many other ways to share or collaborate information. Sakai, for example, is the online resource used at Shepherd. In my opinion, no classroom information should be shared on Facebook. One of the guidelines that faculty are given at Shepherd University is that professors should not email students at their personal email addresses; they use students’ Shepherd @rams.shepherd.edu email addresses. The same holds true for Facebook—it is not an appropriate means of contact or communication between professors and students,” said Erik Jones, director of choral activities at Shepherd University
Facebook is a convenient and easily-accessible resource for most college students and professors. The popular website offers many features, including the option to post public notes and status updates, upload public videos and photos, and create a profile complete with both professional and personal information about the user which some or all other Facebook users can view, depending on privacy settings.
Facebook users can view other users’ profiles, contact other users publicly or privately and comment on other users’ status updates through a system known as “friending”—agreeing or declining a request from another user—to form a connection or “friend” the user on Facebook, much like in public social settings in the real world. The website is hugely popular and marketable among today’s technological generation, earning over $19 billion in 2013 according to Forbes.com.
However, Facebook is a relatively recent social development, and etiquette and political rules are not completely formed yet. As a social outlet, many college professors have personal Facebook pages unrelated to their public figure or professional connections. Students can easily find their professors on Facebook through suggested friend information, mutual friend connections, or networks related to the college or university both the student and professor belong to. This is the professional and ethical question many professors face today: Is it beneficial or harmful for college professors to friend their current students on Facebook?
Opinions are certainly varied. “I think it is beneficial for establishing connections with your students outside of the classroom; however, there is a limit to the type of information that both students and professors should put on there,” said Scott Beard, dean of graduate studies and continuing education. “There is definitely a line of professionalism that should not be crossed.”
“I like friending my professors. It’s an awesome way to get to know them as a person outside of the classroom and share interests and news outside of class,” said Liz McCormick, a senior mass communications major.
“I’m not exactly comfortable being friends with my professors. I don’t know if I like the idea of them knowing everything I do outside of class or on the weekends,” said James.
“I believe it is harmful. A professor should keep one’s private life separate from one’s professional life and Facebook blurs those distinctions,” said Jones.
Currently, Shepherd University has no rules or regulations regarding professor-student relations or “friending” on Facebook, nor do any other universities in West Virginia. Missouri is the only state to pass a regulation governing student-teacher interaction on Facebook, including interactions at the university/collegiate level.
According to education.com, the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act states, “Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a non-work-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.” The law applies to all educational institutions in Missouri including all colleges and universities. However, most universities do not have any rules regarding professor-student interaction on Facebook, leaving the decision to the discretion of the individual professor
“For me, this comes down to the issue of respecting privacy. For myself, I do friend students, but I do not spend time on their profiles. I know this seems like it defeats the purpose of friending them, but I don’t feel comfortable surfing their site and knowing that much about a student when they may not actually want me to. So, in essence, I still respect the privacy of my students,” said Adams.
“I don’t think there should be any laws or bans against teachers friending students. I think it should just be their decision based on what they are comfortable with,” said James.
“I avoided having a Facebook page for years because I felt it was inappropriate contact and too much of an invasion or intrusion into the personal lives of students,” said Mark Cook, director of music theory and composition at Shepherd University. “However, when I did ‘succumb’ to Facebook, and for business, not personal reasons, I found that many students appreciated that additional point of contact.”
The “additional point of contact” between students and professors via Facebook has started an ethical controversy. Depending on individual privacy settings, it is entirely possible for students to view personal, non-school related information about their professors, and professors can also view personal information about their students. While some students and professors appreciate an additional way to contact each other in a more informal setting and to learn more about each other, some are uncomfortable with the idea of either a student or professor learning too much non-university related information.
“Facebook can be harmful because you learn about students’ personal lives, such as their dating and drinking habits, and things which should not affect your view in a professor-student relationship. A student’s private life should be private and I believe a professor should not delve into that. I generally keep my personal life private from students, and I think there should be privacy in a professor-student relationship. Students reveal too much as it is in professional relationships and Facebook friending does not help that,” said Jones.
In addition to the ethical debate surrounding professors friending their students on Facebook, many professors also struggle with the professional aspects of managing their careers on and off campus on Facebook and their influence on students on the social networking site. In addition to teaching, many working professors are also successful authors, scientists, doctors, performers or musicians. Facebook allows students to view their professors as people working in their expert field outside of the university setting and see their professional updates, news and connections on their Facebook profiles.
“I do use Facebook for professional connections. As a musician, I have professional connections stretching over a wide geography. It’s just the nature of the field. Facebook keeps everyone’s contact info up-to-date and in a central location. This makes maintaining professional connections much easier,” said Adams.
“I would use Facebook to make connections outside of school that my professors recommend. I have gotten some paying jobs through those connections. It wouldn’t be as easy to find them if I wasn’t friends with some of my professors on Facebook,” said McCormick.
Professionally, Facebook appears to be a useful, convenient, modern technological tool for both professors and students to use. Ethically, however, Facebook remains a gray area with advantages and disadvantages to professor-student friendships on the social networking website. Professor-student online relationships are not currently prohibited by Shepherd University, and the subject will likely remain unregulated by the university, leaving the professional and ethical decision of friending students to the individuals involved.
Facebook connections between professors and students can be either harmful or helpful, depending on the individual persons involved, not the social networking outlet itself. “If a professor handles it correctly and ethically (like any other tool) it can be of value. If not, it can be extremely inappropriate,” said Cook.