School is resuming for another year and the hottest issue is “Facebook in Schools.” On September 1, CBC-TV’s The National ran a story focusing on a Grade 7 teacher Colin Kristoff and his successful campaign to bring Facebook into Catholic public schools in Regina, Saskatchewan. While it’s popular with most students, teachers remain deeply divided on whether popular social network sites have any place in today’s classrooms. Even his own school principal, Jamie Neigum, is dubious about its merits.
Facebook, for better or worse, is coming to a classroom near you. After years of blocking the popular social networking site from schools, Canada’s largest public school boards have decided to embrace it instead. Public boards in Toronto, Vancouver, and Waterloo Region have relented and are permitting classroom access. Atlantic Canada’s biggest board, the Halifax Regional School Board, remains an outlier, blocking student and teacher access in its 137 schools. Every school in that system, and many others, is “locked down” even though students use social media virtually everywhere else these days.
Ontario’s Waterloo Region District Board was one of the first to “crack” on the issue of access to Facebook. Back in April 2010, the Board went on record as encouraging the use of Social Media in the schools, with proper guidance. Assistant Superintendent of Learning Services, Peter Rubenschuh, fronted the initiative. “We are looking at social media tools to support the learning agenda,” he told the Kitchener Waterloo Record. Starting this September, the board allows Facebook to be used in its schools for students aged 13 and older. It will be moderated, and it will be used for such things as discussing issues that come up in the curriculum, or offering extra help.
Facebook is omnipresent in early 21st century life. The site now has 500 million users around the globe, many of them young people, who are living out their lives in an online world. Teens and children, some as young as nine years old, are fixated with the social network site. They now acquire most of their information from the social media, in addition to socializing almost incessantly with friends. Most teens use it to tell what they’re up to, post pictures, take quizzes and play games, and comment on their friends’ pictures and activities. Some spend several hours a day on Facebook and other social network sites.
The Waterloo Board’s Rubenschuh is a real convert to its value. “This is their world,”he says. “This is how they connect.” And he thinks some students might connect better to school if they can use the method of communication they prefer. For example, some students don’t like speaking up in classroom discussion. But they might feel differently about giving their opinion if the discussion is online instead. It’s even democratic! “To some degree, you empower them with a voice”
The idea for the change came about, oddly enough, as Rubenschuh was considering promoting character development. After bringing 200 people together last school year, including teachers, administrators and students, they discovered that everyone had a “ digital footprint” and it strongly reflected their values and attitudes. It became clear that Facebook had to be addressed by such a character education program. Simply put, promoting “respect, kindness, and integrity” means engaging students where they live, in “the digital world.”
Few school issues today spark as much passionate debate as the role of Facebook and social networking sites in our publicly-supported schools. Does Facebook have any place in our schools? Should school boards maintain their current “lockdown” policies concerning Internet access to Facebook and the social media? And should school systems or individual schools decide? Let’s hear from you.