The New York Times has an article covering Facebook.com use on college campuses. In the article, a senior at George Washington University accuses campus police of snooping out his party by reading Facebook postings, and then showing up to bust the party. The students came up with a creative retaliation: post messages about a “beer blast” party all over Friendster. The police certainly showed up, and found a party with cakes and cookies all covered with the word beer, but no actual beer.
The article also pointed out that the University of New Mexico banned access to Facebook in October. This was startling to me. A university blocking access to a social-networking website? Universities are supposed to be places where students can explore the widest range of thoughts on literature, philosophy, science, mathematics, and yes, websites. It is one thing for a K-12 school to filter, but I can’t believe that higher education specialists came to that decision. The university apparently cited student safety as the rationale behind the decision.
As educators, we must realize that the only safety filtering gives us is personal safety. It provides a legal barrier at best, letting community members know that we do not facilitate student access to these websites. I don’t feel however, that it does anything to reduce use of these websites. The article shows that U. of New Mexico students simply found ways to work around the filters. Did the university actually protect student safety with its actions? Probably not. (note: U. of New Mexico plans to remove the filter next semester)
What can we do to protect student safety? We are educators, let’s use our most powerful tool: education. We must let student learn about the impact of their words, photos and actions. They are accountable, and will be forever. A comment left on Facebook is not the same as a comment passed in the hallway. Online commentary is here to stay forever. We must make this a reality for students, and then turn Facebook and the like into positive communities.
There were some tremendously powerful quotations from university educators. My favorites:
“It’s a fantastic tool for building community,” says Anita Farrington-Brathwaite, assistant dean for freshmen at New York University. “In a school like ours that doesn’t have an enclosed campus, it really gives people a way to find each other and connect.”
Harvard’s president, Lawrence H. Summers, gave kudos to Facebook in the opening lines of his address to freshmen in September, saying he had been browsing the site to get to know everyone. (This is certainly far ahead of where Mr. Summers last was spotted)
As part of freshman orientation at Rollins College in Florida, student coordinators will create Facebook groups for campus organizations like the Rollins Outdoor Club. “We cannot deny the impact of Facebook, but we believe that it’s the responsibility of the institution to find ways to create the most positive communities,” says Roger Casey, dean of faculty. “These communities can be positive or negative.”
“Facebook is part of an evolving dialogue,” he says. “One of the things that’s most fascinating about it is how it illuminates the changing nature of public and private identity. This is new ground on every level. What people in positions of power have to realize is that people my age have a completely different attitude about what is fair game.”—Mr. Stoneman of George Washington