Teachers, students, technology – New and shifting boundaries

classroom

I just quickly want to advertise a brilliant article I found in yesterday’s Guardian supplement about how new communication technologies change the relationship between teachers and students. The starting point is the most recent moral scandal in the UK which saw a female teacher being jailed for having an affair with a 15-year-old girl. A large number of the text messages they had exchanged were used as evidence in the case.

The Guardian article by John Henley offers a very balanced and nuanced perspective on how teachers and students have started to interact through new technologies. It’s all about boundaries that were once clearly established and now seem to become permeable. It’s about questions such as “Should I be friends with my students on Facebook?” or “Is it okay to send them emails?”.

When teachers and students suddenly meet in some virtual space, there are risks for both parties. So far, most public attention has focused on teachers who find themselves ridiculed on some video website or photo blog. Germany recently witnessed a court case in which a teacher had sued against an online portal which allows students to grade their teachers. The case was lost, but sparked a controversial discussion about any kind of rating websites, from doctors to travel companies.

As several cases cited in the Guardian article illustrate, students are also at risk when teachers use these new media to approach them in an indecent fashion. Oftentimes, social networking sites and other virtual spaces cannot offer enough control over the interactions they enable. This problem clearly extends beyond the teacher-student relationship into online child pornography in general.

What does it mean to be a teacher?

The bigger picture here is not so much about being ridiculed or indecent contact with minors. It’s about the changing role and self-understanding of teachers in an age of free-flowing information. It will no longer be possible for them to guard their classroom as a little island where they enjoy unchallenged authority over what knowledge gets circulated and how students learn. Teachers and schools will need to adjust to a new information environment in which they provide guidance on how to deal with these massive amounts of information.

That includes opening themselves up to new communication technologies (social networking sites, email, etc.) and figuring out a way in which they engage with their students while maintaining important boundaries.

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