Social Media and GSI-Student Boundaries
Many students and instructors are active on social media and social networking sites (SNS). Incorporating them in the role of GSI presents new questions. Below is a brief FAQ. Additionally, there are some concerns about using non-University servers for student course work (see Using Third-Party Technology).
Is there a university policy about using social media and SNSs with your students?
No — but there have been discussions and concerns. While the University does not have an explicit policy regarding the use of social media in teaching, the GSI Teaching & Resource Center urges GSIs to conduct class business using bCourses rather than SNSs, to minimize the chance of crossing appropriate professional boundaries and to ensure equal access to instructional communication.
If they adopt a social media platform for class use, GSIs are urged to ensure that all students have equal access to the content on the platform, whether they choose to open an account or not. In some cases, this can be accomplished by incorporating a feed from the social media site to the bCourses site, and creating a way to make visible the comments of students who do not have an account.
What’s wrong with “friending” students on an SNS site or accepting an invitation from students to be “friended?”
When an instructor decides to “friend” all students in the course in order to communicate with them or to accept individual invitations to be “friended,” the instructor may now have access to private information that students have on their webpages. Private information may in turn bias the GSI’s view of the student and unconsciously affect the evaluation or treatment of students. Even when permissions are set in such a way as to prevent the disclosure of personal information, “friending” students may affect a GSI’s rapport with other students in the class.
In addition, you cannot guarantee that all students use a given social media service or want to, and some students who already have an account may feel uncomfortable with their instructor “friending” them.
For legitimate reasons, students may opt out of using the SNS with you. If you then decide to communicate with the other students through the SNS or simply to accept invitations to be “friends” with whoever invites you, you may be setting up a situation of unequal access to course material.
Is it okay to “friend” students once the semester is over?
Some instructors tell students that they will accept invitations to be “friended” after the semester is over. If there is the slightest chance that you may be asked to evaluate the work of the student in the future (e.g., in a letter of recommendation or another class in which you will be the GSI), we recommend that you not “friend” students even after the semester is over.
If you do “friend” students on an SNS after you have submitted final grades, it is still important to pay attention to the kinds of information about you that are available to your former students. You should take care in adjusting your profile privacy settings to block students from seeing any photos or information that you would not share in a professional relationship. It is sometimes worth asking a friend if you can look at your profile from their account to see what information is visible. Some GSIs may choose to maintain both a professional and a personal account in order to control the information that is visible to their former students.
How can I prevent the awkward situation of having to turn down a student’s invitation to be his or her SNS “friend?”
You can make your SNS/social media policy explicit at the beginning of the semester (along with your email communication policy). On your section syllabus you might include something like the following: “In order to maintain professional relationships with students, I do not accept invitations to be a Facebook friend from any student in my class. Communication about course-related matters will be done via bCourses or email.” You should also include your email policies.
What happens if a student who is your SNS “friend” ends up in your class?
If a real-life friend enrolls in your section, you should ask for the student to be transferred to another section so that there will not be a conflict of interest. Similarly, if you have a personal relationship with someone through Facebook, you should recuse yourself from having authority over their work. Being “friends” with some students and not others may give the appearance of, or may lead to, favoritism.
What precautions will you take to ensure that you engage in professional behavior on SNSs?
If you do become “friends” with former or current students on an SNS, you should not use the SNS to talk about course-related duties, complain about your sections or students, talk about the professor/instructor of record, or make comments about your department more generally. Don’t post pictures of yourself or information about yourself that you do not want others to see. Keep in mind that if postings on an SNS profile become public, they may have an impact on your professional life in the future.
More information on this topic, and on electronic communication boundaries for GSIs in general, is available in the GSI Center’s handout on Digital Communication and GSI/Student Boundaries (pdf).