Communicating through social media poses fresh challenges for schools

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 March, 2015, 6:44am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 March, 2015, 9:45pm

When the March Hare advises Alice to "Say what you mean," Alice replies: "I do - at least, I mean what I say. That's the same thing, you know". The Dormouse is quick to point out that it is not. "You might just as well say: 'I breathe when I sleep' is the same thing as 'I sleep when I breathe'!"

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is compelling reading because of the comedy that arises from the inadequacy of language to provide meaning in communication. The lesson is that education depends on effective communication, and inadequacies in communication are unfortunately not comical.

In my 30 years of parenting and teaching, not only has communication visibly increased between parents and teachers, teacher and students and parents and administration, but also technology now provides several fast-paced avenues for communication.

Research tells us this increased communication is good because successful school and family partnerships mean students tend to have higher test scores, better attendance, finish more homework, behave better and go on to higher education.

Recognising this, schools are now communicating with parents more via Facebook for its power as a networking tool. Some schools also provide a Twitter feed to parents by linking to an RSS input from the school website and sending automatic tweets when the site is updated.

Teachers also use Facebook groups to share course material with students and set up subject or class Twitter accounts to communicate test dates and homework reminders.

While this one-way communication allows parents to stay updated, schools are faced with more unforeseen problems between parents and administration and teachers and students that often have their roots in social media groups.

Established norms of oral and written communication are being challenged by protocols that are yet to be clearly established in this digital-based learning paradigm.

Sources of print-based information can be verified and authenticated, which prompts people to communicate responsibly. But social media allows for anonymous communication. So what happens when the information is incorrect or inflammatory?

It is very easy to hide behind [social media] technology. People areready to voice controversial opinions and ideas that they would never do face to face
Ian Clayton, French International School

"It is very easy to hide behind the technology," says Ian Clayton, head of the international section at the French International School. "People are very ready to voice controversial opinions and ideas that they would never do face to face. If one is not careful ... it can lead to a 'mob mentality', which is never good."

The problem arises when people outside the school's control propagate information that is incorrect. If it's read on social media, it very quickly becomes the "truth".

That is how misinformation can erode trust between parents and administrators.

"So my message to parents is straightforward," says Clayton. "Before you are tempted to contribute to a social media feeding frenzy, do the right thing and contact your school for a more accurate and reasoned approach. This way misunderstandings and miscommunication are minimised."

Another issue, perhaps more important, is to establish which lines of social media are the best as a learning and teaching tool. Can guidance on schoolwork be conducted between teachers and students via Whatsapp, text messaging and Skype, or should it be restricted to emails and Facebook groups? The point is to keep miscommunications from being the source of comedy, as in the Alice books, and not considered unprofessional conduct on the part of a teacher.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School