Facebook and ethics in the classroom

Regina Garcia Cano

Boundaries arise with students and faculty as friends

English professor Matthew Shank befriends all his students who have an account on Facebook during the first week of classes. Like thousands of higher education professors across the nation, Shank has found in the social network a venue to communicate with his students.

Although Shank enjoys reading and writing posts in his students’ Facebook profiles, university administrators question the boundaries of online friendships between faculty members and students.

“The truth is most undergraduate students use Facebook to communicate more than they do e-mail,” President Lester Lefton said. “But most faculty do not have Facebook accounts, nor do they want them.”

In his current profile picture, Shank appears playing a trumpet. However, at the beginning of each semester, his account displays the photo of his student ID from college. He graduated from Kent State in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

“I use it (Facebook) to get them acquainted with me, to give them the opportunity to get to know me a bit better,” Shank said.

Shank has 618 friends according to his Facebook profile. He could live on smoothies from Pulp; he was born November 30 and has been tagged in 38 photos.

Shank said he does not use Facebook for class purposes because not all of his students have a profile, or those who have it may not check it all the time. But he said if a student posts a question on his wall, he would reply using the same mean.

“For that WA for tomorrow do we need to have 5 paper topics,” one of Shank’s students wrote on his wall.

“No, just a proposal/outline for the topic you think you’re going to do,” the professor replied.

Provost Robert Frank, who doesn’t have a Facebook profile, has some photos of his sons in his office. However, he would never look at a photo of any of his kids that has been posted on Facebook.

Frank said he believes it is easier to avoid problems between faculty members and students if professors simply stay away from the Web site.

“Historically, in teaching (and) in academics, this has always been a very great boundary,” Frank said. “It is one that is hard to define, where it’s easy to see when the boundary has been violated, and the relationship that exists is not appropriate.

“Most people on Facebook who are interacting are roughly of the same points in life, or they all have social relationships with those people. There are several professional networking devices, but Facebook is not one of them. I think it’s certainly possible that one could use it beneficially, but it’s also possible that it can be complicated for both the student and the faculty.”

Stephanie Sanker’s Facebook profile defines her as a female who grew up in Lebanon, Ohio and whose birthday is Feb. 6. She befriended three of her professors through the Web site, and now they are part of her 887-friends list.

“I don’t think I have lost respect for the professors,” the sophomore music education major said. “They’re the ones I respect the most because I see it as them caring about me. After all, it is about connections (and) networking. If I ever need a letter of recommendation, I know they would write a beautiful letter for me.”

Recently, a group of classmates, Sanker and one of her professors planned a lunch meeting to discuss a class project. She said Facebook was the easiest way to communicate with everybody involved.

Lefton, whose Facebook profile is “totally blocked,” believes ethical implications in the student-professor Facebook relationship are nonexistent. For him, the issue deals with practical matters.

“I, as a professor with maybe 30 students in four different classes, 120 students, I’m not particularly interested in tracking the minute by minute status updates that occur, nor am I interested in being friends with their friends, and their families, and their cousins from Peoria,” Lefton said. “(.) and then, I’m not convinced that faculty want to know as much as students put on Facebook about their personal lives. Many people share photos and experiences with girlfriends or boyfriends from the night before. Faculty aren’t interested in knowing many of the details.

“So I could imagine a Facebook-like app for faculty and students to interact with, but I’m not convinced Facebook is the right way.”

As for the relationship affecting faculty’s professional judgment, Shank said, in his case, he would never be biased.

“Your grade doesn’t depend on you being my friend on Facebook,” he said. “I never wanted (students) to feel that way. I don’t think they do. At the end of the day, you’re still grading their work, and I can do that objectively.”

Lefton’s status from mid-Feb. said: “Lester Lefton is in Phoenix and the weather followed me here, rain, cold but a good time, I finished my business on Monday.” His profile picture showed President Barack Obama and him, which he described as a “very cool picture.” Among his few Facebook friends are his kids, some family members and two friends who do not live in Ohio.

“I use my mine; I Facebook every day (.) I do this, but my faculty, friends and colleagues, some of them have accounts but they don’t log in,” he said. “I don’t think that it is something that most faculty are interested in doing because it requires you to sort of constantly be looking at it, and that’s not something that most faculty do. Now, to most college presidents, I don’t think so, I happen to be, as you say, more wired, more hip to technology.”

Lefton does not discourage either students or professors from having an account, yet he warns:

“Don’t anybody try to find me on Facebook because it doesn’t come up. With 34,000 students and 5,000 employees, it would be crazy if I let everybody friend me.”

Contact academics reporter Regina Garcia Cano at [email protected].