August 19, 2011

IN CLASSROOMS across the country, teachers are embracing new technology to reach their students. From social media, like Facebook and Twitter, to messenger programs such as Skype, teachers are more equipped to communicate with their students than ever before.

Charter school teachers in the successful Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) give students and parents their cellphone numbers and use social media to enhance the educational experience. The Internet not only can bring the world to every classroom, it also can strengthen communication between teachers and students.

However, in some places, new laws and proposed measures are impeding teacher communication with students outside of school-sanctioned e-mail systems. The most recent practitioner of educational technophobia is Missouri, which last month adopted legislation intended to ban direct communication between teachers and students via Facebook.

The law is so broad it could effectively also bar student-teacher contact via Gmail or other non-school e-mail services. “No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related Internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student,” the law reads.

The rationale for this legislation is to stop potential sexual predators. But as Tony Rothert of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri told us, Missouri suffers from no epidemic of abuse by teachers, much less abuse via social media. Mr. Rothert, the group’s legal director, told CBS News that the state is essentially “taking a bazooka to a fly here.” The organization is protesting the law on First Amendment grounds.

Not all schools provide e-mail accounts to their students, and even in those that do, many students are more likely to be on Facebook than on their official school accounts. “E-mail has fallen out of fashion for this generation” and social media “are oxygen to these kids,” said Chuck Collis, a science teacher in suburban St. Louis. “Why would we push them out of schools?” Each week, Mr. Collis assigns students to read linked articles in environmental news and write an analysis of them as homework. He then offers comments via Facebook on how students might improve their write-ups.

Missouri is not the only state to “race to the bottom of technological ignorance,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. He noted that such laws hamper student journalists’ ability to use teachers as confidential sources and write important stories in their communities.

Communication with students on any non-school-issued computer or cellphone without the consent of the principal is a punishable offense in Louisiana. Virginia’s Board of Education considered a similar ban but, thankfully, did not adopt it.

New media do provide new avenues for sexual predators and school bullies, and schools are right to be concerned. But the answer is not to impose wholesale restrictions on teachers’ communication with students. In a media universe where young people are often most engaged and motivated online, these laws only handicap learning and innovation.

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