TITLE: Social Networks and the Changing Relationship Between Students and Faculty AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 15, 2008 7:52 AM DESC: ----- BODY: One of my most senior colleagues has recently become enamored of Facebook. One of his college buddies started using it to share pictures, so my colleague created an account. Within minutes, he had a friend request -- from a student in one of his classes. And they kept coming... He now has dozen of friends, mostly undergrads at our school but also a few former students and current colleagues. Earlier this week, he stopped me in the hall to report that during his class the previous hour, a student in the class had posted a message on his own Facebook page saying something to the effect, "I can't keep my eyes open. I have to go to sleep!" How does the prof know? Because they are Facebook friends, of course. Did the student think twice about posting such a message during class? I doubt it. Was he so blinded by fatigue or boredom that he forgot the prof is his friend and so would see the message? I doubt it. Is he at all concerned in retrospect, or even just a little sheepish? I doubt it. This is standard operating procedure for a college set that opens the blinds on it life, day by day and moment by moment. We live in a new world. Our students live much more public lives than most of us did, and today's network technology knocks down the well that separates Them from Us. This can be a good thing. My colleague keeps his Facebook page open in the evenings, where his students can engage him in chat about course material and assignments. He figures that his office hours are now limited only by the time he spends in front of a monitor. Immediate interaction can make a huge difference to a student who is struggling with a database problem or a C syntax error. The prof does not mind this as an encroachment on his time or freedom; he can close the browser window and draw the blinds on office hours anytime he wants, and besides, he's hacking or reading on-line most of the time anyway! I'm uncertain what the potential downsides of this new openness might be. There's always a risk that students can become too close to their professors, so a prof needs to take care to maintain some semblance of a professional connection. But the demystification of professors is probably a good thing, done right, because it enables connections and creates an environment more conducive to learning. I suppose one downside might be that students develop a sense of entitlement to Anytime, Anywhere access, and professors who can't or don't provide could be viewed negatively. This could poison the learning environment on both sides of the window. But it's also not a new potential problem. Just ask students about the instructors who are never in their offices for face-to-face meetings or who never answer e-mail. I've not had experience with this transformation due to Facebook. I do have a page, created originally for much the same reason as my colleague's. I do have a small number of friends, including undergrads, former students, current colleagues, a grade-school buddy, and even my 60+ aunt. But I use Facebook sparingly, usually for a specific task, and rarely have my page open. I don't track the comments on my "wall", and I don't generally post on others'. It has been useful in one particular case, though, reconnecting me with a former student whose work I have mentioned here. That has been a real pleasure. (FYI, the link to his old site seems to be broken now.) However, I do have limited experience with the newly transparent wall between me and my students, through blogs. It started when a few students -- not many -- found my blog and began to read it. Then I found the blogs of a few recent students and, increasingly, current students. I don't have a lot of time to read any blogs these days, but when I do read, I read some of theirs. Blogs are not quite as immediate as the Twitter-like chatter to be found in Facebook, but they are a surprisingly candid look into my students' lives and minds. Struggles they have with a particular class or instructor; personal trials at home; illness and financial woes -- all are common topics in the student blogs I read. So, too, are there joys and excitement and breakthroughs. Their posts enlighten me and humble me. Sometimes I feel as if I am privy to far too much, but mostly I think that the personal connection enriches my relationship both with individual students and with the collective student body. What I read certainly can keep me on a better path as I play the role of instructor or guide. And, yes, I realize that there is a chance that the system can be gamed. Am I being played by a devious student? It's possible, but honestly, I don't think it's a big issue. The same students who will post in full view of their instructor that they want to sleep through class without shame or compunction are the ones who are blogging. There is a cultural ethic at play, a code by which these students live. I feel confident in assuming that their posts are authentic, absent evidence to the contrary for any given blogger. (That said, I appreciate when students write entries that praise a course or a professor. Most students current students are circumspect enough not to name names, but there is always the possibility that they refer to my course. That hope can psyche me up some days.) To be fair, we have to admit that the same possibility for gaming the system arises when professors blog. I suppose that I can say anything here in an effort to manipulate my students' perceptions or feelings. I might also post something like this, which reflects my take on a group of students, and risk affecting my relationship with those students. One of my close friends sent me e-mail soon after that post to raise just that concern. For the same reasons I give the benefit of the doubt to student bloggers, I give myself the benefit of the doubt, and the same to the students who read this blog. To be honest, writing even the few entries I manage to write these days takes a lot of time and psychic energy. I have too little of either resource to spend them disingenuously. There is a certain ethic to blogging, and most of us who write do so for more important purposes than trying to manipulate a few students' perceptions. Likewise, I trust the students who read this blog to approach it with a mindset of understanding something about computer science and just maybe to get a little sense of what their Dear Old Professor tick. I know that is the main reason I write -- to figure out how I tick, and maybe learn a few useful nuggets of wisdom along the way. Knowing that I do so in a world much more transparent than the one I inhabited as a CS student years ago is part of the attraction. -----