When Real and Digital Worlds Collide - Being a Teacher in an Online World

For many years, I watched from afar as social networks and online game communities began emerging – Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, Linkedin, WOW. Despite my love of all things related to technology, I didn’t really think much of these spaces at first. I didn’t join them nor did I really follow what was happening. When these sites began to appear, I was a kindergarten teacher and a parent of two young children. I was mostly unaware of the social revolution that was taking place, especially as my educational context at that time didn’t seem to fit with the digital worlds that were evolving. When I moved out of a self-contained classroom and took on the role as an instructional technologist often working with older students, I found myself drawn into social media to stay abreast of current trends. Without experiencing first hand these social worlds, I could not help my students navigate their murky waters. Without participating for myself, how I could help them become responsible, ethical digital citizens? Without an understanding of what can take place online, how else would I be able to aid classroom teachers and parents in supporting their students and children? And finally, how could I truly understand the tremendous impact digital worlds would have in their real worlds if I didn’t spend time in them?

So I joined the sites, created my profiles, made observations, did my research. And along the way I learned that one’s online presence can have many sides depending on how you participate. As someone in the public eye, I tread carefully, knowing that the lines between personal/professional and public/private content are blurred and that how I act and behave online can influence how people see me. I make careful, calculated choices with how I participate online – what I like, what I share, what I tweet, what I post. I make sure that my online self is a true representation of my real self. If I won’t say it face-to-face, I won’t post it online.

I quickly learned that not everyone chooses to participate in this way and that many individuals 'disconnect' their real selves from their online identities. I have a friend, also an educator, who ‘friended’ me when she was transferred out of state due to her husband’s job. She had an intelligent, quick wit I admired. Yet her online posts showed a different side. Online she felt emboldened, untouchable – she didn’t care what she said or how she said it. She was having a tough year at a new school and her comments about her profession, her new school and her students worried me. It was evident that she did not see a connection between her actions and comments online and the possible ramifications of them in the real world. It also became quite clear that adults can have just as much trouble negotiating digital worlds as my students. I'm sure anyone I talk to can share a similar story of someone they 'thought' they knew showing a different side online and how those online experiences have changed how their perceive the person face-to-face.

The biggest lesson I have learned on my personal journey so far -- people have different standards and beliefs than I do, and that their ideas, responses, and comments online impact how they are perceived by me as well as others – in both the digital and real world.

This topic of perception between real and online worlds is particularly relevant to my teaching practice right now as I have been having conversation with my faculty over the last six months related to developing a ‘Professional Online Presence’.

Additionally, I spent the summer reworking my school’s Responsible Use Policy. I am now working on an addendum specific to social media use emphasizing the potential impact on organizational, professional, and individual reputations. Here is a rough draft of the policy. It is still a work in progress. I will be presenting it to my administration in the next few weeks. Any feedback is welcome.

Here are some interesting links I plan to explore further related more to student and teacher use of social networks.

Facebook Guidelines for Employees

Facebook "Friends": How Online Identities Impact Offline Relationships

by Jessica Marie Vitak

Looks at the differences between social relationships online versus traditional offline relationships of undergraduate students at Georgetown University (n=644) and how online identities impact the formation and maintenance of friendships on the social network Facebook.

Social Networking ProCon.org

Interesting website presenting both sides of the social networking debate. Includes links to resources as well as videos.

The Pros and Cons of Social Networking for Teenagers: A Parents' Guide

by Kristen Stanberry for education.com

Toils of Social Networking

CBS News Report