Essential lessons in netiquette

Your online presence can affect your career. Follow Tom Bennett's tips and project the right image

Tom Bennett

Something we do every day still confuses or wrongfoots many teachers and students: cyber security and conduct. Being careless with passwords is only the tip of the cyberberg. The digitalisation and subsequent cultural integration of new forms of communication has progressed and penetrated our lives so quickly that our cultural norms have struggled to catch up.

Take mobile phones as an example. Before their ubiquitous adoption, no one would have dreamed of interrupting a conversation mid-sentence to speak to someone else. But nowadays it's common for people to break off from speaking to you when their phone squeaks, trumping all other social concerns.

Most teachers communicate through school emails and maintain an online presence in virtual learning networks and on other platforms. Many teachers will also be comfortable with their own personal platforms: I tweet, blog, run web seminar training and host an advice forum online. How I conduct myself in these abstract realms is vital to my reputation and my job. Here are some pointers to help ensure that the impact you make is the right one:

1. Build a wall around your personal online presence as high as it needs to be. Familiarise yourself with the security settings on all your platforms. The companies who run them prefer as much of you to be visible as possible, so this is rarely a one-click operation. But all your security settings can be tightened up with a little effort.

Do a web search of yourself using a few key words and comb through the results. That's what your students, their parents and the press can see. Are you comfortable with that? If not, yank the security up a notch. Then check again. Repeat until you're happy. If you still aren't then remove the content. Be warned: you may have to visit the sites themselves in order to access your public profile, so make a list of everything you've joined and search there specifically. For God's sake, change your password if it's "password" or something else witless.

While you may feel that your personal life is nobody else's business, if you put it online, you have pasted it on to a massive billboard and nailed it to the wall of your local supermarket. Perhaps you use dating websites; perhaps you're a member of a legalise cannabis pressure group; whatever, if you aren't comfortable with your students knowing, then anonymise. Use a nom de plume or choose a sensible avatar. The alternative to this is the full disclosure method, which is my preferred strategy. Because I write so much that goes online, I make sure that anything I do write, I'm proud of and happy to defend.

2. Whenever possible, use school accounts to contact students or accounts that the school is aware of. I don't agree with the "no Facebook" rule with students, because that discounts opportunities to form Facebook pages for class or revision groups. But these have to be formally designated as such. These platforms should be used as if you were writing a letter home to the students, addressed to the parents: ie, formal, professional and unambiguous. I often have students emailing their homework to my school account, younger students via their parents' email accounts and older ones directly.

3. If a student contacts you on a personal email, don't respond. Alternatively, direct them to your school email. Just like in a classroom, encourage useful communication and discourage that which impedes. Internet communication is simultaneously intensely private and deceptively public. Even in a crowd, unless someone is staring over your shoulder, the illusion of privacy is overwhelming. But anything you say can, and will, be used either to your credit or otherwise in any investigation. A friendly nickname for a student assumes darker edges under the microscope of enquiry. Being too matey in an email is as bad form as drunk texting an ex.

4. Some teachers experience cyber-bullying when IT is used to persecute and harass. This can be as simple as relentless Facebook friend requests, direct messages or anonymous abuse posted on their walls. It can also involve hate mail sent to employers or posted on public areas of the school website.

Whatever it is, the key thing is to save and report. Screen-capture anything offensive before it is removed, or save the files. Then report the incident to your line manager and your IT admin team. Don't delete and suffer in silence. And never respond. Cyber-bullying is unusual in that it often circumvents traditional power structures: ie, the bully may be young, alone and subordinate. But cyber-bullying is as vicious as physical abuse.

There is no excuse for teachers now to ignore these kinds of simple guidelines. No one can claim that they are not digital natives. But remember that students are usually just as savvy as you, so it's best to be one step ahead.

For more information and advice, go to bit.lyRzz0GL.

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Tom Bennett

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