A new frontier for education - and it needs policing

24th July 2015 at 01:00
Heads and teachers signing up to Twitter find it can be a minefield

On Twitter, Geoff Barton is @RealGeoffBarton. But the real Geoff Barton, he insists, is an artificial construct.

"This will sound terribly pretentious," the TES columnist and headteacher of King Edward VI School in Suffolk says. "But I see the real Geoff Barton who appears on Twitter as a public formulation of the real me. I think about what the people who follow me are interested in. School leadership. Language and literature.

"But there are things that I'm interested in that I won't post about. I don't, for example, post any pictures of my family. There's a level of self-policing."

Schools are actively embracing Twitter, Mr Barton says. But many headteachers are also joining the social network in their own right, and this can prove more complicated than they necessarily anticipate.

"People can be entirely oblivious to the impression they're cultivating on Twitter," says Hazel Beadle of the University of Portsmouth, who is researching school leaders' behaviour on Twitter. "Heads aren't always skilled at using social media. It's about getting the balance between the person they really are and the professional."

The Daily Mail test

This is something that Mr Barton (pictured, below) is constantly aware of. "A rule of thumb is: would I be happy for anything I post on Twitter or Facebook to be on the front page of the Daily Mail?" he says.

Jill Berry, a former headteacher and educational consultant, says that many school leaders bypass the Daily Mail question altogether by choosing to tweet anonymously.

"I think sometimes anonymity is a general tactic to protect themselves and their students, if they want to talk openly about education and to be quite political, without there being repercussions," she says.

For a headteacher, however, policing one's own online actions is relatively easy. But the public nature of Twitter can necessitate a different and far more timeconsuming type of online patrolling - checking what parents are writing about the school.

Addressing the recent British Educational Leadership and Education Research Society conference, Ms Beadle spoke about concerns that headteachers have raised with her.

"Is it for a school to police what parents are posting on Twitter about it?" she asks TES. "Well, no. But the problem is that, in a face-to-face conversation, it's between the people there. With social media, it's public."

Mr Barton believes that headteachers should try to bring unfavourable Twitter conversations to a speedy end, so as to minimise retweets. "If someone says something negative about the school, we will try and close down that discussion as quickly as possible online," he adds. "We'll say, `Come into school, so we can talk about that.' "

But it's not only parents who can potentially damage a school's reputation by tweeting recklessly. "A teacher cannot function on Twitter like someone who works in a supermarket or an accountancy firm," Mr Barton says. "You run into problems where people sometimes post things that are inappropriate. As headteacher, you need to police that.

"Some people might see it as Big Brotherish, but I see it as protecting them from damaging their own reputations or [that] of the school, or leaving themselves open to accusations."

Ms Berry agrees. "I don't think it's unreasonable to make sure that people behave professionally," she says. "Particularly if they're using the school name on their Twitter profile."

However, she does not think there's a need for heavy-handed laying down of rules. "I'd want to negotiate these parameters with staff, rather than saying, `These are the rules'," she says. "But reminding people what's risky or potentially actionable seems sensible."

Both she and Mr Barton point out that social media can quickly become all-consuming for school leaders. The cumulative effect of using Twitter for personal and professional interest, together with policing staff use and keeping an eye out for disgruntled parental rants, can suck heads into a cycle of constant online vigilance.

As a result, Ms Berry says, headteachers might decide that the easiest way to cope with Twitter is simply to opt out. "Twitter is pretty addictive," she adds. "I think lots of heads just can't find the time."

`Should you police someone's life?'

Just as teachers talk to pupils about the potential implications of their online behaviour, so headteachers should discuss online behaviour with staff, Hazel Beadle argues.

The University of Portsmouth academic believes that school leaders have a responsibility to support teachers in their use of Twitter. This is particularly true for staff members who did not grow up with the internet.

"Digital-native teachers may encourage colleagues to explore Twitter for educational purposes," she says. "But are they always supported to do so? You're going to need an awareness of how it operates.

"But the difficulty comes in establishing these expectations. Should you police someone's life?" she adds.

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