ACPA/NASPA Joint Meeting: Shaping the Facebook of Higher Ed

Another session I attended on Tuesday was one entitled “Shaping the ‘Facebook’ of Higher Education: Teaching Online Street-Smarts During New Student Orientation.” The session was presented by Staci Lynne Hersh and Sara Hinkle of New York University (NYU). Both work in orientation and they discussed how they have begun to integrate Facebook education into their education of both their student orientation leaders and their new students.

Informal surveys have shown that nearly all NYU students have when they show up on campus for their first orientation. The presenters also asserted that registering for and using Facebook is a “coming-of-age experience” but given that Facebook is now open to anyone with an e-mail address I have to wonder if that statement is true. Regardless, a balanced approach in educating students about Facebook and similar tools should be welcome, particularly given the relative newness of these tools and their many unrealized (and potentially long-lasting) implications.

There were two main parts of this session that differed from other Facebook sessions: the concentration on student employees and the educational session offered at NYU’s student orientation.

  1. Before offering an educational session during orientation, Hersh and Hinkle knew they had to ensure they were on (or close to) the same page as their student employees. Like most orientation programs, student employees play a huge role in NYU’s orientation program. One aspect of this interaction with the student employees was including clauses in the student employees’ applications and contracts related to their portrayal (profile) in Facebook and other services. Another aspect was an open discussion with the student employees about the institution’s concerns, including students’ privacy, safety, employability, and representation of the institution. Hersh and Hinkle initially experienced resistance from their student employees when broaching this topic similar to the “it’s our space – stay out!” message reported by other presenters and attendees.
  2. The educational program offered by NYU took place during orientation and was a voluntary session (presumably offered simultaneously as other sessions). The program features several hands-on activities intended to generate discussion and reflection, including analysis of several real Facebook profiles and an activity designed to make students aware how quickly initial judgments are formed.

As part of this session focused on student employees, including hiring and screening of student employee candidates, part of the discussion centered on how to use Facebook in those processes. The presenters stressed that administrators who are not on Facebook don’t even know what their current student leaders’ profiles look like. Personally, I was not very pleased with the discussion of this particular facet of this issue as there are definitely legal considerations related to this and I’m not sure if many of those making these decisions are equipped and trained to make them; there’s a good reason why the phrase “I Am Not A Lawyer” is used so often in discussions on the Internet that the abbreviation IANAL has entered the common lexicon. One attendee (at this session, I think – I could be getting confused with another Facebook-related session) even raised the point that a student who feels that they did not get a job because they were discriminated against because of something in their profile could sue. That there are often many pieces of information in social networking user profiles that employers are prohibited from using in their employment decisions (age, ethnicity, race, etc.) is an excellent observation and a consideration for anyone who hires students as well as a consideration for students themselves.

While one attendee said that most (perhaps all) problems caused by students’ improper use of Facebook are already covered by existing policies, another attendee (perhaps the same one – my notes are not clear) asked if NYU had a policy prohibiting electronic misrepresentation. It was an excellent question and one that goes beyond Facebook and reaches what seems to me to be a core principle of honesty applicable in many general situations.

Anecdotes shared by the presenters and attendees revealed some inconsistencies and shortcomings in the experience and developmental levels of incoming students. While some students express disbelief about the idea that administrators and employers (i.e. non-peers) can and do view students’ profiles, others share their profiles openly and “friend” administrators in one moment and post incriminating information (such as photos of themselves drinking in the same profile that has their underaged-birthdate) in the next.

Additional observations:

  • The common thread of “there are positive uses and we can’t lose sight of them!” ran through this session.
  • Are privacy settings really effective in a physically close-knit community (i.e. I surely know someone with whom your friends so I can just ask them to show me your profile)?
  • One attendee related how she not only checks her high-school-aged daughter’s Facebook account but she also Googles her daughter to see what other information is out there. She then deals with what she finds in an educational manner rather than a confrontation followed by demands. What a Mom!
  • Scribbled at the bottom of my notes on this session: “We’re too damned focused on this one service!”