Rob Jewitt, a lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Sunderland, writes about the university’s recently introduced social networking site for students. Embedded in his description of the site’s features are some interesting reflections on the kinds of challenges universities face in the social media era:

Many staff find it uncomfortable befriending students on social networking sites like Facebook as there have been many instances of students who have exploited that relationship, either by verbally abusing staff members or abusing the fine line that demarcates the public and private spheres.  I’m sure I’m not alone in having been contacted inappropriately by students around assessment time.

Of course, it goes both ways.  There are many a time I’ve witnessed students talking about their nocturnal activities or their great feats of alcohol endurance over an assessment period, only to be contacted by them begging for an extension of some kind.  Facebook filters are nebulous and often difficult to keep track of, but with these My Sunderland controls only the people you want to see the content are going to get the message(s) you post.

The question of what to share and with whom is the one that people ask me about the most. We all face the challenge of how to set boundaries online, but it’s particularly tough for people in frontline service fields like educators, medical health professionals, social service providers. So it’s not a surprise that institutions in these fields might be tempted to develop their own social networking services specifically to accommodate their social and privacy requirements.

But developing a privacy-savvy university network is no substitute for educating teachers and students around their best approach to Facebook and other mainstream networks. Facebook isn’t going anywhere (yet), so rather than hoping to sidestep the challenges it poses to professional boundaries, I’d love to see people in educational and caring fields offer some modeling around how to engage appropriately and respectfully online.