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Teachers risk role confusion on social media

Pernilla Josefsson, a doctoral student in media technology, is studying ways in which teachers and students interact on social media. (Photo: David Callahan)
Published Aug 19, 2014

Facebook is emerging as a tool for class discussions, but what happens when teachers in higher education mix with their students on a social media platform? A new book features research from KTH Royal Institute of Technology on how role confusion can create problems – and what you can do to avoid it.

Researcher Pernilla Josefsson, from the School of Computer Science and Communication, contributed a chapter about role confusion in the recently-published book, An Education in Facebook?: Higher Education and the World's Largest Social Network . Josefsson and her co-author Fredrik Hanell, Lund University, find that students can sometimes become confused by the role of the teacher in such forums.

What kind of confusion are you seeing in social media groups where teachers and students interact?

“When we implement these types of (social media) environments, our social roles are getting more intertwined; and it’s harder to distinguish the professional from the personal, the private from the professional. Some of the students assume that the teacher is there as a teacher, sticking to their role in the classroom; while others in the same group consider the teacher to be acting as a private person, expressing their own private thoughts, not as a teacher examining, or judging them, or informing them. At the same time, there are some teachers who find it difficult to separate the ‘teacher self’ from the ‘private self’.”

What kind of problems have you seen result?

“In the groups that we have been studying, confusion arose over what could be interpreted as ‘proper behavior’, which is strongly related to the teachers’ level of authority. In one of the groups, for instance, a student started an April Fools’ joke – that their program was going to be closed down by the university – and the teacher played along, confirming the information and elaborating on it. All this caused great worry among the students, and they were upset that he acted in a personal manner, outside of his professional role.”

What lesson can we learn from that?  

“This means that a teacher risks performing in a social role that not all of their students expect or sympathize with. We found that teachers were obliged to adhere to some limits; there are things that are proper and there are things that are not suitable for this context.”

How can teachers avoid going too far with their personal, private self?

Some don’t friend their students. They reserve their private posts for their friends, and they take the teacher role in the class group. But the best way is to be clear about your intentions. If you are a student group, explain why you invited the teacher and what you expect of them. And if you are teacher you have to communicate what you expect of the student being there.”

David Callahan

For more information, contact Pernilla Josefsson at or +46 87906011.

An Education in Facebook?: Higher Education and the World's Largest Social Network

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