Many school boards in western countries now have policies that forbid teachers from interacting with students on various social media platforms such as Facebook.
In Thailand, most foreign teachers face no such restrictions and make the decision on their own about whether to accept invitations from their students for a growing litany of social networking services that allow people to "connect" online.
I believe that it is unwise to engage in any online communication with students. Adding a student as a friend on Facebook, chatting, or even handing out your email address to a student are all risky. It's all about perception.
Imagine This Scenario
Imagine that a few students convince you to add them as friends on Facebook. Word gets out. Other students feel that those friended students have an advantage. I've always sensed that some students feel their final marks have little to do with what they have accomplished in the course. Allowing two castes of students to develop in the classroom—friended and non-friended— would only fuel such speculation.
A good final mark for friended students might convince others that they had an unfair advantage. In most cases a good mark would only be coincidence, but some students wouldn't see it that way.
But, you may say, why don't those other students also ask if they can friend their teacher on Facebook? Everyone can be Facebook friends! Yipeee!
Well, many students are too shy to ever make this kind of request. Others think it is just not appropriate. And even in this day and age, many students are still not active in the online world and don't have a Facebook account.
But avoiding online interactions with students is not just about perception. It is possible that ostensibly harmless little interactions with students can influence you come grading time.
Remaining Objective and Avoiding Favouritism
For example, maybe an image of a student who you have chatted with flashes in your mind as you are grading her paper and you sympathize with her just a little bit more. Perhaps you give out an extra half mark here and a half mark there. Maybe you think to yourself, "Ah, yes, I think I know what she was getting at..."
Which is why I always make a point of getting to know Thai students by their nicknames. Most students write their full names (often in Thai) on assignments and exams, and this allows me to mark without knowing for certain whose work I am judging. I believe the smartest ones sense this and so some of them also include their nicknames on assignments as well. (I also tell my students that while their penmanship does not affect the grade I give them on a writing assignment, neatly written work nonetheless can have a positive psychological effect.)
It just so happens that most of the students who include their nicknames are the ones who I have gotten to know a bit for whatever reason. Perhaps they have stayed after class to talk to me about homework or they have asked me to look over their résumés or other documents in English with which they need help. (Note: anecdotes in this post refer to university-aged students.)
Couldn't teachers who associate with students online also blind assignments and exams so as to avoid favouritism? No doubt, but online discussions with students would make it more likely that teachers would recognize their writing style. Regardless, that still doesn't account for the perception angle.
The only exception I would make for interacting with students online would be when organizing some kind of project or course-long research that is in part or whole done online. In this situation, I would ensure that all students participated and that all students had access to computers and the internet.
Even in that case, more technologically savvy students will have an advantage, but then, some students will always have an advantage in every academic situation. The point is, if the project requires online work, the teacher can make sure to give more attention to students who do no have a lot of experience in the online world.
What Motivates Teachers to Interact with Students Online?
Some teachers will continue to interact with students online, and the majority will never be aware of any problems because of it. Most of the negative fallout from such a decision is subtle and hard to quantify.
Perhaps some teachers are drawn into the adolescent mentality and like to be popular amongst their students for reasons other than how well they help them learn and grow.
If you are still unsure, ask yourself this question: is interacting with some students online any different than, in pre-internet days, talking on the phone with some students and inviting some students over to your place for dinner and a chat?