Sunday, June 6, 2010

Being stung by social media in education

I have had a lot of conversations this week with friends and colleagues about the benefits and the dangers of social media in education. I'm putting this blog post out basically because I want to hear from other educators about how they deal with some of these issues. As most people who know me will confirm, I'm a great fan of social media as a way of building and connecting with a PLN. I have promoted various forms of social media at the Techie Breakies I have been running. However, recently I have seen an uglier side of social media in education.

The first problem that I was asked to help with happened last year. A friend of mine called me to ask for help because the students at her school had made a Facebook group about her. Actually the first students who were involved with this wrote complementary things about her, but then other students joined in and wrote things that were both not pleasant and not true. Another teacher at her school had found this group and had told her about it. She had tried speaking to her administration about it, but found that she wasn't getting the sort of help and support she expected - at times she was made to feel that some of the comments on there were actually her fault and since it happened "outside of school", the admin was not really prepared to deal with it (despite the fact that the photo posted of her had been taken from the school website). Sadly, this lack of support was one reason that she decided to resign from her job, however she was then worried that if she applied to other schools they would also be able to find and read the comments on this page. She spoke to the students and explained to them that the comments needed to be removed. This was mostly done, but she was unable to contact two of the students who had already left school and were living in different countries. She tried to report the page to Facebook, but several weeks later it hadn't been removed. She tried to report it again and just got a message saying that she had already reported it. Months later, the page has not been removed, and she has not yet applied for another job as she feels too vulnerable. Over the past few months I have seen this very professional and competent teacher reach rock bottom as a result of the bullying she has experienced from these students. I am concerned that the students felt it was OK to post such comments - which to me indicates that the education these students had received about the issue of cyberbullying and the use of social media sites had been lacking. If these students had written these comments up, for example, on the walls of the school, or the local bus station, would the response from administration have been different? And how about if the comments had been about the school, instead of about an individual teacher?

As a parent of teenagers I have always asked them to think before they post on a public forum. Universities and future employers commonly Google people's names. I have talked to my children about privacy settings and security. I have also talked to them about respect. For example I would not find it acceptable to walk into my daughter's bedroom, rummage through her desk and read her diary. I would not expect her to open and read private letters addressed to me. Because we have a mutual trust and respect, we can leave things lying around at home and not have to worry that one of us will invade the other's privacy. The problem I have found with social media, however, is that your personal information is only as private as your friends allow it to be. Our daughter has no control over what people write about her, or photos they post with her in them. At a previous school, a student took a photo at a school event of a teacher chasing another one around (it was part of a skit) and then posted it on Facebook in one of his albums with a comment about the teacher in the photo being gay. The teacher was not a "friend" of the student on Facebook and initially had no idea that the comment and photo was there for a large part of the school population to see.

Another issue that I've heard about in a couple of schools is that of parents Googling the names of teachers and finding things that these teachers have written, for example on Twitter. These comments are mostly taken out of context, however parents have got upset about them. Despite the fact that some of these posts are from people who protected their tweets, it is still possible to jump around through accounts of people who have not protected their tweets and see what those teachers have written. Again I think this is a question of respect. Would the same parents find it acceptable to go through unlocked filing cabinets in that teacher's classroom to see what they could find there? If they found the teacher's mobile phone, would they think it was OK to read the messages on it? If there is no respect of teachers' privacy then teachers will also resort to doing things in order to protect themselves - for example removing their photo or coming up with very obscure names that nobody would be likely to trace.

So now I'm back to what I should be doing and telling my own colleagues at these Techie Breakies. Should I tell them not to post their photos on Twitter? Should I tell them not to put their names on their tweets? Should I tell them to protect their accounts? Should I be telling them to hide? In that case who will ever want to become a member of their PLN? And even more important, should I also be talking with the admin about how they would respond to all this?

Photo Credit: This photo was taken by my daughter Rachel

1 comment:

  1. I think it is time for administration to have a plan in place for dealing with things like this. I had a problem a few months ago with something very similar. I had participated in an #edchat on Twitter. Some other teachers in my school system saw the comments (out of context, of course) and went to the Superintendent. Fortunately, he is very supportive of me and informally brought the matter to my attention with a note of caution. I was so appalled that I printed out every comment that I made during the #edchat and emailed it to my Curriculum Director and Super. He had not actually seen the stream and I wanted to reassure them that I had been professional. They were not even interested in reading it and said that they were confident in my professionalism.
    I realize that I am fortunate to have this much support from my supervisors, but it certainly stung to know that there were people just "digging for dirt" on me.
    I am doing a Staff Development this summer on developing a PLN and I wonder also what to advise teachers who are just starting this journey. I think that we are all professionals, though, and should maintain that at all times online and off.