The Continuing Saga

I had one of the strangest events of my professional career on Tuesday night. Coming back from 10 days in Europe I checked my calender to see I was schedule to speak at a Parent night at a high school in a neigbouring district.  I remember being asked a few months early about speaking as part of a 3 person lineup on Internet Safety. I was very up front with the organizer stating that I don’t spend a great deal of time on the dangers and lures of the internet but rather how to leverage online spaces for positive purposes. I acknowledge dangers but also utilize many research studies that debunk common beliefs about internet safety.

So spend part of Tuesday revamping and cleaning up a few previous presentations to fit into the 20 minute time slot I was given. I was called that afternoon to confirm my appearance with the school counselor and a local police officer. About 30 parents showed up which is pretty typical. While I recall being told about the scheme set up to test kids willingness to add friends in Facebook, I didn’t fully understand the concept until the counselor revealed the plan.  She created a fake profile and tried to get as many students to add her as a friend. The point was to show the parents and students how willing the students were to add strangers. She dropped this bomb on the parents and emphasized the dangerous behaviour shown by the students and how vulnerable they were to predators et. al.  Parents were shocked and their faces were filled with dismay, anger and concern. This went on for about an hour. The police officer who introduced himself to me by stating he didn’t know a lot about computers or the internet proceeded to present for almost an hour on how dangerous the internet was, how it was not policed and was a playground for predators.

And then it was my turn.

I immediately announced that I would be providing a very different perspective and that while I acknowledged some of the dangers and concerns I actually disagreed with many of the points made by the first two speakers. I’ll not post the presentation here, it wasn’t that inspiring but it contained similar content to this one done last summer.  I recognized the lateness of the evening but also wanted to provide hope and balance to a very one sided and what I believed to be somewhat misguided discussion. We had a brief Q and A afterward and many parents expressed their gratitude about hearing another side.

It was a weird evening to say the least. While I recognize the concerns of students acting badly online, these students, I presume are using facebook the way most are: posting a few photos, giving status updates and connecting with friends. I’ll restate this piece of research from the PEW Internet and American Life Project

Our research, actually looking at what puts kids at risk for receiving the most serious kinds of sexual solicitation online, suggests that it’s not giving out personal information that puts kid at risk. It’s not having a blog or a personal website that does that either. What puts kids in danger is being willing to talk about sex online with strangers or having a pattern of multiple risky activities on the web like going to sex sites and chat rooms, meeting lots of people there, kind of behaving in what we call like an internet daredevil.

This completely contradicted what both the police officer and counselor were saying. I stressed that I wanted my kids stuff to be online and that sometimes that included personal things. My 10 year old writes about personal things. That’s what she knows. I don’t worry about her. My own kids see me modeling appropriate behaviour and we talk about what we do online. As Will writes, I want my kids to be found. I also stressed that my concerns continue to revolve around cyberbullying, understanding the changing nature of privacy as well as the lack of critical thinking and understanding of digital content and authentication of information. I also added this quote from danah boyd:

Why are we so obsessed with the registered sex offender side of the puzzle when the troubled kids are right in front of us? Why are we so obsessed with the Internet side of the puzzle when so many more kids are abused in their own homes? I feel like this whole conversation has turned into a distraction. Money and time is being spent focusing on the things that people fear rather than the very real and known risks that kids face. This breaks my heart.

I feel like I’ve posted about this too many times. 2 years ago, we had few educators using any form of social networks and thus the discussions were few. Today their is more information and we have more educators using Facebook and have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. I’m perplexed about how to shift the conversation away from the fear. Fear is usually attached to the unknown. Most of these parents and teachers simply don’t know and it’s always easier to attach a quick label to the unknown. If it’s presented as a threat to children, well, you know the rest of that story.

Today this happened at the school.


That’s just not my style. I still haven’t fully comprehended what message was being sent other than don’t add strangers to your Facebook account.  It seemed like a lot of effort to spend on a quick emphasis to something that requires much more context and teaching and modeling. Maybe more discussion will follow. I hope so. But I’m not hopeful.

Control is a Worthless Pursuit

On first reading, this story from a Wisconsin school district, bugs me. The district is planning to ban any communication between teachers and students on social networking sites and instant messaging services.  I realize there are two sides to every issue but to me, this represents so much of what makes school irrelevant for students.

“There is absolutely no reason that any teacher right now should be on Facebook with their students,” Thompson said. “You cannot control it.”

Control? When will we realize that the type of control some schools are still clinging to is over? Read Pesce’s article for more thoughts on that.

Social networking services are implicitly interconnected, and Thompson argued that unintentional communication between student and staff members could too easily occur.

That’s the point. The ability for teachers to connect with students in whatever space works for them has to be seen as a step forward.  Not every teacher is comfortable with a relationship that extends beyond the classroom. But many are and they shouldn’t be prohibited from that. It may not be via Facebook but goodness knows there a gazillion other spaces and ways in which people connect. One of the very best discussions on this is found in this podcast featuring danah boyd and Marc Fisher.  They do a wonderful job of critically analyzing the current climate of teacher-student relationships and offer some balanced perspectives. The bottom line is the potential is great and many teachers are genuinely interested and able to connect and foster relationships that do indeed extend beyond the classroom walls and district created spaces.

“There are a million different uses of Facebook, and many of them are legitimate,” Thompson said, “…but you’re putting yourself out there, and it’s a risk.”

Anybody who’s ever posted a comment, photo or video online is at risk. Why is Facebook so different? What these folks fail to get is what I’ve often referred to as the leaky boat syndrome;  plugging one hole in the internet is only going to help you for so long, another one will emerge in about 17 seconds. Educational institutions that are trying desperately to maintain control over this are simply entering a battle they’ll never win. Instead, why not develop some principles or policies that aren’t about control and avoiding liability but that encourage and honor thoughtful and healthy relationships and place a level of trust for its employees? Why are most policies of this nature intended to curb the behavior of a very small minority instead of supporting the great work that could potentially come when teachers can, if they choose, be a part of student’s lives? If we believe that learning is not an isolated event, why would be make policies that assume it is? These policies are in keeping with filtering policies that on the surface are said to protect students but in reality are done to reduce liability.

Superintendent Matt Gibson said the district should still take an official stance on the issue. Elmbrook is “not equipped” to be responsible for inappropriate use of technology, he said. Greater supervision and control means less liability.

What is the cost of this control? Not only are there dollars involved in monitoring this, but the cost of mistrust, loss of innovation and demoralizing relationships might be difficult to recover.  If I’m missing something here, I’d be happy to hear the other side. But these attempts at control continue to reflect a lack of vision and understanding about 2009.

Image: Leaky Boat #1

When technology bites back

I listened to this podcast last summer but I think the ideas and shifts discussed are worth sharing. Danah boyd and Marc Fisher discuss a couple of issues. First, the implications of student publishing and their perceptions of privacy and communication. The second half of the discussion focuses on teachers and how they choose to be connected to their students.

The complexities of these topics imply more problematiztion rather than definite answers.  The desire for educators to have clear cut responses and answers to a shifting society is becoming more and more moot.  Technology continues to raises at least as many questions as it does answers.

Original Photo: danah boyd at HHL08 by Ewan Mcintosh