Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tweeting about Lord of the Flies: Social Media in Education

My name is JD...and I like social media.

I tweet...a lot. I post on Facebook; I'm one of the thirteen or so people on G+, and I agonized over giving up my foursquare account (until I did...whew. that was nice). I post pics and reviews to Yelp. I like social media.

So it is not surprising that my avocation for social media and my vocation for teaching were going to meet. What remains surprising to me is that there are so few teachers who are doing the same. Ok, to be honest, it is not surprising. Schools are disallowing it as a matter of policy, a number of technology admins are under the impression that it is disallowed under CIPA (it's not), and we are living in an age where politicians and lawyers are able to determine educational policy based on the potential of something to go wrong (and the lawsuits, besmirched reputations, and bad press that would ensue).

But educators and parents have a role in social media:

The @40ishoracle and I have been talking about the "Lord of the Flies" effect for a couple of years now. There is enough difference (lack of immediate facial feedback, lack of immediate physical harm, biochemical response differences between being alone and being in groups, psychological responses to the get the idea) between communication through social media and live interaction that the normal rules of behavior do not cross over for teenagers. I could give you lots of examples but you can Google this or talk to any teenager to find this to be true.

At the point that the normal rules do not transfer, adults have two choices. 1. Either provide boundaries, rules, guidelines, etc. for the new medium or 2. Let kids set their own rules. I would argue that for the better part of a decade, adults have defaulted to the latter. Thus the online behavior that minors demonstrate in public (or semi-public) space which would be abhorrent in the real world is a variation of normal in the cyber-social sphere. Need to test this? Print out the transcripts of two students who are being mean to each other on social networks and have them read their comments out loud to each other across a table. As the social-network rhetoric is confronted in the context of real-world norms, the impact is embarrassing, tense, sometimes even filled with shame.

At the point that we decide to embrace option one (boundaries and rules, guidelines and examples) then normal educational practice takes over. What is the best way to teach? Draw upon the context of the student, give them hands-on experience, reflect on those experiences with experts and peers, and assess the new knowledge in the context of decisions the students will now make.

But we can't draw upon the context if we are unaware how students are actually behaving in social media.

But we can't give them formalized experiences when every social network is blocked at the school.

Ironically, e-rate federal guidelines now require schools to have a unit on cyber-bullying, but most schools block the forums and venues on which the cyber-bullying occurs. My child is taught to control her mouth (and hands and feet) by being corrected by adults, at home and in the classroom. Yet we are shocked when students, left on their own in Cyberland, perform actions which, while bad, we have never corrected -- isn't that what immaturity is all about?

As we have been discussing for the last few blogs, the key to education, educational technology purchases and policies, and maybe life in general is forming relationships. It is in the context of the relationship that learning happens. It is in the context of the relationship change in behavior can occur.

I received a tweet last night from a student immediately after he had sent a typical-teen-venting tweet that said something along the lines of "i sometimes forget @jdferries reads these". It was an opportunity (a small one) to open the door of self-reflection and analyze behavior. It is in the context of the social media relationships that I have with students that we discuss online identity, good choices, and bad ones.

In a practical sense, the relationship that is enhanced by social media gives credibility and leverage to change real-world as well as cyber-world behavior for the better. It meets students where they are. It encourages them, through example, to apply the norms that we demonstrate to their online activity.

Yes. Adults have to be more cognizant of relationships with young people than they do with their peers. It's true in the hallways, the grocery stores, and online. Relational Power plays a huge factor in determining how this works. Being able to keep a personal life and a public life separate is a consideration (and, not to tip my hand, but ALL student-adult relationship are PUBLIC). Keeping records to protect yourself is a necessity in this day and age. Schools should develop policies along with parents and students and educators and administrators that take all of this into consideration.

I don't have an answer to the lawyers beyond this: a lawyer is paid to help you make money (sue someone) or prevent you from losing money (suit proofing). If you ask the question, "Should a school do X?", the lawyer will likely answer in the negative. Nothing schools do make money (we generally don't sue), so the lawyer only advises you to avoid things that could be litigated -- Which, in America, is EVERYTHING.

To school administrators: Ask yourself if the above arguments make sense. Talk to your teachers. Talk to your students. Talk to your families. If, in the final analysis, there are valid educational and developmental reasons for teachers and students to use social media together, then the question to ask the lawyers is "Since we are going to do this, what advice do you have to best protect ourselves?" -- Everything else is just asking to be shot down.