Students in social media: There’s monitoring & then there’s monitoring

There’s an upside and a serious downside to monitoring students in social media, and the upside doesn’t involve outsourcing (that was an understatement). You’ll see what I’m talking about when you get to the downside down there, but let’s start with where and how it would actually help.…

In her thoughtful commentary, “What inner city kids know about social media, and why we should listen,” journalist, techie and now youth mentor Jacqui Cheng writes from her own experience that teens care about their online privacy, know how to maintain it, know what adults can see, and are not afraid to be who they are online as well as offline. [She both cites research and bears it out in her post.] She writes long, so I’d like to highlight a few points that I think are especially important:

If you’re focused on “online reputation,” listen to this: “Whether our teens will eventually regret the things they post online is the wrong debate to have…. Instead, we should be asking ourselves why we, as a society, discourage the real teachers, counselors, and principals from seeing a full picture of what their students are up to and what can be done to help,” Cheng writes. Note that she uses the words “listen to” not “monitor.”

Blocking much-needed mentoring

She acknowledges that “teachers are often restricted from communicating with students over social media thanks to FERPA, [a federal law] which is meant to protect privacy regarding scores or other school-related things on unregulated channels. But teachers are also discouraged from following or interacting in other ways, too – a teacher ‘caught’ following one student on Twitter but not another could be accused of playing favorites when grades come out later. And teachers themselves are so scared of setting a bad example themselves online that they’re afraid any move they make to see what students are up to could get them fired,” which is so sad, because look at the data she cites:

“Some researchers now argue that high schoolers with an adult mentor means a 50% greater likelihood of attending college – disadvantaged students are 100% more likely if they have an adult mentor. And that mentor doesn’t even have to do anything special: ‘Comments from study participants indicate that their mentors weren’t necessarily doing anything extraordinary, just being involved and treating the young person as an important human being’,” she cites a Brigham Young University study as finding. “But only 7% of disadvantaged students report having a mentoring relationship with a teacher, leaving so much potential on the table to connect with students who need mentors the most.”

And there they are, typing, texting sharing and otherwise expressing in social media – maybe purposefully telling anybody in their lives who cares – “what their struggles are and, perhaps indirectly, what they could use help with in order to make it in one piece to adulthood. But is anyone listening?” Cheng asks.

The downside illustrated

Ironically, “listening” is in the name of a company that sells a student-monitoring service to schools. In order to be able to “step in when students are in danger of harming themselves or others,” its superintendent said, Glendale Unified School District in southern California hired a company called Geo Listening to “monitor and analyze” 13,000 middle and high school students’ public social media posts in services such as Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Twitter, the Glendale News-Press reported. “Geo Listening will provide Glendale school officials with a daily report that categorizes posts by their frequency and how they relate to cyber-bullying, harm, hate, despair, substance abuse, vandalism and truancy.”

Supporters argue that the monitoring doesn’t violate students’ privacy because it only monitors their public posts, but that barely scratches the surface of what’s involved.

“Few people have challenged the assumption that the company could do a good job,” wrote Washington, D.C.-based educator and technology consultant Bonnie Bracey Sutton in an email. Looking into Geo Listening’s service, she could find no specifics on the data analysis, where the data would be stored, or how it would be shared, “nothing about … how decisions would be made and enacted, who was given the information in the schools – counselors, school nurses, librarians, IT or SEL [social-emotional learning] personnel?” she wrote, also not getting an answer to whether law enforcement would have access.

We need to monitor the monitoring

[There's an important discussion going on in society right now about privacy in social media and the difference between data-mining and open-source intelligence-gathering (OSINT for short), and it would make for great class discussion about privacy beyond the personal level – see this blog post from an investigative journalist who covers this.]

Even if Geo Listening’s bulk monitoring doesn’t technically violate students’ privacy, has optimal data protection in place and minimizes chances for human error, it could violate the trust of both students and parents.

One parent who’s a digital-media researcher at UCLA told the News-Press that students should be made aware of this “very big-brotherish” monitoring, and she wonders what it will do to students’ trust of school officials. She’s asking an important question. Are we jeopardizing listening with all our monitoring?

Why listening’s better than monitoring

“Listening,” as blogger and youth mentor Jacqui Cheng describes it, is personalized rather than automated. What I’m hearing her say is, it’s consistent with the personalized learning that digital media affords, with the direction in which education is moving. Examined more closely, it has a sense of presence to it – presence in students’ lives that’s both online and offline, simply because their lives are in both “places” now. But there’s a lightness to this presence. It’s not heavy-handed or judgmental. It’s a sense of awareness that knows if supportive action is needed because it’s based on knowing the student. It has context – the student’s life, not just some online services s/he uses. This listening can’t be outsourced or automated. Algorithms can “learn,” but they’ll never have the kind of real-life context a teacher or other mentor can have. That kind of “monitoring” – listening – is what fosters trust and the kind of school culture that protects everybody.

“School Culture is What Matters Most” is a subhead in a great blog post by Prof. Justin Patchin on this story about student monitoring. It’s not a perfect world and schools have so much to deal with, but it’s good to keep the goal in sight when working toward it, so here’s the goal (from Dr. Patchin, and it sounds a lot like what Cheng describes):

“Schools should work to develop a culture where everyone looks out for everyone else and if something of concern arises, someone will step up and take appropriate action. Most of the time, when there is a threat to cause harm – either to one’s self or others – someone sees or hears about it.”

Crucial not to jeopardize school culture

When someone does notice that someone’s in crisis, Patchin continues, “What do they do at that moment? Are they empowered to take action themselves? Do students feel comfortable talking with an adult at school about what they witnessed or heard about? Do they feel that telling an adult at school or at home would resolve the situation?” The answers to those questions depend a lot on what kind of culture the school community has developed. What he and Cheng are describing is a culture of care and respect. School officials – hopefully with their community – will want to think very carefully about the impact that a service that monitors students’ personal lives (as expressed in social media) will have on that all-important, probably hard-won school culture. I say that because Patchin reports that Geo Listening claims it will be “working with more than 3000 schools worldwide by the end of the year.”

So back to Jacquie Cheng’s blog post. Just read the first two paragraphs about all that her inner city Chicago students let her know about their lives – and all she learned from them. She has the humility to write about that after coming from “a world where everyone believes the kids are the ones who have no clue.” What she found was, they have tons of clues, including about privacy, and what they choose to make public can be very important to know.

“What they’re telling us is what their lives are like when they’re not sitting in class, obediently scribbling notes or quietly falling asleep in the back. They’re telling us what their struggles are and, perhaps indirectly, what they could use help with in order to make it in one piece to adulthood.”

Thanks to social media, we now find ourselves in a world where, more and more, we are all first responders in many ways, and we can all have each other’s backs.

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