Social Media in the Classroom: The Digital Safety Debate (Part 2 of 3)

This three part series tackles the question: How do teachers and administrators navigate the litigious, educational and social issues that new media brings to the classroom?

This second installment focuses on social media’s place in the school—is it teacher’s pet or troublemaker? (Read Part 1 here) (Read Part 3 here)

Imagine a stranger walking up to you, placing a chainsaw in your hands, a huge log at your feet and saying, "Carve this piece of wood into the Statue of Liberty," only to then briskly walk away and leave you to it without further instruction.

Even if you had experience with chainsaws—cut firewood, pruned trees—odds are you wouldn’t have a clue as to how to artfully create the notches and nicks that transform a stump into a statue.

The same can be said for social media. Perhaps an unlikely analogy to draw, but the connection is there. Chainsaws and social media are both powerful tools, equally dangerous and beneficial in their ability to create massive change.

However, without guidance and practice, the kickback from either tool is liable to cause major damage—a consequence that teachers are becoming all too familiar with as data privacy breaches crop up in the classroom lately.

Who’s teaching the teacher?

Today, educators find themselves struggling to be those mentors who not only lead their students through the complexities of social media but also model digital citizenship themselves. Unfortunately, they’re not getting the preparation they need to make this happen.

As seen in the Cyber Security Alliance’s 2011 State of Cybersafety, Cyberethics and Cybersecurity Curriculum in the U.S. survey, 35 percent of teachers reported they had received zero hours of professional development on related digital topics. An additional 40 percent stated they only received 1-3 hours of education. That translates into three-quarters of teachers polled receiving little to no cyber instruction.

The heartening message is that 62 percent of those same teachers said that technology training is a priority of theirs.

Social media is relevant and should be taught

With Web 3.0 knocking on the door (some say it’s already here), it’s imperative that students get a grasp on 2.0’s social landscape. By virtue of their daily role, teachers are in a prime position to turn their students into digitally savvy leaders.

Jolynn Dellinger, program manager of Data Privacy Day at The Privacy Project, a nonprofit think tank and research organization committed to consumer privacy and data protection, says, "A lot of teachers, especially the techy ones, want to meet their students where they are, but frequently there aren’t adequate data privacy parameters placed on the assignments dealing with social media."

Example: Educators will require their classes to create and participate in online discussion threads via various forums, Twitter or Facebook. While this is an excellent opportunity to learn how these social tools work, teachers often forget to focus on critical components like:

  • The permanent and searchable nature of private data (e.g., profile information, comments, images and video) once it has been uploaded to the Web. Do students fully understand that what they’re writing is now public record? It can be a deal breaker when potential employers and colleges find an applicant’s negative information online.
  • The imperceptible ways that companies collect, store, use and spread personal information that students share through a platform’s sign up process, quiz or game.
  • The unreliability of privacy settings—these settings change regularly and often without users even knowing it. Teachers should outline the privacy settings as laid out by the major social networks and what students can do to stay current with updates.

Dellinger notes that many educators are continually thinking of new ways to creatively use emerging technologies in the classroom—which is an incredible development in education in this digital age. However, she says that "..teachers who incorporate social media sites, blogs, twitter, question and answer sites, gadgets, and other applications into their classes need to educate themselves about the privacy risks and pass that information down to their students. "

Teacher’s pet or troublemaker?

Without a doubt, social media belongs in the classroom. I have seen first hand how quickly a sophomore high school class can organize itself into action when classmates (i.e., Facebook friends) engage with each other online.

I was stunned at how quickly my daughter could coordinate a class-wide activity as part of her student government role and then use social media to go on and develop a wider network of students, outside of that initial group of teens, who showed up for events.

Teachers try their best to stay current with technology best practices, but it’s hard for them to keep up when they don’t even know where to start. In a sense, they’ve been handed the proverbial chainsaw without receiving careful instruction on how to use it—only to inadvertently hand it down to their students and promptly walk away. This doesn’t have to be the case, though: The solution lies in professional and ongoing development. As with any tool, a user must be properly educated to achieve maximum results.

In this connected age we live in, a school’s progress hinges on its ability to master digital citizenship. It’s only when educators and students learn to harness the rich content and contacts that social media offers will they finally be able to reap the benefits and bypass the risks.

Join me for the last installment of this three-part series. I’ll discuss social media’s reputation as a controversial meeting place that’s jeopardizing teachers’ careers and offer tips to mitigate the dangers.

Jolynn Dellinger’s data privacy tips for the education community:

1. Teachers: Educator your students about the importance of privacy and security by including it in your curricula or inviting experts to speak to your class. Keep the dialogue going about the technologies that your students are using to keep your education efforts current and relevant.

2. Administrators: Offer professional development and continuing education opportunities for teachers in the areas of privacy and security.

3. Teachers and Administrators: Be proactive. Make sure your school has policies in place that address important issues concerning student privacy, employee privacy, searches and surveillance, use of computers, mobile devices and social networks (on and off campus), cyberbullying, school email and data security.

Find the right cybersecurity solution for you.