A Takeback in Action

Categories: Social Networking
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Published on: December 18, 2014

Earlier this month, I discussed sending teachers to social media to turn it into a positive environment and encourage responsible usage by students. This week, I learned professors at Colgate University did just that.

In the wake of protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a number of racist comments were appearing on the university’s local Yik Yak feeds. Biology professor Geoff Holm helped unify faculty efforts to counter this behavior, and 50 staff members took to Yik Yak with positive messages and encouragement to students.

This is exactly what I was talking about in my original post: they are bringing an element of humanity to their local Yik Yak feed and promoting socially acceptable use.

I’ve also been monitoring our Yik Yak feed, and I’ve forwarded a couple of problematic posts to our administration and guidance counselors for intervention. I’ve flagged a couple of posts as inappropriate, and downvoted a few more. However, I’ve also noticed there’s a little bit of self-policing going on. College students are shouting down the high schoolers abusing the service, and Yik Yak does have a policy for handling users whose posts are frequently flagged as inappropriate or are downvoted all the time.

Even if our local staff doesn’t jump on board, it’s possible the local Yakkers will police their own community and the behavior will solve itself. There are always going to be a few trolls hanging around, but hopefully their impact will be limited—or even eliminated—by the community itself.

Time will tell.

Bringing Humanity to Technology

The problems of anonymous bullying associated with the Yik Yak app have arisen in our area, and it’s resulted in an impassioned call from staff calling for bans of the app, social media, and smart phones in our district. In a neighboring 1:1 district, the administration has reportedly (*see below for an update) seized iPads from students who have installed Yik Yak on their device and banned those students from the device for the remainder of the school year.

As our district’s tech coordinator, I felt compelled to respond to this reaction. Our staff is absolutely right, something must be done about the bullying issues we are experiencing. However, the 1:1 district’s response is reactionary and wrong, and banning social media and smartphones is counterproductive and, possibly, detrimental to solving the problem. I felt I could offer a far better solution for our district.

Cyberbullying is not an issue of technology, but one of humanity. The fact that students think it’s okay to say these things about another person—anonymously or otherwise—shows that there is a huge disconnect in their social education. Whether it’s a result of their home situation, their peer group selection, or their experiences in our classrooms is irrelevant; they simply do not understand the repercussions of their behavior.

Anonymity is both boon and bane to the Internet. In countries where the government removes the voice of the people, anonymity is critical for spreading a message without suffering consequences up to and including torture and death. In countries where rape and the subjugation of women is status quo, or where people are persecuted for their religion or their sexual orientation, these anonymous methods are the only way to report instances of violence and to spread a message of change. This is why there are so many people fighting against measures trying to take down anonymity on the Internet.

Unfortunately this anonymity is easily abused, as we can see with these issues of bullying.

The first problem with banning devices, or banning apps, is there is always another way. Assuming we could block Yik Yak with 100% effectiveness (we can’t), there is always another app. If we eliminate texting and Yik Yak, they’ll use Kik. Or Instagram. Or Hot or Not. Or Tindr. The list goes on. If we remove all apps, they will use message boards. Or blogs. Any one of these things can be set up in a manner of seconds and published to the world. It is an arms race we will always be on the losing end of.

Compounding our neighboring district’s problem is the fact teachers have now had educational tools removed from their students. It stands to reason their teachers have built or are building curriculum focused on students having iPads in their hands every day. I can’t imagine how my staff would feel if we rolled out our Chromebook 1:1 next year, they spent hours of time building new curriculum around them, and then we took the Chromebooks away from half of their students before the end of the first semester.

What’s more, these banning and confiscation measures merely ignore a school’s responsibility in these matters. If we block social media, then it does nothing to address its usage at home. It is effectively saying cyberbullying is not our problem any longer, despite the fact its consequences are still felt in our hallways every day. It does nothing to educate the students in the positive use of social media, nor does it teach them how to handle being bullied via social media.

Social media will be a part of our students’ lives, whether at home today, in college, or in their future workplaces and communities. Just as we teach face-to-face social interaction, we need to teach students how to manage online social interaction. This is not just limited to social media: the comments sections of YouTube, newspapers like our local Journal Star, and even Amazon or Yelp reviews are rife with abuse and inappropriate behavior. The Internet is social media.

Our best tool against bullying and other negative social behaviors is something we do every day: education. In November our district brought in a presenter to discuss cyberbullying, and that’s just the beginning of things we can do for our students. I have discussed some of these issues with my 5th grade classes this year and last, and our band director, Steve Hayes, has done the same with his Digital Citizenship program during RTI time at our junior high.

While these measures begin to solve the technology side of the problem, they still do not address the general issue of humanity. We can take it a step farther.

I wish my staff could all have seen Dr Henry Thiele’s keynote presentation at the ICE conference, “Getting to the Heart of Technology.” He discussed tech in several aspects of education, but specifically discussed using technology to reach those students who do not otherwise feel they have a voice. Most of it can be summed up in the video “Google Forms a teacher/student connection” (embedded below). Please give it a watch, as it addresses the very solution I am getting to.

It comes down to meeting the students on their level. We are a small school district, and thus we feel we are always available to our students and we all have open doors. This is true, but this does not mean all of our students are comfortable approaching us face to face. Why shouldn’t a student be able to approach us through email, or a public, class- or school-focused Facebook page or Twitter profile? Why shouldn’t we use simple electronic methods to give these kids a voice, like Andrea Kornowski did with a simple question at the end of a Google Form? It’s an easy thing we can all do, today.

As for Yik Yak, I propose we turn it into a positive tool. Imagine if faculty and staff posted positive messages to the service, congratulating athletes or highlighting positive school or community activities. It could be anonymous, or we could even sign our names if we so desired. At the very least we should be monitoring the service to head off potential issues, and to reach out to students who have been targeted.

To that end, I have signed up for the Yik Yak service, and I hope you will do the same. I am not calling out my colleagues in this response, but asking that we all make an effort to manage the damage abuse of services like Yik Yak can cause, and we demonstrate that these tools can absolutely be used for good.

Let’s meet the students on a level they understand, and in the process, introduce an element of humanity to our educational technology programs.

Update 12/9/14: The neighboring district in fact did not confiscate iPads as reported by our staff member, but did review student iPads for the presence of the app and notified parents to be aware of it. For what it’s worth, I think that’s a great initial move, and I apologized it got misrepresented.

I’m going to leave the rest of the post as is, however, as this was originally more of a response to an attitude of applauding that district for what they had allegedly done, and not necessarily a direct criticism of our neighbors, and they are not the first I’ve heard of schools taking similar reactionary measures.

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