“After School” App Manipulates Users

Categories: Social Networking
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: December 8, 2015

Anonymous messaging services like Yik Yak have their place, and can be vibrant communities if the local users have the strength to police it and set their own standards. However, the new After School app/service takes things a bit too far by creating content itself and instigating conflict between users.

A high school teacher brought After School to the administrators’ attention last week, and the same day another coworker received an email from a neighboring school district warning parents about After School. I signed on to the app to see how it was being used (or abused) in our district.

After School presented me with a list of area high schools to join, including our own. It then asked for Facebook login information. They claim this is to verify age, location, and education to prove a user goes to the selected school.

Here’s the thing: my age is not public on my account, the city I list on Facebook is twenty miles away, and I have no education—or even job listing—associating me with the school I work for. I expected After School to reject me, but it let me on anyway.

I was greeted with several inane posts accompanied by gifs. Some were borderline inappropriate, some a bit more blunt, and much of it not unexpected from a teenaged crowd. I did some more digging for reviews and found other users accusing the service of generating content, presumably to get kids chatting.

What makes it so much worse, however, is it frequently lists students by name. Sometimes it’s just a first name, sometimes it’s a first name and last initial. I got to wondering, what if they’re actually using Facebook logins to pull names for their false posts? When a tech from another Illinois district said that’s exactly what happened to him, I started watching for my own name to appear.

It didn’t take long. Here are the smoking guns:

2015-12-05 13.24.38
From 12/5/15

Understand, the only Mikes in the district are myself, our principal, and a junior high student. You might assume this could be about the junior high student, but a previous post referred to “Mike O” and disappeared when I went back to screengrab it.

From 12/7/15
From 12/7/15

Even more suspicious. “You mean a lot to me” is pretty typical of the generic pining that appears within the app.

I saved the best for last:

Also 12/7/15
Also 12/7/15

I’ve seen this same post appear with several different names, as well as posts calling other students/users things like “low-key sexy,” or commenting on the impressiveness of their anatomy.

It’s not hard to see how posts like this can quickly stir up trouble among students. We’ve already had confrontations between students as a result of posts, whether due to anger, jealousy, or discomfort.

This crosses a line. Students are still learning their way around social media and relationships, and they can cause enough damage on their own when using anonymous services. A company manipulating student behavior with randomized posts and causing fights is irresponsible at best and criminal at worst.

I’ve been asked, of course, if we can block After School. We may be able to at the schol network level, but it’s going to do no good when students use their cellular service or home Wi-Fi to check the app. Our best bet is to show students what After School is doing, warn them they are being manipulated, and advise them to avoid the app altogether.

Chances are some of them have already figured it out, but the only sure way to avoid further confrontations and fights is to educate our students.

Social Media Redemption

Categories: News, Social Networking
Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: March 9, 2015

For another example of taking back social media or using it for good, check out this story about Dancing Man Found. You may also have seen it making the rounds on Internet news sites, and it has apparently been picked up by mainstream media as well.

The nutshell:

Some jerks spotted an overweight man dancing at a party, laughed at him, and he stopped dancing. Said jerks took pictures and posted them to the Internet to share the laughs.

Someone on Twitter saw it, and decided it was not okay for someone to feel like they shouldn’t be allowed to dance. Now there’s going to be a huge dance party for this guy, with proceeds going to charity.

The jerks may be the most visible or most obvious, but there’s still a lot of good people out there in the world, and they use social media, too.

Great story.

Mentoring vs Monitoring for Digital Natives

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Published on: January 13, 2015

Dr Devorah Heitner’s TEDxNaperville talk, Raising Digital Natives, is a must-see for teachers grappling with technology in their districts.

Schools in general spend way too much time enforcing technology behavior rather than teaching it. They ban devices. They install cumbersome locks on apps and traffic. They install technology to snoop on students. It goes on and on, and it does nothing to solve the core problem: we have to teach humanity with technology.

As Dr Heitner puts it, we need to spend more time mentoring students in social interaction via social media and technology. We need to model the behavior of managing text messages, and teach students how to manage the pressure of being always available.

Too few teachers understand their students’ relationships with technology. If a teacher thinks cell phones are distracting and useless, they often feel the student should feel the same way. If a tech coordinator thinks Snapchat and Facebook are wastes of time, chances are he’ll just lock them down with content filters. If administrators think students are only using text messages and camera phones for nefarious purposes, then all they’re going to see are students engaging in negative behavior. I even know of schools inquiring about technologies to prevent cellular signals from getting into or out of buildings!

It’s a losing proposition. At best it’s an arms race as we try to outpace student usage, and at worst it fosters an environment of distrust because students know we’re watching—and passing judgement on—their every move. Again, it does nothing to solve the behaviors at the core of the problem.

In addition, Dr Heitner points out a potentially larger problem: limiting access and monitoring usage prevents students from developing and learning to manage their own identities.

We’re in the business of growing students, not manufacturing robots. Yes, some of our students will make mistakes, but that’s okay. Our job is not to prevent mistakes, our job is to teach students how to manage and survive those mistakes.

Please do spare some time for the video. It’s worth it.

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.

Teachers and Facebook

Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: September 27, 2011

Missouri’s attempt to legally ban students and teachers from chatting on Facebook mystifies me. I understand what they’re trying to accomplish, but a law to enforce it? That’s seems like a knee-jerk, paranoid reaction.

I recently learned a local high school discourages Facebook contact between staff and students. A coach mentions she feels it’s inappropriate to friend students, which is fine if that’s her personal preference. But then the athletic director has this to say:

Pekin does not have a policy which prohibits the use of Facebook. However, athletics director Rick Kestner said, “I do think that Facebook contact is risky by coaches and I prefer other more traditional ways for our coaches to contact student-athletes with information. I see Facebook and other similar media as a potential trap that can ensnare a coach before they know it. Phone calls or texting are acceptable alternatives.”

So… inappropriate contact can happen on Facebook, but not by phone or text? Maybe he didn’t follow the news when Brett Favre got busted last year for sending explicit voicemails and messages to a woman’s phone.

A benefit of this contact occurring on Facebook is it’s easy to track. If the alleged contact doesn’t take place on a public Facebook Wall, it’s a simple matter of the student or teacher hitting a print button or taking screen shots.

But this assumes there’s no other viable use for Facebook. If there’s an emergency cancellation or announcement, would it not make sense to post it to a heavily trafficked website? If most students have Facebook accounts (and most of ours sure do), why not put it where you’re sure they’ll see it?

Furthermore, there’s a simple solution to all of this: Facebook Pages.

I decided to create a Facebook Page for the EdTech Samurai today. When someone chooses to create a page, they are asked which category the page fits. Lo and behold, public figures has a built-in teachers category:

Facebook Page setup
Public Figure sounds about right for teachers.

Now a teacher can create a page separate from all of their personal information. They can post classroom or athletic announcements and interact with students, and those students will not have to be privy to all of the teacher’s private data on their personal Wall.

This protects the teacher as well as the student:

  1. All teacher-student Facebook interaction now occurs in public view.
  2. Students (and anyone else) simply Like the page instead of becoming a Friend. Now the teacher can’t be accused of playing favorites by friending one student and ignoring others.
  3. Students don’t have access to the teacher’s personal information, as well as who their family and friends are. (We worry about teachers being predatory toward students, but what about student crushes on teachers?)
  4. It maintains a professional appearance.

Not to mention it’s a lot more convenient: I know my family & friends on Facebook would be bored to tears if I started discussing edtech topics on my Facebook page all day.

Our students are hooked on Facebook. This is how they choose to communicate. I see no reason we shouldn’t find a safe way to be right there with them.

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