Saturday, December 4, 2010

Privacy and Social Media

I am honored to be asked by Phil Tietjen of Penn State University to answer a question for his class on Social Media. The question is: How do you see the role of privacy in relation to Web 2.0 or social media? Does it deserve more attention among educators?

I believe that privacy, or the lack thereof, is one of the larger issues surrounding education technology. How do we protect our students in an online environment and at the same time take advantage of all of the benefits that Web 2.0 tools have to offer? It is a difficult question to answer. I am torn between my role as a teacher to "protect" my students and my role to promote them and the work that they do everyday. There is such a balance to be struck between those that are afraid to try any Web 2.0 tool because of privacy concerns, and those that post pictures of their students online with full names.

But I think the rubber meets the road when we think about how would you actually implement a Web 2.0 product in your classroom and what concerns would you take into account.  Now that varies by product and by grade level in my mind. There are tools such as Voicethread and PB Works that allow for controlled user creation as well as for student use under the age of 13. Students don't need e-mail addresses to have accounts and their full name is not displayed. They make it easy for me to feel comfortable inside the constraints of COPA and CIPA and are well suited to elementary and middle school students. I encourage the use of "Avatars" by younger students, this way they can display their work on the internet for their fellow classmates and parents to see can still be met, but in a way that strangers cannot identify them.

However, once students reach high school and are over the age of 13, how does our use of social media change or should it? Seth Godin says it best with “Everything you do now ends up in your permanent record.  The best plan is to overload Google with good stuff and to always act as if you’re on candid camera, because you are!” The Wall Street Journal reported back in 2008 that College Admissions officers are using the Internet to research prospective applicants. Why not help our students create a positive Digital Footprint of their work and emphasize how important it is to their future.

In the end it comes down to what it best for your class and your students. Parents and students have the right to be informed about the privacy implications of Web 2.0 tools as well as the great learning opportunities that these tools can provide. 


Chuck M. said...

Ms. Smith, I agree with your views on protecting our students. One of my biggest concerns is the seemingly limitless access to personal information. I am a strong advocate for integrating technology into the classroom. I am also a realist that understands that not everyone that accesses these sites is doing so with good intentions. I completely agree with the use of “Avatars” for younger students. As you said, “this way they can display their work on the internet for their fellow classmates and parents to see” and they can still maintain their anonymity.

It’s a good idea to Google your name periodically to see what may be out there. As you relayed in your quote from Seth Godin, “Everything you do now ends up in your permanent record. The best plan is to overload Google with good stuff and to always act as if you’re on candid camera, because you are!” Schools are not the only ones searching people on the internet to determine their character; potential employers are using the same technique. A moment of indiscretion can now come back to haunt you forever.

Remaining vigilant and limiting the information you post to the web is difficult. If you are sharing pictures and details of achievements, celebrations, vacations or anything with friends and family you have to include details. It’s a very difficult thing for many adults to handle the potential dangers of revealing too much about themselves. How do we get this across to our students when they don’t understand the risks.

Using tools designed for and limited to education help but it is still limiting. I don’t know if there is a good, solid answer to this question. I think it is incumbent on each of us to monitor our web presence and to be vigilant in safeguarding our students.

Ms. D said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this important issue.

I love the idea of helping students overload google with good stuff. While our school has lots of involved parents, many of them don't know much about their kids online lives. It may be a different job than we think we signed up for, but educating students about online privacy is important. If they don't hear it from us, who will they hear it from?


rguihan said...

Bethany - Thank for a very timely blog and a great way to help conclude our class. Tackling privacy issues while utilizing web 2.0 is of course a concern for classroom teachers especially in the under 13 age bracket but I agree this should not be what holds us back as educators from this technology.

One of my goals for this year was to create a space where I could rekindle my first year teacher dream of have students create learning journals. Blogs create a manageable and meaningful way to do this. I stated at the beginning of the course that I did not like to blog. At first I was a fly on the wall but I grew, just a bit, from that stance. I learned to see how valuable a blog is in thoughtful academic interaction and what a significant place it can have in the classroom.

Privacy is a concern but done correctly interactive web technologies are fall too valuable to overlook in learning.

Mindy Sanjana said...

Thanks for addressing the concerns of early elementary school teachers and students. So many web-based apps expect students to access them via e-mail, and are thus of limited usefulness. I have been looking for an avatar maker that my students (K-4) could use, and checked out the 3 you linked to. Unfortunately, the Simpsons seems to be perpetually too busy and won't let me try it out! I also want to comment on your blurb about transparency of technology. You are exactly right. I think that we need to remember this when we incorporate technology into our lessons--they need to suit the purpose and to be transparent. Thanks!

mourfam4 said...


Thank you so much for working with our class this week! As a high school teacher, I'm struggling with how to use technology with my students because it seems that many neat tools are unavailable to us because of privacy concerns.

As a teacher, I feel it's my job to teach my students about things other than the subject I teach. Each day I help them learn about meeting deadlines and being responsible, producing quality work, working with others, etc. Over the past few years, I have seen the importance of helping them learn about what happens to the information they share online. Like you, I want to help them understand how to create a "positive Digital Footprint" since they already contribute to it each day when they get home from school. Instead of being fearful of the dangers online, I want to give my students the skills they need to leave a positive impact with their contributions.

I agree that parents should be informed about privacy implications of the Web 2.0 tools we want to use in the classroom, but I also think that parents need to learn about the tools too. How much do we harm our students by not allowing them to use the technology that their peers around the world already use? Are we creating 'workers' instead of 'thinkers?' Is that what we want for our children?

Kristen Mouritsen

Bethany Smith said...

Hi everyone - thank you for your comments and I'm sorry they didn't post earlier. I wasn't getting my comment notification e-mails!

@Chuck M. & Ms. D One of the things that I found as a tool to keep track of my online identity is to use Google Alerts. I can sign-up for a Google alert with my name, a username, and or a location and every time "I" am mentioned on the web I get a notification from Google Alerts to check it out. I use this as a tool, and think it would be great for students, teachers and parents alike to keep track of your digital identity.

@rguihan I agree with you - I used to hate blogging, actually I really hated writing and thus the concept of blogging was just not an interest of mine. Luckily, I gave it a shot and have found that I really do enjoy blogging (when I have the time for it). It has also given me a confidence in writing that I never had before. There is no going back now!

@Mindy Sanjana My favorite avatar maker for elementary use is actually paper and pen. Have students draw a representation of themselves (digitally or physically and scan it in) and use that as their "avatar". I think some of the best avatars are the ones we create from scratch.

@mourfam4 I believe a lot of teachers feel your pain. How do we balance these great technological tools and privacy concerns? I think you are right on the money about parental involvement in these areas. We need to educate our parents about how they can work with their children about using the Internet in productive ways. We have to remember that this is new for a lot of parents as much as it is for our students, their children. I have heard of many successful "Parent Nights" that were focused on privacy, the Internet and Web 2.0 tools, and it would be great to see those more universally throughout schools.

Sara Nev said...

Hi Bethany! Thanks so much for blogging for us. I've had such a great experience with this course, and it's neat to have guest bloggers!

I think that regarding protection, it is a game of pros and cons, plusses and minuses, sacrifices and benefits. Of course teachers should be cautious when working online with their students, but unfortunately, attempting to completely secure their students 100% is just not feasible. If a teacher wants to incorporate educational technology in some capacity, especially on the internet, he or she will have to make some sacrifices. And it's not as if the students are really being exposed to the whole world.

I love the idea of privately controlled online tools, but unfortunately that can sometimes communication between schools in different counties, states, or even countries.

I think the answer is not black or white. It's about blending the positive and the negative and accepting that yes, if you host an activity on an "insecure" place online you may get one or two angry parents. But they'll get over it. Privacy is changing so fast nowadays that it really does not matter.. as long as teachers are not posting childhood photo albums or social security numbers online, everyone will be OKAY!


dessertcook said...


I agree privacy is an issue with any web2.0 media both in and out of classroom. Even more so younger students have other issues. Unfortunately, web 2.0 can lead to hackers and pedophiles. There is already a problem with pedophiles attacking children via web 2.0 applications. Some parents object to their children having access to facebook for reasons of safety. A program that is limited to the schools network might make some parents more comfortable.
I think the bigger problem would be with the materials easily available. When I was in grade school assignment where given to instructors to grade. On higher level courses sometimes students would review assignments. The posting on the electronic system can allow for other students to access that material. This can lead to a host of problems and create a hostile environment we know that children can be abusive to other children. What would happen if a student who has a disability assignment is posted and has lots of errors? Furthermore, I think it can lead to social concerns. Children can post comments based on their parents. Again when I was in grade school there was kids tell other kids we don’t like you cause of your religion. Would something like this start a tense environment for the school and how far will it go?

This type of learning in my opinion does allow for better monitoring of work performed. In some cases, there are multiple steps to arrive at a solution. IE statistics, chemistry just to name a few subjects that have multiple steps. I can see transparent learning useful in the fact that the student’s work will be visible in all steps. Therefore the instructor can determine if the student has an understanding of the material, is confused about the material or not trying to do the work.

Scott Vogin

Mrs. Newland said...

I completely agree with you Bethany. I think that web 2.0 tools that do not include the students full name or that do not need an email address are great for use in elementary schools and middle schools. The use of made up avatars is also good for students so that their identity is not compromised. In high school we should continue to use web 2.0 tools in different ways. First, it must be stressed that what you say online is out for anyone to read at anytime. That does include your future employer or the Dean of students at the college they want to go to. Students should have an email address by high school that could be provided by the school they are attending. The students name should be abbreviated unless the teacher is using a web 2.0 tool that is private to the class and to the parents, such as a wiki.

Mrs. Vestal said...


As an elementary facilitator I am very, very often confronted with privacy and security issues.
However, I find my biggest obstacle is educating teachers on the truth of the matter. Often teachers, for example, think that blogging means that students are going to be chatting with complete strangers. When the truth was that it was in a protected, self-contained environment. (only the class could view)
I think we must educate kids on cyber safety because social networking and interactive tools are not going away. We are doing a disservice if we just tell them to avoid the technology. They need to learn how to be safe online. It needs to start young. And by starting young, imagine the possibilities that await our young students.

Bethany Smith said...

Thanks for leaving such great comments - but to play devil's advocate for a moment let me throw out some new questions:

1) What do you do if a parent has an excellent reason for not having their child's work posted in a Web 2.0 setting?

2) What about the privacy issues we don't see? A good deal of "free" Web 2.0 companies sell the data you enter such as Facebook SHould we take any of that into account when we use a service?

and Finally

3)What criteria do you use to NOT utilize a Web 2.0 tool? When do they ask for too much information?

Becky Faught said...

Thanks for contributing to our course. I love the insight you offer regarding privacy. I work for a federal agency and I train federal employees, which is a stark contrast to most people in the course who are K-12 educators. So many guidelines prohibit the use of web 2.0 tools by our employees because of the nature of our work.

I find privacy to be the principle concern in evaluating the use of web 2.0 tools. We cannot use our identities with companies that will try and sell our information because our employees would register with the tools using federal contact information. So for me, to address your questions above, I consider NOT using tools that require a unique ID to be created by each user. I understand that this severely limits my capabilities of use of web 2.0, but there are tools available that allow my learners to benefit from all that web 2.0 has to offer.

For example, my final project was a wiki that I created in PBWorks. This is one of the few sites that allows only the primary administrator to register and s/he can create logins for users who do not have an email address that they can use. This makes the information available to all users, regardless of whether they actually register with the site.

To touch on the privacy conerns of primary and secondary educators, I believe that parental involvement in the selection of tools provides accountability to the parents and they can review the privacy policies of the tools they are considering. I am not an advocate of social networking tools in education because of the high exposure they provide to access information. Simply google my name, and my facebook profile is first to appear on the list!

Stephen said...

Ms. Smith,
Thanks for taking the time to blog for and with us. I would have liked to have heard what you had to say about privacy and Web 2.0 tools several months ago because I think that was my #1 concern with having my students use social media tools in the classroom.
It seems today there are so many stories of child luring, and inappropriate things being shown to children. My biggest fear would be to have a student unintentionally be targeted and or come across inappropriate content while under my watch. Perhaps that is why I have just always avoided it.
I like the idea of avatars. I had no idea that was even an option at an elementary age level. I do like the idea too of drawing your own avatar on paper and scanning it in. As an Art Teacher, I would rather use more traditional tools and I think that would be a good link between traditional paper and pen vs. avatar creating sites that may be too complicated for that age group to use. Plus, there is nothing better than a elementary- aged self portrait!
I admit that I am also torn between protecting my students...and myself/career and allowing students to explore new things that are offered. A lot of restrictions do apply depending on the school district and unless I can be 100% sure that the kids are safe, I won't even attempt to teach with any social media...and that's if I am even permitted to use it according to district policy.

Thanks for your insight!

Bethany Smith said...

One of the things that I would also like to bring up when it comes to privacy is Digital Citizenship. We've discussed how important it is for our students to understand the repercussions of what they post online (both good and bad). One of the tenants of Constructivism is co-constructing learning. Digiteen that has grown out of the Flat Classroom Project, does an excellent job of involving students in this process.