Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Applying the abundance model to the classroom

In a recent Wired article called "Tech is Too Cheap to Meter: It's Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity," Chris Anderson considers the difference between a scarcity management model and an abundance model. His point is linked to management of technology resources; he writes that
[i]f you're controlling a scarce resource, like the prime-time broadcast schedule, you have to be discriminating. There are real costs associated with those half-hour chunks of network time, and the penalty for failing to reach tens of millions of viewers with them is calculated in red ink and lost careers. No wonder TV executives fall back on sitcom formulas and celebrities—they're safe bets in an expensive game.

But if you're tapping into an abundant resource, you can afford to take chances, since the cost of failure is so low. Nobody gets fired when your YouTube video is viewed only by your mom.

Anderson's point is that when resources--in this case, willing content producers with cheap production tools--are abundant, we need to rethink how we structure, market, and make money off of content.

The point, though linked to media marketing models, might easily be applied to the domain of education. The following graphic accompanies Anderson's piece:

Clearly, the abundance model as presented here aligns with the spirit of participatory culture, at its heart an egalitarian, anti-hierarchical movement wherein cultural decisions become crowdsourced. Here's where many school policies confuse scarcity and abundance: They block participatory media (including YouTube, many social networking sites, and sometimes Google and Wikipedia) and evaluate students based on their ability to repeat back to the teacher (or testmaker) the big ideas of the class. Knowledge, in this case, is treated as a scarce resource, when in a participatory culture knowledge is almost the most abundant thing we have.

What would it look like to apply an abundance model to the classroom? What new roles can and should teachers and students play in an egalitarian classrom in which "everything is permitted unless it is forbidden"? What's the difference, practically speaking, between a "command and control" classroom and a class without that type of control?

Important questions to chew on. More soon.

Monday, June 22, 2009

position paper abstract: embracing open education, open source, open technologies

This post is intended as an abstract / scaffold for a longer position paper on the role of open education, the Free / Libre / Open source software (FLOSS) movement, open access and open technologies in re-mediating assessment. In this post, I identify some key principles of what, for the sake of brevity, I'll label the "open resource(s) movement" (ORM). In general, while FLOSS, open educational resources, and open access movements focus on different aspects of culture, they are linked theoretically to one key tenet: Making materials available to all benefits everybody.

Abstract: Relevant Big Ideas of the open resource(s) movement

We embrace the ethos of the open education movement. The ethos of open education also helps us to approach all three of the concerns identified in NML’s white paper: The participation gap, the transparency problem, and the ethics issue. The key tenet, that education can be improved by making educational assets visible and accessible and by harnessing the collective wisdom of a community of practice and reflection. The work of integrating participatory practices and accompanying assessment approaches into the formal classroom is an effort to address the three key concerns, and opening up access and assets to all learners and teachers can help in this regard.

We embrace the design approach inherent in the open education movement. As Casserly and Smith point out, open access is the most obvious but not the sole key feature of open educational resources:
Fully open educational resources provide a license that grants permission to users not only to read the material but also to download, modify, and post it for reuse. Users are empowered to change the materials to meet their own needs. They can mix and remix. The capacity and right to reuse materials is an important step in providing users all over the world the opportunity to actively participate…. Reuse also makes possible continuous cycles of improvement of educational materials as users quickly provide critical reactions and evaluations to developers of the quality and effectiveness of the materials. These fast feedback loops of users and developers create an environment for the improvement of content similar to the environment of open source software.

In designing a social network that presents a participatory, spreadable, and open approach to learning, knowing, and teaching, we intend to leverage the affordances of open educational resources to support innovative design and circulation of innovative teaching practices.

We embrace an undergirding principle of the F/OSS Movement that Clay Shirky identifies in Here Comes Everybody: That the F/OSS movement is so powerful because it relies on a “failure for free” model. As I explain "what open source can teach us about failure",
It's not, after all, that most open source projects present a legitimate threat to the corporate status quo; that's not what scares companies like Microsoft. What scares Microsoft is the fact that OSS can afford a thousand GNOME Bulgarias on the way to its Linux. Microsoft certainly can't afford that rate of failure, but the OSS movement can, because, as Shirky explains, “open systems lower the cost of failure, they do not create biases in favor of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who contribute only a single idea.”

Anyone who's worked for a company of reasonable size understands the push to keep the risk of failure low. "More people," Shirky writes, "will remember you saying yes to a failure than saying no to a radical but promising idea." The higher up the organizational chart you go, the harder the push will be for safe choices. Innovation, it seems, is both a product of and oppositional to the social contract.

Working from a “failure for free” approach to designing and spreading “successful” teaching practices offers a useful place to consider the role of high-stakes testing and other accountability measures alongside of the issue of how best to prepare learners for the new valued mindsets and skillsets afforded and supported by participatory media.

We need to consider how the notion of spreadability as described by Jenkins et al. aligns and conflicts with the ideals of the F/OSS ethos. In some significant ways, the notion of “spreadability” as described by Jenkins et al. seems at odds with at least some of the tenets and ideals of the F/OSS and open education movements. (Again, I’ve written some about this in a recent blogpost, "what open source can teach us about spreadability". Specifically, Jenkins et al. describe a tension between a “commodity culture” and a “gift economy.” Briefly, the a gift economy is the phenomenon of building social structures and social capital around the giving and receiving of gifts, whereas commodity culture considers the cash value of all goods and services.

As Jenkins et al. point out, in a culture where commodity culture and the gift economy collide (they give the example of the language of "file sharing" vs. "software piracy"),
[f]ocusing on...spreadability may thus offer us some tentative first steps towards renegotiating the social contract between media producers and consumers in a way which may be seen as legitimate and mutually rewarding to all involved.

In general, despite the relatively obvious conflicting interests of these two value systems, both define themselves in terms of “success”: A successful gift is one the giver values, and it therefore “buys” you cultural capital. A successful commodity is one the buyer wants, and is therefore willing to spend money on. The notion of "spreadability" relies on an assumption that content spreads when it is of value to a community--that is, when a person thinks other people like her will enjoy a certain link, commercial, song, product, and so on. Producers of content are hard at work analyzing that inscrutable kernel of a thing that makes it valuable.

This is a fantastic way of thinking through the issues tied to sticky and spreadable media, but not quite so applicable to the open source ethos where you get "failure for free." Indeed, OSS is premised on the foundational need for failure in order to arrive at success.

Additionally, in the F/OSS movement spreadability matters very little or not at all, because--and this is essential--there is no money to be made, and therefore no conflict between producers and consumers. In fact, as Shirky explains, the most successful OSS product of all time, Linux, succeeded precisely because its key developer, Linus Torvalds, made it clear from the beginning that he did not intend to make money off of the result.

We embrace the notion of a “teaching commons” and the struggles inherent in developing and circulating the knowledge offered therein. As Huber and Hutchings describe this in “What’s Next for Open Knowledge?”, a teaching commons is “’an emergent conceptual space for exchange and community among faculty, students, administrators, and all others committed to learning as an essential activity of life in contemporary democratic society’ (Huber and Hutchings, 2005, p. 1). In this commons, one can find a growing set of resources for and about teaching and learning, produced not only by pedagogical specialists, but by teachers and learners of all kinds.”

A key concern for the future of the teaching commons, as Huber and Hutchings explain, is the issue of “open knowledge in an era of accountability.” The authors are concerned about
how to maintain a space for educational experimentation and exchange in a period that seems headed for increasingly bottom-line forms of accountability, with its concomitant calls for institutions to make evidence of student learning outcomes available to the public….

At one level, the value of evidence is something that any responsible educator would share. Faculty care about their students, and they want to know that the resources they find in the teaching commons will serve those students well. The danger comes when high stakes constrict people’s ability or willingness to explore new pedagogical ideas (Shulman, 2007).

The authors here are focused on accountability in higher education, and we would argue that the problem is even more acute at the secondary education level, where high-stakes testing and NCLB can leave innovative teachers feeling hamstrung by the need to meet accountability demands. Our work on re-mediating assessment practices to align with the new valued literacy practices supported by participatory media is an effort to provide teachers with the support they need to integrate participatory practices into their classroom and meet the real needs of the formal classroom.

Friday, June 19, 2009

open education, open source, open access: some definitions

Pretty soon, you'll be seeing a position paper on the open education movement on this blog. The paper is in the works, but I wanted to toss up a glossary of some key terms that will inform that paper. This is my Friday present to you.

Open Source:
Open source is an approach to the design, development, and distribution of software, offering practical accessibility to a software's source code. Some consider open source as one of various possible design approaches, while others consider it a critical strategic element of their operations. Before open source became widely adopted, developers and producers used a variety of phrases to describe the concept; the term open source gained popularity with the rise of the Internet, which provided access to diverse production models, communication paths, and interactive communities. (

Open Source Software (OSS): computer software for which the source code and certain other rights normally reserved for copyright holders are provided under a software license that meets the Open Source Definition or that is in the public domain. This permits users to use, change, and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified forms. It is very often developed in a public, collaborative manner. Open source software is the most prominent example of open source development and often compared to user-generated content. The term open source software originated as part of a marketing campaign for free software.

Free Software (vs. Open Source Software): The term “free software” was coined by Richard Stallman, who explains that
When we call software “free,” we mean that it respects the users' essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of “free speech,” not “free beer.” (

Briefly, the difference in the terms highlights different ethical approaches to software development. In general, the OSS movement emphasizes the collective engagement with source code in order to develop, and sometimes to market, powerful and efficient software. The free software movement identifies as a social movement. Stallman explains:
Nearly all open source software is free software; the two terms describe almost the same category of software. But they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, because only free software respects the users' freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software “better”—in a practical sense only. It says that non-free software is a suboptimal solution. For the free software movement, however, non-free software is a social problem, and moving to free software is the solution.

Many adherents to these movements, to avoid this issue, simply refer to the Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) Movement.

Community Source Software (CSS): Community Source Software differs from OSS in that institutions devote paid employees to the project, with the intention of collaboratively developing a product that embraces the open source ethos. From the Wikipedia article on Community source,
An important distinctive characteristic of community source as opposed to plain open source is that the community includes some organizations or institutions that are committing their resources to the community, in the form of human resources or other financial elements. In this way, the open source project will have both more solid support, rather than purely volunteer efforts as found in other open source communities, and will possibly be shaped by the strategic requirements of the institution committing the resource.

Examples of CSS include: the Sakai Project, Kuali Foundation, and Open Source Portfolio.

Open Access (OA):
From, “open access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. The goal of adopting OA policies is to remove barriers to information. Many higher education institutions have adopted an open access policy, as for example the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which explains that it adopted an OA policy because “The Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is committed to disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible.”

Open Education Movement and Open Educational Resources (OERs): From Opening Up Education, a key tenet of this movement is that education can be improved by making educational assets visible and accessible and by harnessing the collective wisdom of a community of practice and reflection. The open education movement embraces a shift away from a scarcity-based model of higher education, which bases its value on limiting access. As Batson, Paharia, and Kumar explain (in chapter 6, “A Harvest Too Large? A Framework for Educational Abundance”), open education works within a “knowledge ecology characterized by unfettered access to educational resources, choice, and change in the context and clientele of higher education.” In the open, “abundance-based” learning framework, we see the following shifts, with the “trend indicators” column showing features of higher education that point to the shift.

Recursive Publics: This term was coined by Christopher Kelty, who describes it at length in Two Bits (available for download, online browsing, and modulation for free online):
A recursive public is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.

More to the point, a recursive public is a group of people who exist outside of traditional institutions (governments, churches, schools, corporations) and, when necessary, use this outsider status to hold these entities in check. The engagement of these publics goes far beyond simply protesting decisions or stating their opinions. Kelty, writing about geek culture as a recursive public, explains it thus:
Recursive publics seek to create what might be understood, enigmatically, as a constantly “self-leveling” level playing field. And it is in the attempt to make the playing field self-leveling that they confront and resist forms of power and control that seek to level it to the advantage of one or another large constituency: state, government, corporation, profession. It is important to understand that geeks do not simply want to level the playing field to their advantage—they have no affinity or identity as such. Instead, they wish to devise ways to give the playing field a certain kind of agency, effected through the agency of many different humans, but checked by its technical and legal structure and openness. Geeks do not wish to compete qua capitalists or entrepreneurs unless they can assure themselves that (qua public actors) that they can compete fairly. It is an ethic of justice shot through with an aesthetic of technical elegance and legal cleverness.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

a no-win proposition: how small schools hurt the big-school bottom line

Recently, the crew here at re-mediating assessment has been thinking and talking about the affordances of small schools. Specifically, we've been talking about alternative schools, with their smaller populations, greater flexibility, and targeted instructional techniques.

When I say "alternative," I want you to think alternative as in "an option other than the big public high school" and not as in "an option other than going to juvenile detention." In particular, we've been working with Becky Rupert, a teacher at Aurora Alternative High School, in Bloomington, IN. We've had roaring success working with her and her students, and we've been talking about expanding our work to multiple alternative or small schools in Indiana.

Now, however, comes a report out of New York City that the small schools movement there is causing larger schools to struggle to accommodate the needs of a shifting student population. According to the report, which was developed by New York's Center for New York City Affairs, the small schools movement was a key initiative embraced by Mayor Bloomberg as an effort to serve students at failing high schools. The city has closed over two dozen large high schools in the last seven years, replacing them with smaller schools.

While students at those smaller schools showed strong increases on achievement, many students from the closed schools simply moved to other large public high schools in the area. Whereas the smaller schools were able to provide individualized attention and target learning deficiencies, the larger schools--often already ill equipped to meet the needs of its student body--was unable to accommodate the increased population of struggling learners. As a result, attendance and graduation rates have dropped at the larger schools.

People are going to be tempted to use this study to prove one of the following assertions:
  1. Small schools are meeting student needs more successfully, and we should therefore try to replace as many larger schools as possible with the smaller, more personalized alternative;
  2. Small schools are hurting more students than they are helping, and we should therefore close them down and invest that money in larger public schools.

Neither of these arguments is right. This is not an either/or proposition, and turning it into a black-and-white issue does a disservice to the complicated field of teaching and learning. The truth is that while small schools may raise achievement on accountability measures--standardized test scores, attendance and graduation rates--there are indications that this comes at the expense of some other key learning opportunities. Small schools cannot, for example, offer the variety of courses that larger schools can provide; they often lack extracurricular opportunities such as sports teams, clubs, and academic organizations; and while they may offer comparable technological resources to those offered at larger schools, small schools are less likely to contain the range of adult expertises that allow the technologies to be leveraged for a range of participatory experiences.

At the same time, large schools that come equipped with the above still often lack the ability to meet the needs of the broad population that they serve. Instruction tends to target a "typical learner"--the type of student who can do well on state-mandated test, given proper instruction; who will do moderately well in one or two AP classes; who will graduate with a 3.4 grade point average, one internship, and plans for college. Large schools can't direct instruction toward the specific interests, needs, and values of its student body, and all the extracurricular opportunities and Zulu classes in the world won't make a difference to the overlooked and underserved students of these bigger institutions.

The solution is somewhere in the middle, though don't ask me where the "middle" is. The answer is not to simply close down both large and small schools and replace them with "medium" schools. The answer is not to open up city-sponsored afterschool programs for all learners. The change that must occur is something much deeper.

In truth, as the product of a sprawling public high school that served 5,000 students, I lean more toward the value systems embraced by and possibilities inherent in many small schools. A more careful, more measured, more personalized approach to instruction is strides away from the factory model of education that lingers from the early days of compulsory education in America. As I think we can all agree, the last thing we need is more high school graduates equipped for a career in the factories that, for the most part, no longer even exist.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

the harrison bergeron approach to education: how university rankings stunt the social revolution

I've been thinking some lately about the odd and confusing practice of comparing undergraduate and graduate programs at American colleges and universities and producing a set of rankings that show how the programs stack up against each other.

One of the most widely cited set of rankings comes from U.S. News and World Report, which offers rankings in dozens of categories, for both undergraduate and graduate-level programs. Here, the magazine offers its altruistic rationale behind producing these rankings:
A college education is one of the most important—and one of the most costly—investments that prospective students will ever make. For this reason, the editors of U.S. News believe that students and their families should have as much information as possible about the comparative merits of the educational programs at America's colleges and universities. The data we gather on America's colleges—and the rankings of the schools that arise from these data—serve as an objective guide by which students and their parents can compare the academic quality of schools. When consumers purchase a car or a computer, this sort of information is readily available. We think it's even more important that comparative data help people make informed decisions about an education that at some private universities is now approaching a total cost of more than $200,000 including tuition, room, board, required fees, books, transportation, and other personal expenses.

(To access the entire rankings, developed and produced selflessly by U.S. News and World Report, you need to pay. Click here to purchase the Premium Online Edition, which is the only way to get complete rankings, for $14.95.)

The 2009 rankings, released in April, are in the news lately because of questions related to how the magazine gathers data from colleges. As Carl Bialik points out in a recent post at the Wall Street Journal, concerns over how Clemson University set about increasing its rank point to deeper questions about the influence of rankings numbers on university operations. Clemson President James F. Barker reportedly shot for cracking the top 20 (it was ranked 38th nationally in 2001) by targeting all of the ranking indicators used by U.S. News. Bialik writes:
While the truth about Clemson’s approach to the rankings remains elusive, the episode does call into question the utility of a ranking that schools can seek to manipulate. “Colleges have been ‘rank-steering,’ — driving under the influence of the rankings,” Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy and a critic of rankings, told the Associated Press. “We’ve seen over the years a shifting of resources to influence ranks.”

Setting aside questions of the rankings' influence on university operations and on recruiting (both for prospective students and prospective faculty), and setting aside too the question of how accurate any numbers collected from university officials themselves could possibly be when the stakes are so high, one wonders how these rankings limit schools' ability to embrace what appear to be key tenets emerging out of the social revolution. A key feature of some of the most vibrant, energetic, and active online communities is what Clay Shirky labels the "failure for free" model. As I explained in a previous post on the open source movement, the open source software (OSS) movement embraces this tenet:
It's not, after all, that most open source projects present a legitimate threat to the corporate status quo; that's not what scares companies like Microsoft. What scares Microsoft is the fact that OSS can afford a thousand GNOME Bulgarias on the way to its Linux. Microsoft certainly can't afford that rate of failure, but the OSS movement can, because, as Shirky explains,
open systems lower the cost of failure, they do not create biases in favor of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who contribute only a single idea.

Anyone who's worked for a company of reasonable size understands the push to keep the risk of failure low. "More people," Shirky writes, "will remember you saying yes to a failure than saying no to a radical but promising idea." The higher up the organizational chart you go, the harder the push will be for safe choices. Innovation, it seems, is both a product of and oppositional to the social contract.

The U.S. News rankings, and the methodology behind them, runs completely anathema to the notion of innovation. Indeed, a full 25 percent of the ranking system is based on what U.S. News calls "peer assessment," which comes from "the top academics we consult--presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions" and, ostensibly, at least, allows these consultants
to account for intangibles such as faculty dedication to teaching. Each individual is asked to rate peer schools' academic programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). Those who don't know enough about a school to evaluate it fairly are asked to mark "don't know." Synovate, an opinion-research firm based near Chicago, in spring 2008 collected the data; of the 4,272 people who were sent questionnaires, 46 percent responded.

Who becomes "distinguished" in the ivory-tower world of academia? Those who play by the long-established rules of tradition, polity, and networking, of course. The people who most want to effect change at the institutional level are often the most outraged, the most unwilling to play by the rules established by administrators and rankings systems, and therefore the least likely to make it into the top echelons of academia. Indeed, failure is rarely free in the high-stakes world of academics; it's safer to say no to "a radical but promising idea" than to say yes to any number of boring but safe ideas.

So what do you do if you are, say, a prospective doctoral student who wants to tear wide the gates of academic institutions? What do you do if you want to go as far in your chosen field as your little legs will carry you, leaving a swath of destruction in your wake? What do you do if you want to bring the social revolution to the ivory tower, instead of waiting for the ivory tower to come to the social revolution?

You rely on the U.S. News rankings, of course. It's what I did when I made decisions about which schools to apply to (the University of Wisconsin-Madison [ranked 7th overall in graduate education programs, first in Curriculum & Instruction, first in Educational Psychology] the University of Texas-Austin [tied at 7th overall, 10th in Curriculum & Instruction], the University of Washington [12th overall, 9th in Curriculum & Instruction], the University of Michigan [14th overall, 7th in Curriculum & Instruction, and 3rd in Educational Psychology] the University of Indiana [19th overall, out of the top 10 in individual categories], and Arizona State University [24th overall, out of the top 10 in individual categories]). Interestingly, though, the decision to turn down offers from schools ranked higher than Indiana (go hoosiers) wasn't all that difficult. I knew that I belonged at IU (go hoosiers) almost before I visited, and a recruitment weekend sealed the deal.

But I had an inside track to information about IU (go hoosiers) via my work with Dan Hickey and Michelle Honeyford. I also happen to be a highly resourceful learner with a relatively clear sense of what I want to study, and with whom, and why. Other learners--especially undergraduates--aren't necessarily in such a cushy position. They are likely to rely heavily on rankings in making decisions about where to apply and which offer to accept. This not only serves to reify the arbitrary and esoteric rankings system (highest ranked schools get highest ranked students), but also serves to stunt the social revolution in an institution that needs revolution, and desperately.

In this matter, it's turtles all the way down. High-stakes standardized testing practices and teacher evaluations based on achievement on these tests limits innovation--from teachers as well as from students--at the secondary and, increasingly, the elementary level. But the world that surrounds schools is increasingly ruled by those who know how to innovate, how to say yes to a radical but promising idea, how to work within a "failure for free" model. If schools can't learn how to embrace the increasingly valued and valuable mindsets afforded by participatory practices, it's failing to prepare its student body for the world at large. The rankings system is just another set of hobbles added on to a system of clamps, tethers, and chains already set up to fail the very people it purports to serve.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

on social networking guidelines for teachers

I was recently directed to a recent post on a blog called "Blogg-ed Indetermination" offering a first pass at a set of guidelines for using social networking tools in the K-12 classroom.

The blog's author, Steve Taffee, points out that while young people are taking to social networking "like ducks to water," adults are more conflicted about the appropriate uses for social networks in schools. He offers up a set of nine guidelines, not intended to be the final word but intended to start a conversation "in the best of social networking tradition." With this impulse in mind, I'll repeat the proposed set of guidelines and offer my suggestions for refinement.

Proposed Guidelines for Use of Social Networks by School Faculty and Staff*

New technologies, such as social networking tools, provide exciting new ways to collaborate and communicate. Nevertheless we must exercise care to be sure we use such tools with students in ways that are both age-appropriate and consistent with the mission of the school.

School faculty and staff are expected to behave honorably in both real and virtual (online) spaces. Activities which are improper, unethical, illegal, or which cause undue discomfort for students, employees, parents, or other members of the school community should be judiciously avoided in both physical space and cyberspace.

To that end, we offer the following guidelines for school employees who use online social networking applications which may be frequented by current or former students.

1. COURSE USE OF SOCIAL NETWORKING: In order to provide equal, age-appropriate access for students to course materials, faculty should limit class activities to school-sanctioned online tools. New social networking tools and features are being continually introduced which may or may not be appropriate for course use. The same care must be taken in choosing such tools as other tools and support materials.

2. MODEL APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR: Exercise appropriate discretion when using social networks for personal communications (friends, colleagues, parents, former students, etc.) with the knowledge that adult behavior on social networks may be used as a model by our students.

3. FRIENDING ALUMNI: Accept social network friend requests only with alumni over the age of 18. Do not initiate friend contacts with alumni.

4. UNEQUAL RELATIONSHIPS: Understand that the uneven power dynamics of the school, in which adults have authority over former students, continues to shape those relationships.

5. OTHER FRIENDS: Remind all other members of your network of your position as an educator whose profile may be accessed by current or former students, and to monitor their posts to your network accordingly. Conversely, be judicious in your postings to all friends sites, and act immediately to remove any material that may be inappropriate from your site whether posted by you or someone else.

6. GROUPS IN YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK: Associate with social networking groups consistent with healthy, pro-social activities and the mission and reputation of the school, acting with sensitivity within context of a diverse educational environment in which both students and adults practice tolerance and accept competing views.

7. PRIVACY SETTINGS AND CONTENT: Exercise care with privacy settings and profile content. Content should be placed thoughtfully and periodically reviewed to maintain this standard.

8. MISREPRESENTATION: Faculty who use social networks should do so using their own name, not a pseudonym or nickname.

9. PUBLIC INFORMATION: Recognize that many former students have online connections with current students, and that information shared between school adults and former students is likely to be seen by current students as well.


*Some of the ideas for this list come from a Facebook group I belong to, Faculty Ethics on Facebook. It is geared towards higher education, and so if you stumbled upon this post and really want to read about colleges and universities, head on over to Facebook. I also appreciate colleague Matt Montagne’s feedback via Google Docs on an earlier draft of these ideas.

In general, these guidelines offer a strong starting point for discussing the ethical dimensions of participation in social networking sites, both in the classroom and outside of it. The drive toward modeling honest, responsible networking activities makes good sense, especially in a world where faculty can lose their jobs and their careers for the material they post online. But these guidelines present strategies that have the potential to limit teacher and student access to authentic participation in online social spaces. Specifically, the slant against "misrepresentation" and toward using only approved social networking sites in schools present significant participation concerns. For teachers, the issue is about their right to engage meaningfully in a public sphere that may offer the potential for inappropriate or damaging material. For students, the issue is more drastic: It's a matter of social justice. Students who don't have access to new media technologies and can't experience the authentic online social spaces in the classroom will be ill equipped to experience those spaces when they leave school.

On "Misrepresentation"
The push toward "honesty" goes perhaps a few steps too far, overlooking the fact that engagement with media platforms that are increasingly persistent, searchable, and replicatable call for new approaches to disclosure. I'm pointing here to guideline 8, which Taffee labels "misrepresentation."

Anonymity and its close cousin, pseudonymity, have a long and storied relationship with the politics of identity performance. We've come a long way (we have, haven't we?) from the time when speaking up against a tyrant could lead to personal, financial, or social ruin. (We have, haven't we?)

But until recently, "misrepresentation" was generally viewed as the domain of the whistleblower, and members of everyday culture were expected to act in their own names. In a participatory culture, however, where people can increasingly engage with identity play in a wide range of online spaces, psuedonyms, nicknames, and even complete anonymity serve as a buffer against repercussion. Indeed, it may be the case that a teacher wants to use Facebook or a similar site to engage in NSFW conversations, photo sharing, and precisely the kind of social networking that these sites afford. In that case, the teacher might choose to design a "fake" profile in order to prevent students or students' parents from encountering this material. It's not "misrepresentation" so much as it's a version of protected self-presentation.

As our social lives increasingly occupy online spaces in addition to offline, in-person relationships, we need to offer new strategies for engagement with these sites--strategies that afford full participation in addition to protecting people from the risk of having material intended for one audience dragged into the public light of a different, unintended audience.

On Course Use of Social Networking

The impulse driving guideline #1 is a valid one. It is, as Lynn Sykes, a teacher and friend, pointed out to me, a great big social networking world out there, and the minute we introduce social media into the classroom we also introduce the risk that learners will stumble upon material that is inappropriate for the classroom setting.

But ignoring this risk doesn't make it go away; indeed, it leaves many students ill-equipped to make intelligent decisions about what to do when they encounter this kind of material in real life, as they are certain to do. Learners who have access to social media and adult support for reflecting on their engagement with it in their homes will be prepared, of course. It's the learners with less access and less extracurricular support--in other words, the poor, the disadvantaged, the learners who have historically been left behind in school, in work, in life--who can most benefit from the experience of engaging with social media in the classroom.

This isn't to say that the concerns about inappropriate material aren't valid concerns. This is why we need to work in two distinct directions:
  • Working at the policy level to develop regulations that allow for safe and guided access to the authentic social media experiences that will prepare learners for engagement with the participatory media, practices, and cultures that are becoming increasingly essential to success outside of school;
  • Working in the classroom to establish norms that can govern students' ethical participation in social media, such that they can immediately identify, and know how to respond to, material that's inappropriate for the school context.

Steve, I would recommend including the above guidelines into a revised version of these guidelines. I'm looking forward to continuing this important conversation.