Random Thoughts on Students and Privacy
Prior warning — A little ways down this page is an actual tweet that uses expletives. It felt stupid to try to blur out the words. If it bothers you don’t read it. I also blurred out information I felt would ID these people or their schools. They are ID’d as being from the general VA area but they aren’t necessarily from the Henrico school system.
I’m briefly talking to our administrators about social media on this coming Tuesday. As a result, I was messing around with some of the ways you can do location-based searches on Twitter. It’s pretty simple, go to the advanced search, add a location and set it to search within 50 miles or so. That allows me to search for “school” or whatever and see results from my area that are likely to be more relevant.1
My goal was to find a few tweets that made my point- that Twitter and other forms of social media can offer a pretty unique insight into the broader conversation occurring around and about your school. I believe that were I a principal, I’d want to be aware of this conversation. If lots of students are saying my school sucks or that it’s awesome, I’d simply like to be aware. That knowledge might impact my actions, it might not. This particular channel might also let me get ahead of things, like fights or parental complaints, before they reached crisis levels.
As I continue to wander and think things through, it gets more complicated. I, without much effort, found images like the one below.2
I don’t know what the legal obligations are for finding something like this. I’m also more than a little fuzzy about the general moral obligations. Were it me, this person seems to need some help.3 That conversation would likely be really difficult. How do you take information like this and act on it in a way that doesn’t make you appear to be big brother? Additionally, if this person is a minor and given your role as a guardian, are you obligated (morally or legally) to inform that person’s parent? There’s about a million questions I have around this and how to use what I believe is important information in a way that doesn’t result in something like what’s going on in the screenshot below.
It seems like schools by default can take this information and use it a very persecutory manner. Our AUP does say the following-
1.Students are prohibited from accessing or attempting to access instant messages, chat rooms, forums, e-mail, message boards, or hosting personal web pages during the instructional day unless authorized by a teacher or administrator for instructional purposes.
2. Students shall not reveal unauthorized personal information about themselves or others.
5. Students should understand when communicating electronically that their screen name, posted photographs and language represents them online and must meet acceptable use standards.
6. Students should use technology for school-related purposes only during the instructional day.
There’s also some stuff about bypassing filters and a few other things. Where this could get complicated is that most of our regulations are written under the auspices that students during school would be using our hardware and our network. Given that the majority of tweets I saw were posted via Blackberry and iPhone, that assumption is not so solid any longer. We do have other regulations that prohibit the use of cell phones at school so no matter what you’ve got a Code of Conduct violation that someone could pursue.
I don’t know about the choice of punishing students for posting general things to Twitter. There’s also the opposite issue of making rules and not enforcing them.4 In certain ways it’s also like war-time spies. You don’t burn a resource for trivial gains. You hold on to your resource and use it strategically for the insight it gives you to larger issues. You get into a whole different world of drama and entanglements if negative comments are being published about other students.
It seems like education keeps ending up in a position where it is attempting to govern student expression outside the school. That expression may occur during school hours or after and the impact of this conversation on the learning environment always comes up. I don’t know the answer but I do know that an environment of animosity and a feeling of persecution is not a benefit to anyone. There seems to be an expectation from students that these are their comments in a non-school space and, as such, are seen as at least semi-private. I lost at least one tweet demonstrating that pretty clearly but, as you can seen above, the use of these conversations by school administrators creates some real anger from students in a way that might seem surprising given the public nature of the accounts. In an unhelpful way, I can see both sides of that.
So all this to say that this is a messy, messy place. We have unprecedented access to our students’ personal lives should we choose to pursue that access.5 I’m not sure we know what to do with that access and in many ways life is easier not knowing. Ignorance is a kind of bliss. Knowing is often very complicated. There are a lot of gray areas that are going to become painful places for a lot of people- students, teachers, and administrators for the foreseeable future.
1 I’m not sure exactly how this is determined. I believe it to be from a combination of GPS information from phones and from the location indicated in Twitter profiles- in other words, not the kind of thing I’d bet my life on but good enough for light work.
3 At a minimum this person might consider options other than documenting illegal drug use online in quite so public a manner.
4 Rewriting the AUP and making some arguments on the overall Student Code of Conduct is on my list of painful things to do that will likely cause people to dislike me.
5 Twitter in this example but it certainly goes across any number of other services.