On Wednesday Ontario education was dragged in the shifting debate over students, privacy, free speech and the internet.
Nine students in Brampton, Ontario were told to stay home after The Dufferin-Peel District Catholic School Board found out they’d “used Twitter to make inappropriate comments about teachers” the previous weekend.
This is just the latest incident in a growing trend, as educators try to navigate the minefield that students and social media has become.
- Austin Carroll was expelled from high school for a profanity laden tweet.
- 10 Illinois high school students were suspended over twitter comments.
- 2 students in NC were suspended over ‘joke threats’ they posted on twitter.
There are lots of new issues to consider. Here are three key ones:
1) Digital Citizenship: What responsibility do schools have to educate and prepare students for the “digital future” and how best do we do that?
Many students, used to texting, are missing the shift required when using social media. It’s easy to think that messages on twitter are part of a private conversation, when they aren’t. We need to help students understand that online communication is public and that means a different set of standards and expectations from private.
The consequences of not understanding this are significantly more than a few days suspension. People are increasingly judged personally and professionally by their digital footprint, losing jobs due to “inappropriate use of social media“, prevented from getting jobs because of past ‘digital mistakes’, or losing relationships. We need to help students understand this.
2) Free Speech: Can schools really restrict student’s free expression outside school? Should they?
In the Brampton case the comments and threats were seen as cyberbullying and so fit under the school’s responsibility to prevent such behaviour. But does it stop there? What about when a student makes statements that oppose the school or are controversial? What if students at a Catholic school tweet in support of abortion or anti-religious views? What then? What if a student’s online behaviour reflects badly on the school, but doesn’t involve the school in any way? If a student appropriately expresses support for an unpopular position does the school need to respond?
3) Deeper Causes: What does this all mean in the bigger picture?
Dana Boyd has pointed out that none of this behaviour is new. Students have “trashed” teachers and fantasized about blowing up the school for generations. The difference is that their conversations are now happening in social media, where it is recorded and displayed.
We have a window into students’ thoughts, attitudes and emotions about teachers and schools. What do we do with that? Do we ‘shoot the messenger’ and try to suppress those views? Or do we take advantage of it and ask the harder questions?
Why were these students so angry with/about their teachers? What does that mean? Will we listen when students have things to say that we don’t agree with or want to ask difficult questions? Will we honor their right to express their views while recognizing that they aren’t adults and will make many mistakes?
It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.