When Social Media Assignments Increase Risks for Vulnerable Students

Editor’s note: The following is a discussion between Data & Society Research Institute researchers Monica Bulger and Mikaela Pitcan and Jade Davis, associate director of Digital Learning Projects at LaGuardia Community College. In light of the travel ban and recent border demands to view social media accounts, the scholars discuss students who might be vulnerable in the new environment and also how this might be a moment for teachers and students to reconsider teaching practice and approaches to digital literacy.

Monica: What prompted this interview is we were talking the other day about unintended consequences of using personalized learning systems and educational technologies and you brought up an interesting point about university students being assigned to use social media in their classrooms and I wonder if you could share your observations with us?

Jade: A good portion of my job is helping faculty figure out ways to integrate digital learning into the classroom and I work within a higher education institution that isn’t K-12, so most of the students are adults. One of the things that excites faculty the most and what they want to learn more about is different ways to use social media in the classroom. An assumption I encounter frequently is that as students are already using social media, social media will be easy to adopt and adapt for learning both for the professor and the student, which is problematic for various reasons.

Monica: Could you tell us some of those reasons, because you’ve noticed that for some students, social media assignments increase their vulnerability by making them be public in a way that they might not have chosen if they didn’t have this assignment possibility.

Jade: So, one of the big things that I always try to caution professors about is the idea that their students aren’t always students. If you’re asking students to use profiles, that they already use elsewhere, as part of learning tied to classroom learning and you aren’t telling them to create a specific profile for that, you might see stuff that you wouldn’t want to know about your student, and your student might be sharing stuff without thinking that you’re looking at it, and that is not necessarily the best way to go about learning. Another issue with using social media is that the initial assumption might be wrong. All students might not be using social media. Students might not have equipment or access to the tools of social media.

When you’re saying this assignment has to be done on social media, you’re assuming that there is an internet connection, there’s a device, there’s time to do it because most of the time these assignments are asynchronous in many ways and interactive.

That is a lot to ask of a student.

Monica: One thing you mentioned when we were talking is that students might be asked to take a position or participate in current events, which is something they might not normally do. In trying to fulfill expectations for the class, they might enact identities that potentially put them at risk?

Jade: They are in the classroom as a space to learn, they’re in the classroom as a student, which is a vulnerable position, because they are walking into a space and saying there are things I don’t know (that I probably should know) and I’m here because there are resources, tools, and people here to help me figure those things out. And there is a person here who for whatever reason is the expert, known as the teacher or professor standing at the front who can guide me. What the student should be doing is engaging things that they wouldn’t necessarily engage on their own, or engage in as deeply.

An example of this would be the past year with the political election, a lot of educators tried to find ways to have students engage with politics on social media in their courses. I worked with primarily humanities and social science professors, some who did versions of extra credit assignments that were something like, go on a social network and publicly engage in the presidential debate using a specific hashtag for the course. It is nearly impossible to do this without inevitably taking positions on things that were being said. Probably, since the students were 18, 19 year olds, most of them would not be live blogging or tweeting, etc. a presidential debate and making commentary on it. And, talking about it publicly has a tendency to pull in some characters that you might not want to talk to, and depending on what your avatar looks like that’s something that happens in the class and it is sort of an unintended consequence that’s built into these systems.

Another big issue is the one that seems sort of paranoid but isn’t as paranoid now, and that is that social media is collecting a bunch of data and social media is visible in a particular way and we have no way of knowing who is looking at the student’s’ information, who is following them, who is watching them, or why. The work that a student might do in a classroom might not be a reflection of who they actually are and that becomes something that can be held against them in the future potentially.

Monica: Are there certain student populations who may be more vulnerable or at risk in these situations?

Jade: I think all students are potentially at risk just because we don’t know who is looking at the data and what they’re looking at it for, but given our current political climate, absolutely. There are students right now who are at a particular type of risk. The recent travel ban has been lifted. We aren’t sure if it’s going to stay but we’ve been assured there will be a new one. One of the things that was happening as people were going through customs is they were going through people’s social media feeds.

So, if you have a student from one of the countries that was affected by the travel ban, and they had done an amazing assignment live tweeting a political debate or engaging in some other heavily controversial topic that was absolutely appropriate to be discussed in the classroom but maybe not publicly in the same way, then that’s something that might be held against them.

And, that is a real thing in this moment. We don’t know what those real things will be in the future though, so it’s something that, as teachers or people helping students do this stuff, we need to keep in mind.

Monica: Are there other students or populations who might not want their information to be public or be in the public eye?

Jade: In New York City, we have many undocumented students. This exists around the country. These students may not want to be as public as other students. There are students who have difficult family situations who may not want their families to know where they are. For that reason, they might not want to be doing work publicly that says who they are, what they’re doing, and where they might be.

There was a professor I was talking to who had a student who had formerly been a member of a gang, and their gang was active on social media, and the student was trying to not be a part of that anymore.

So, having that student work in that space as themselves just wasn’t something that was necessarily safe or healthy for that student to do at that point in life where they were. There are many situations where a student might not be safe on social media.

Mikaela: What recommendations do you have for instructors and students to participate safely?

This moment isn’t a good thing, but it is a moment for us all to learn that all of these things that we’re asking students to do publicly, or we’re asking them to do on private platforms where data might become public for one reason or another has the potential to be held against them.

Jade: That shouldn’t mean that we adjust the types of topics we go over with students, but it does mean that we need to make sure that the students understand some of the risks that might exist in the future should something they say no longer be allowed to be said for whatever reason. Or, if you have a student traveling somewhere where those things cannot be said in public, that might be an issue.

In terms of students, I think it’s really important that they know that they have rights to certain types of privacy. I also think it’s important that the professor explain to the student, not in a parental kind of way, but in a practical kind of way, that when you’re in a classroom, you’re still experimenting with knowledge and figuring out who you are. An idea we don’t speak about enough in learning with students is that they will grow and the person they start out as shouldn’t be the person they end up as, so if a student does not want that evolving version of themselves to be tied to who they are publicly, that makes sense and that is fine. That development process is something professors should support and students should be aware of. I think people expect students to jump into things with enthusiasm and that’s not always the case. We can stage that in a way that’s more comfortable and I think we should do that with digital tools for learning.

Monica: How do you recommend addressing safe use, or how do you address it in your own classes?

Jade: The way that I addressed it in my own classes and the way I recommend for others is: If you’re going to use social media in assignments, always let students know that they can use it pseudonymously, they don’t have to use their real name.

When I work with faculty, I have them read through FERPA. When I teach classes in new media, I tell my students about FERPA and help them read a privacy statement. I tell faculty that as the person who is telling students to use social media and other digital tools, as the person in power in the classroom space, they at least should know what students are agreeing to. Faculty should always read the privacy statements and terms of service of the websites they’re going to be using. I usually couple that with critical academic reading on the use of names and the points where it’s good to use your real name and points where it’s good to use a pseudonym online. Another option that I always say to have in mind is to ask what would this assignment look like if it didn’t have a digital component, just so that it’s fair. The last thing that I do when I teach and I encourage people to do when I’m giving a seminar on integrating digital components into the classroom space that are going to be using social media, is I have the students sign a release that says that ‘I agree to do these projects on social media that are part of this class, I understand that they will be counted as part of my grade. When I’m doing these projects, I will do them under my actual name, or I will do it pseudonymously under this name. I give permission for professor/teacher to share this work publicly or as part of their teaching portfolio.’ Depending on the class, they also have the option of opting out of the digital component, after which we come up with an alternate set of assignments that would allow them to fulfill the learning outcomes without doing that kind of work.

People might opt out from social media projects for political reasons right now. In the past, I’ve had some students who had some literacy issues, and having to publicly engage in writing for something led to anxiety. For those students, I would come up with a different assignment that would reach the learning outcomes but also let them engage in conversation in the classroom space in a way that wasn’t uncomfortable for them. If they became more comfortable over time, they could then move to the public writing if they chose to do so.

Monica: You’ve also talked about the temporality of being a student and I wonder if you could describe the potential precariousness of it in the context of social media assignments?

Jade: If a teacher’s reason for using a social media tool is because, ‘well, they’re already using it,’ it’s not honoring the fact that being a student is a temporary position.

Most students are going to eventually not be students; they’ll be out in the world.

Even during the time that they are enrolled, they are often only a student when they’re in the classroom, or when they’re doing the work for their classes. The rest of the time, they are just whoever it is that they are (parents, employees, friends, etc.). So, as we think of the work we’re creating for them to do, and tying all of this learning and trying to figure out who they are in relation to all of the knowledge and information that’s out there in the world to things they already do, we need to honor the fact that there are whole other aspects to who our students are that are just outside the thing that’s really important to us.

Mikaela: Have you witnessed times when professors are inflexible with the ways students choose to engage with social media?

Jade: I don’t think that that’s new to digital media and learning. I think it’s part of the power structure of the classroom space. Often, when teachers develop their courses, they have a sequence of things that are going to happen that lead to specific outcomes they want for students to get at the end. They have ideas, either their own or imposed, of how they’d like to students to show they’ve reached this outcome, and this often comes with a set of assignments, like essays, tests, quizzes, experiments, etc. These components are often fairly inflexible and not always in the hands of the teacher or professor to change. I think I’m drawn to digital media learning because it is something that we’re still figuring out and that requires a certain flexibility, especially if you want to engage in things like social media, where you absolutely don’t have control over the platform and it could change completely or disappear tomorrow. One of the things that I want faculty I work with to take away is you have to start with being flexible, and you have to start with an understanding that this is a space of infinite potential outside of what you imagined it could be. I know that when I taught, the best assignments were always the ones that weren’t anticipated, when I told students, ok, we’re going to use this tool, here’s what you’re supposed to do, and they would do it in a way that I had no idea was possible. Because they were playing with the tool in different ways, they were able to make that exist, and that’s the potential of digital media in learning for me. It’s these empty spaces that we perceive as infinite that we can shape and fill together with our students. We just need to make sure we are doing it as safely as possible for who they are now and who they will be in both the immediate and distant future.

Banner image credit: Elena Olivo, NYU Photo Bureau