Monthly Archives: May 2009

when teachers and students connect outside school

In my last entry, I made a comment about the value of “cool” teachers interacting with students on social network sites. I received some push-back from non-educators. Most of the concerns revolved around teachers’ ethics and their responsibilities with respect to legal structures like the Federal Rights and Privacy Act. There were also concerns that teachers who would interact with students in these environments would be putting themselves at risk.

There is undoubtedly a lot of fear about teacher-student interactions, both in the US and elsewhere. All too often, there is an assumption that when teachers interact with students out of the classroom, they have bad intentions. This breaks my heart because, for all of the fear, most of the teachers that I’ve met in my line of work have really meant well by their students and their engagement with their students has helped their students tremendously. I’ve heard so many stories of teachers intervening and helping kids who really need it. Stupid things like giving them lunch money or being there to listen to their woes or helping a first generation kid learn about college.

The fear about teacher-student interactions also worries me at a broader societal level. A caring teacher (a genuinely well-intended, thoughtful, concerned adult) can often turn a lost teen into a teen with a mission. Many of us are lucky to have parents who helped us at every turn, but this is by no means universal. There are countless youth out there whose parents are absent, distrustful, or otherwise sources of frustration rather than support and encouragement. Teens need to have adults on their side. When I interview teens who have tough family lives (and I’m not talking about abuse here) but are doing OK themselves, I often find that it’s a teacher or pastor that they turn to for advice. All too often, the truly troubled kids that I meet have no adults that they can turn to for support.

Do teachers have to comply with federal privacy laws? Absolutely. Do they need to maintain a high level of ethics when engaging with students at all times? Most definitely. But I worry when folks translate this to suggest that teachers should never interact with a teen outside of the prescribed setting of a classroom. As a society, we desperately need non-custodial adults who teens can turn to for advice. Adults who can help guide youth without playing their parents.

Most of what teachers hear from students outside of the classroom might be answerable by students’ parents if only youth felt comfortable asking them. Teachers get asked about learning in general (e.g., “Why should I care about Shakespeare anyhow?”). They get asked health and sex-ed questions (e.g., “When will I get my period?”). They get asked for relationship advice (e.g., “How do I ask Alex to go to prom with me?”). They get asked about the future (e.g., “How do I get into college?”). Teachers get asked about the serious and the mundane, the personal and the abstract. But most of it has nothing to do with harm or abuse. Youth turn to teachers because they trust them, because they need advice from an adult and because they think that a trusted teacher might be honest with them. While some teens have other adults they can turn to, this isn’t the case for all teens. And for those teens in particular, it’s absolutely crucial that teachers are able to be there.

Students used to approach teachers before/after school, during lunch, or between classes. I’ve found that in many schools, this is no longer viable. These days, strict rules about being on campus before/after school and limitations to student mobility during school often make such face-to-face encounters untenable during the school day. As teachers started encouraging students to email homework assignments, students started approaching teachers online. Not surprisingly, social network sites (and IM) have come in as a new wave of this.

Teachers do not have to be a student’s friend to be helpful, but being a Friend (on social network sites) is not automatically problematic or equivalent to trying to be a kids’ friend. When it comes to social network sites, teachers should not invade a student’s space. But if a student invites a teacher to be present, they should enter in as a teacher, as a mentor, as a guide. This isn’t a place to chat up students, but if a student asks a question of a teacher, it’s a great place to answer the student. The key to student-teacher interactions in networked publics is for the teacher to understand the Web2.0 environment and to enter into student space as the mentor (and only when invited to do so). (Translation: teachers should NEVER ask a student to be their Friend on Facebook/MySpace but should accept Friend requests and proceed to interact in the same way as would be appropriate if the student approached the teacher after school.) Of course, if a teacher wants to keep their social network site profile separate from their students, they should feel free to deny student requests. But if they feel as though they can help students in that space, they should be welcome to do so.

We used to live in a world where space dictated context. This is no longer the case. Digital technologies collapse social contexts all the time. The key to figuring out boundaries in a digital era is not to try to revert to space. The key is to focus on people, roles, relationships, and expectations. A teacher’s role in relation to a student should not end at the classroom door. When a teacher runs into a student at a local cafe, they are still that student’s teacher. When a teacher runs into a student online, they are still that student’s teacher. Because of the meaning of a teacher-student relationship, that should never be relaxed; the role of teacher should always be salient (except when the teacher also happens to be the parent which is when things get very murky very fast).

If a teacher is capable of interacting with students as a teacher in environments other than the classroom, they should be empowered to do so (and given the tools to do so well). On the ground, many teachers are motivated to help students beyond the classroom and many students need that help. To prevent them from doing so, to say that they shouldn’t respond when a student asks for their help simply because of the technology, is to do damage to students and society more broadly. Teachers certainly don’t enter the profession for the money; they typically enter it for the service and the potential to help. I am worried about mandates that prevent teachers from doing what they can to help youth.

So here’s a question to the teachers out there: What do you think is the best advice for other teachers when it comes to interacting with students on social network sites? When should teachers interact with students outside of the classroom? What are appropriate protocols for doing so? How can teachers best protect themselves legally when interacting with students? How would you feel if you were told never to interact with a student outside of the classroom?

is Facebook for old people?

In Atlanta, I met a shy quiet 14-year-old girl that I’ll call Kaitlyn. She wasn’t particularly interested in talking to me, but she answered my questions diligently. She said that she was on both MySpace and Facebook, but quickly started talking about MySpace as the place where she gathered with her friends. At some point, I asked her if her friends also gathered on Facebook and her face took on a combination of puzzlement and horror before she exclaimed, “Facebook is for old people!” Of course, Kaitlyn still uses Facebook to communicate with her mother, aunt, cousins in Kentucky, and other family members.

Cross-town, I met up with Connor, a well-spoken 17-year-old who is more than comfortable in sharing his opinions with me. His manner of speaking and attitude means that he would’ve fit into Eckert’s “jock” category even though he plays no sport. In fact, Connor is more interested in gadgetry (Macs to be precise), but that no longer has the same geek ring as it once did. Connor tells me about how Facebook is the new thing that everyone is using and that, while he prefers MySpace, he now primarily logs into Facebook. His girlfriend deleted her MySpace profile and most of his friends now spend their time on Facebook. In fact, he can’t think of anyone at school who still actively uses MySpace. Connor is also aware of the presence of adults on Facebook. He messages with his mother and his youth pastor on Facebook and he waxes elegantly about how he thinks that Facebook is just as popular among adults as it is among teens. He believes that the reason that people switched to Facebook was because it was more “mature.”

These two narratives reflect different views about the salience of age in social network site participation. At one level, we can simply read Kaitlyn as rebellious, anti-authoritarian. Yet, that doesn’t quite work. Kaitlyn is not rebelling against her parents or teachers; she simply doesn’t see why interacting with them alongside her friends would make any sense whatsoever. She sees her world as starkly age segregated and she sees this as completely normal. Connor, on the other hand, sees the integration of adults and peers as a natural part of growing up. The difference in their ages is part of the story – Connor is two grades ahead of Kaitlyn.

Yet, there’s another important factor here. These teens come from very different demographics. Both teenagers are white and live in the deep south, but they are from different socioeconomic backgrounds and their public schools have quite different characters. Kaitlyn’s family income is near the median of Atlanta while Connor comes from a family that is better-off. Both have had many different opportunities afforded to them by loving and deeply involved parents. The biggest differences in their lives stem from their friend groups and the schools that they attend.

Connor was lamenting the presence of filters in his school (coupled with the sign in the computer lab that warned of punishment if anyone was caught on MySpace). I asked him why his school was strict and he responded by telling me that it was because they were the best school and they had standards. I asked him what made it the best school and he first started by saying that it was because they were strict and kept people in line, but then reverted course. He told me that in Atlanta, most schools are 60% or more black but his school was only 30% black. And then he noted that this was changing, almost with a sense of sadness. Kaitlyn, on the other hand, was proud of the fact that her school was very racially diverse. She did complain that it was big, so big in fact that they had created separate “schools” (think: Harry Potter) and that she was in the school that was primarily for honors kids but that this meant that she didn’t see all of her friends all the time. But she valued the different types of people who attended. These differences are reflected in their friend groups – Connor’s friends are almost entirely white and well-off while at least half of Kaitlyn’s friends are black and most of her friends are neither well-off nor poor.

Both Kaitlyn and Connor follow the crowd when it comes to social media and their instincts reflect more than just their own beliefs; they reflect what is normative among their cohort.

So going back to the question of age and maturity – why do these dynamics of race and socioeconomic factors matter? One argument made about the differences between teens from wealthy and poor environments is that wealthy teens are much more likely to integrate with adults than teens from poorer backgrounds. (There are obviously exceptions on all sides.) Now, Connor is not exceedingly wealthy and Kaitlyn is not poor, but I can’t help but wonder how much of what they’re reflecting is part of that more general trend.

Will Kaitlyn begin to embrace adults alongside her peers in a few years? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Might their differences be simply a personality thing? Perhaps, but I saw these dynamics occur across many other pairings of teens with similar differences and similarities.

Regardless of whether or not this factor explains the differences between these teens, I can’t help but wonder the significance of teens’ willingness to interact with known adults on social network sites. There’s nothing worse than demanding that teens accept adults in their peer space, but there’s a lot to be said for teens who embrace adults there, especially non-custodial adults like youth pastors and “cool” teachers. I strongly believe that the healthiest environment we can create online is one where teens and trusted adults interact seamlessly. To the degree that this is not modeled elsewhere in society, I worry.

answers to questions from Twitter on teen practices

Before I headed to Atlanta to do fieldwork, I asked folks who follow me on Twitter (@zephoria) what questions I should ask teens. Many of the questions that I received were more general questions about teens, rather than questions for teens. Still, I’m going to take a stab at very briefly answering some of the questions that I received based on what I know and what I learned. I am not answering the larger questions that would require pages and pages and my apologies if my short answers are not sufficient but I wanted to at least respond. Thank you all who contributed questions and my apologies if I didn’t answer yours.

To all who asked questions about Twitter: average teens don’t use Twitter. They may in the future, but they do not now. Those who do are early adopters and not representative of any mainstream teen practice. Because of Oprah and celebs, some teens are starting to hear about it, but they don’t understand it and they aren’t using it.

@connyb: Parents’ concerned with what kids do online, right? I’d ask teens if they know what exactly their parents do at their dayjobs.

Teens do not tend to know exactly what their parents do, nor do they particularly care. (It’s important to note that parental concern stems from a position of power, not interest in the actual activities.)

@mauraweb: when they’re searching for info, how do they know what info to trust? esp. w/internet searches

Media literacy amongst teens is extremely varied, but the short answer is that most don’t know what to trust. They know that they are not supposed to trust Wikipedia because it’s editable (and they automatically recall Wikipedia when you ask about trustworthy information.. that’s so actively hammered down their throat, it’s painful). One girl told me that she trusts websites that “look” like they are reputable. When I asked her about this, she told me that she could “just tell” when something was a good source. And besides, it came from Google. Le sigh.

@AlterSeekers: According to Facebook Era, Teens see email as a “work” tool and prefer to Facebook message. Is this true among these teens?

I was surprised to find that email is deader than ever among teens. As more of their parents and teachers are getting on Facebook (or MySpace), they see little reason to email with anyone. Thus, email is increasingly needed for having an account on various sites and for getting access to or sending attachments. But even when teens do use email for “work”, they do not use it for social purposes.

@mirroredpool: What borders to teens place of social networking sites and education? How would they react to using an SNS to do class work?

@annejonas: i’m curious if they want schools involved in social networks or if they like it as a social space outside the realm of formal edu.

This is messy. Many teens have ZERO interest in interacting with teachers on social network sites, but there are also quite a few who are interested in interacting with SOME teachers there. Still, this is primarily a social space and their interactions with teachers are primarily to get more general advice and help. In some ways, its biggest asset in the classroom is the way in which its not a classroom tool and not loaded this way. Given that teens don’t Friend all of their classmates, there are major issues in terms of using this for groupwork because of boundary issues.

@shcdean: What future do they see for FB or Twitter.

They don’t use Twitter. When asked, teens always say that they’ll use their preferred social network site (or social media service) FOREVER as a sign of their passion for it now. If they expect that they’ll “grow out of it”, it’s a sign that the service is waning among that group at this very moment. So they’re not a good predictor of their own future usage.

@lazygal: Do they really care about/use school library websites? Twitter? Pageflakes? Libguides? or only if teacher insists?

Nope, they don’t. All but Twitter are categorized as school tools and are only used when absolutely necessary and Google won’t suffice.

@anindita: My favorite question: read anything good lately?

I asked “Recent book that you enjoyed” on my questionnaire. Half said “none” and most said books they read in school (with a *). Books that were mentioned: City of Bones, Ashes & Glass, A Year of Impossible Goodbyes, The Outsiders*, Drama High Series, Mice and Men*, Catcher in the Rye*, The Poisonwood Bible*, Twilight series (twice).

@texas_sooner: I’d be interested to know if teens denied access to SNS (by parents/choice/SES reasons etc ) feel left out/pressure to join, etc.

Parental restrictions are a huge source of frustration because of a sense of isolation. (As a result, they are typically ignored.) SES is not actually a predictor of non-use at this point except in more rural regions where Internet access is generally absent for the majority of teens. In these cases, teens don’t feel left out because they aren’t being socially isolated by it.

@SavvyPriya: what is one thing that teens are passionate about?

This varies across teens, but God comes up a lot. The only thing that really competes is friends. Family is also important to some teens. School and sports are also important to some teens. And then some teens have particular hobbies or activities that they love. But God and friends really dominate the passion list.

@paullowe: where do they get their news from and what kind of news do they want to get

Teens primarily get their news from word-of-mouth, not directly from any particular source. School current events and TV time are the other dominant place I hear about. Otherwise, it’s generally osmosis. They walk through the living room when their parents are watching the news. Or they pass by a news article when they get online. But they are not directly and intentionally consuming much news at all.

@thornet: ask ’em how they judge whether a news outlet is credible.teens r good @ spotting fakes & phonies;wonder what their news criteria r

They don’t watch a lot of news and they have no media literacy training and they’re not even thinking about credibility of news.

@andrewmiller: how does having a smartphone change their interactions w/each other on SNS? more photos/videos? faster rumors? have/have-not gap?

A gap is definitely occurring. A smart phone means more more more more more – more SMS, more web consumption, more status updates, more photos, etc. Certain smart phones are desperately desired items. That said, teens are also doing quite well with the iPod Touch + wifi as an alternative. Smart phones are helping them stay more engaged and connected.

@shawncalhoun: Were teens more engaged in politics by Obamas #socialmedia storm? If so has engagmnt continued evolved in2 something new or faded?

Most teens are pretty oblivious to his social media practices. That’s actually hitting the college/20-somethings more.

@alexleavitt: Ask them if they feel like they’ll want to develop the social Net when they get older: eg., developers developers developers.

No. Most don’t associate using social media with computer science or developing software whatsoever. And the classes on programming in their schools aren’t helping.

@pbernard: do they still care about changing the ringtone on their phone, even though they make less and less calls?

Ringtones are tricky with American youth because it very much depends on who pays for the phone/ringtones. Among teens who can change their ringtones whenever they want, there’s still motivation. The phone still rings (and beeps with new SMSes) and having a cool sound is desired. But of course many teens spend most of their day with their phones on buzz-only.

@harraton: Do they care about their privacy?

VERY much so. But what constitutes privacy for them is often quite different than what constitutes privacy for adults. Privacy is not dead.

@simonchambers: I’d ask how they see themselves helping to solve problems like climate change and extreme poverty…

They don’t. Most teens are not that engaged with larger societal issues (except as activities to get into college). This makes sense – they are not part of public life. They have no voice. They don’t hear the debates. They aren’t exposed to much beyond their narrow worlds. And, for most of them, their parents aren’t involved either.

@dougthomas: Teens; what are their thoughts about downloading songs? films? software? without paying for it.

They want access. Their parents won’t pay for it. They don’t have credit cards. They get what they are looking for by any means necessary. And those who get access to it traffic in that content among their peers who may be less technologically savvy/economically privileged.

@jamesb: how does their mobile contacts differ from social network contacts? When do they crossover?

Mobile consists of their closest friends because of the economics of the phone. Social network sites are their broader peer group. Their closest friends are a subset of their broader peer group.

@alfredtwo: Do teens view all adults in social networking the same or are parents a special case? Young relatives friend me not their parents

Depends on the teen, but many are happy to connect with adults who don’t directly hold power over them or who they “trust” – aunts, older cousins, youth pastors, “cool” teachers, etc.

@mjmantey: how aware are they of general advertising/marketing ways and means?

If it has advertising, they think that it means that it’ll be free for a long time. But they don’t really think much about it.

@mojo_girl: how many email accounts do they have that parents don’t know about- do they use same password 4 all #socialmedia ? #teens

They don’t use email so it’s more a matter of which ones they forgot about. They often forget their passwords so I would guess that they don’t use the same password consistently. Of course, they also share certain passwords with their closest “trusted” friends so that gets messy really fast. And they change it when there’s a breakup.

@matlockmatlock: OMGSEXTINGWTF?

Continuing to be present and very very messy. Sharing of naked photos seems to be more prevalent in certain teen groups than others and I’m still trying to work out what this means.

An interesting question from the comments:

maxoid: is there any data on teen usage of Capitalization and proper grammar vs. SMS-shorthand and all-lowercase? (is format now used as a way to stand out from adults as much as langauge has long been?)

You can definitely look to certain subcultural practices to witness distinctions, such as the culture around AzN pRiDe. But there are huge differences between linguistic practices that are meant to be distinct and culturally resistant (such as those that are actually hard to produce) and those that are meant to make communication easier (fast IMing) or accommodate techno-economic limitations (160 chars). It’s important to remember that a lot of our writing (and speaking) is intentionally redundant to account for issues in hearing and penmanship. With typing, a lot of this falls by the wayside and it’s hard to argue against shorthand except to cling to inertia. Language changes. New genres of media change language. Expect things to change. Expect new generations to be pulled between what they will see as “obvious” shifts and what they’ll be forced to accommodate by those who demand status quo.

“Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data”

In mid-April, journalists heard about a student poster at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting called “A Description of Facebook Use and Academic Performance Among Undergraduate and Graduate Students.” The poster suggested that Facebook use might be related to lower academic achievement in college and graduate school. As the media picked this up (most likely without reading more than the abstract), a new story emerged: Facebook is the cause of poor grades in school. Unhappy with what was panning out, Eszter Hargittai penned a blog post at Crooked Timber to critique the situation: “ZOMG! Facebook use and student grades.”

Move forward a few weeks… Josh Pasek, eian more, and Eszter Hargittai just published an article at First Monday on this issue: “Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data.” In this article, they examine three different datasets that contradict the claims made by the AERA poster and concluded that the AERA findings could not be reproduced.

Indeed, if anything, Facebook use is more common among individuals with higher grades. We also examined how changes in academic performance in the nationally representative sample related to Facebook use and found that Facebook users were no different from non-users.

The samples used in this First Monday article include a large sample of undergraduates at a diverse undergraduate institution, a nationally representative cross sectional sample of American youth, and a longitudinal panel of American youth. There are also scholars elsewhere that have data that contradict the AERA poster’s claims. Quoting from an email from Sam Gosling (a professor of psych at UT-Austin):

I teach a big intro psych class every year and my co-teacher and I always do a bunch of surveys, questionnaires, etc. and ask the class various questions….in 2007 we asked the class how often they check FB…the options were “never’ “less than once a week” “once a day” 2-5 times a day” and “6 or more times a day”….I knew we had that so I ran a quick correlation between that variable and the overall class score….the correlation was .12, which was not statistically significant, but is in the direction of showing the people who check their FB more often got higher grades…note that was computed over only 149 onlyf the students…I probably do have data on a larger number but that was what matched up in my hasty data merge to see what we’d find.

Given the way that these things typically turn out, I doubt that many journalists will be clamoring to scream, “We were wrong! Facebook doesn’t cause bad grades!” This is a sad reality of media sensationalism. Unfortunately for all of us, when scholars (or students) disseminate findings based on poor methodology that reinforce myths that the media wants to propagate, they get picked up even if they are patently untrue and can be disproved through multiple alternative data sets. Even though I doubt this article will make it into mainstream media, I hope that some of you will take the time to make it clear to those around you that the media coverage of this story was patently ridiculous and unfounded. Or at least start by reading the article: “Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data.”

Note: The author of the AERA poster, Aryn Karpinski, also published a commentary in First Monday this month: “A response to reconciling a media sensation with data” where she makes it clear that her study was exploratory and that she wanted to place it at AERA to start a conversation with scholars, not to attract media en masse. She then continues on to critique the critique of her work.