Education, Social Networks, and Privacy

In this post I want to consider privacy from a bit of a ‘weird’ point of view: What information do you want students to reveal to each other and yourself, and what do you want to reveal to them? What ethical responsibilities do educators have to their students concerning their disclosure of information to one another?

In many classrooms, instructors and their students develop bonds by becoming vulnerable to one another by sharing personal stories with one another. ‘Vulnerability’ should be understood as developing a rapport of trust that could be strategically or maliciously exploited, though there is not an implicit suggestion that vulnerability will necessarily lead to exploitation. Some of the best teachers and professors that I have ‘revealed’ themselves as human beings – once I saw that they were like me I felt more comfortable participating in the classroom environment. With this comfort and increased participation, I developed more mature understandings of subject material and my personal stances regarding it. The rapports of trust that I developed with faculty led to the best learning environments I have ever experienced.

Hold it….You Like Punk AND Identify as an Orthodox Gay Catholic?!? WTF?!?

Web 2.0 tools let educators and students share large amounts of personal information with the class at large without halting face to face instructional time Set up a group for the class on Facebook, and as students join they are practically invited to look at the information their fellow classmates and the instructor(s) are displaying. Depending on how much information participants reveal on these sites, class members can learn about relationship statuses, dates of birth, religious and philosophical beliefs, favourite movies and books, and see the semi-public conversations their classmates are having. In essence, it is possible for classmates to gather relatively comprehensive digital profiles of their fellows, profiles that could subsequently shape the digital and face to face discussions that emerge over the course of the term. Once an ardent supporter of the NDP learns that they are arguing about the merits of neo-conservative political theory with someone who identifies with far right members of the Reform Party (which has subsequently been merged with the Federal Conservative Party) there is an increased likelihood for the discursive participants to either (a) end the discourse on the basis that ‘there is no hope for this conversation – we just have to agree to disagree, rather than develop a common consensus based on discourse where the better argument guides participants to a consensus’ or (b) they viciously assault each others’ argumentative positions based on partisan political philosophies and are absolutely unwilling to concede that their fellow student has a superior argumentative structure that respects and successfully responses t the differences between in the participants’ initial argumentative positions.

We’re All Friends! Right Guys?

While Facebook and MySpace both project students’ and educators’ personal information almost by default, users can change their privacy settings to prevent the disclosure of their private information. Despite the ability to minimize and shape personal info-transmissions, I would suggest that social networks’ default assumptions that you are adding ‘friends’ who should see your full profile reveals limitations in these networks’ code (which is effectively, in digital environments, like illegitimately posited law). To incorporate classroom functions into an already existing social network educators ought to inform students about how they can alter their privacy settings to minimize the information available to their classmates, but this response to default privacy settings strikes me almost as a stop-gap measure – it tries to shape the network to make it usable in the curriculum, rather than adopting technologies that are already suited (or are sufficiently malleable to become suited) for the purpose of educating. Moreover, by establishing classroom groups on social networking sites the educator essentially requires individuals to be members of the network and of the group – if they are not, there is (at the very least) peer pressure to ‘be like everyone else.’ While some might want to argue that present-day students value privacy in fundamentally different ways than mature educators, or that since most students already belong to these networks requiring the remaining minority to sign up is a minor inconvenience, both of these suggestions are incredibly insensitive to students that are not members of the networking service.

I want to address these two stances in the order I presented them; first that students are not as concerned about their privacy as older generations, and second that it is a minor inconvenience to require students to join networking services so that they can be easily informed of an involved in classroom updates/activities/discussions.

Youth’s Flexible Relationship with Privacy

We hear it all the time. Youth (i.e anyone under the age of old, however the source chooses to define ‘old’) aren’t as concerned about privacy as their elders. They give away their personal information to damn near anyone that asks, so long as they receive something (or might receive something) in return. This is seen in their disclosing personal information to Google, Yahoo!, and/or Microsoft when signing up for free email accounts. Students might post personally identifiable information in public or semi-public forums. They willingly provide accurate geo-location information – which let markets target students with smart-bomb-like accuracy – to receive ‘premium’ digital services. The argument goes that teens are advertising savvy and just don’t give a damn about the ads – they’ll trade away their privacy, and laugh (figuratively speaking) to the bank as companies try to use their information to more effectively target them.

Based on the empirical reality of how students treat their personal privacy, why should educators worry about what social networking sites do with their students’ information? If they students’ aren’t concerned, why should the educators?

As Alex MacGillivray notes in his book A Brief History of Globalization, youth are simultaneously the most willing to embrace, and the most likely to irrationally reject, change. While they love mobile phones, I’ve yet to see a teen-fad erupt over Microsoft’s Origami Project. Email is being abandoned in favour of texting and wall posts, but the content of texts and wall posts resembles conversations that students have been having for decades. I would suggest that, while many students (as well as many of their elders) have a somewhat loose relationship with protecting their digital informational privacy, this relationship is significantly born from their ignorance. As it stands, not a lot of people know other people that have been victims of cyber-crimes – as data theft becomes more prevalent, as cyber-stalkings have more and more sinister long-term effects, an as cyber-bullying intensifies, I think that students (and their elders) will become more mindful of how much information they reveal in digital forms and machine readable text.

Educators have a responsibility to engage students about the norms they hold concerning their digital interactions just as they do concerning their face to face interactions. We all hear philosophy professors talk about hitting dogs, yelling at the elderly, and questioning whether a war can be just or not, but all of these refer to physical/analogue environments and actions. Thus, students are still evaluating the ethical norms involved in kicking puppies, but are not critically evaluating or developing their stances towards identity theft, mass data aggregation, or algorithmically-sponsored discrimination. Especially in post-secondary institutions, where academics are expected to be teaching critical evaluatory processes, educators ought to at least broach the topic of digital privacy. After hearing and participating in public debates about privacy students can develop norms responsible for guiding their personal and public lives, and without such normative investigations and evaluations students are denied the opportunity to critically appraise digital privacy norms, making them vulnerable to sophisticated and matured privacy arguments that are crafted so encourage post-students to relinquish their personal information for a pittance or its worth.

Everyone ELSE is….why aren’t you?

Remember when your mom would ask ‘if everyone else were jumping off a cliff, would you jump with them?’ (I usually responded affirmatively to my mom, just because I wanted to annoy her and was unwilling to concede my arguments based on a colloquial saying.) As an educator, what happens when you require students to disclose their information to third-parties in order to receive the full range of opportunities and services? What if a student has intentionally chosen to not participate in these networks? Do you establish ‘special’ systems to meet their privacy concerns, or just tell them to suck it up (or something in between)?

Really, no matter what choice the educator takes they expose the student to unnecessary pressures and expose them up to experiences of shaming. By shaming, I’m not suggesting that other students or the professor would publicly degrade the student for not participating in the network – they might even admit that the student has good reasons for their decision – but that the student may feel as though they are not fulfilling public normative expectations. When their private norms contrast with public norms students may feel as though they are being personally criticized for not participating in the network, even if no explicit critique ever takes place. Of course, some students will thrive in these situations – they will actively vocalize and explicate their position, perhaps working to subvert the dominant social norms. Many students, however, either would not or could not publicly assert their private normative positions because they fear some kind of public admonition. As a result, these students either ignore the social networking class space (and consequently become a second-class student for not having full access to all classroom environments) or let the public norms to override personal/intimate norms – they give up part of themselves to participate in the class.

Students shouldn’t have to jump off the social networking cliff with the rest of their colleagues, and suggesting that it is only a minor inconvenience is particularly insensitive (and I would argue, wrong). Educators mustn’t expect students to defy their mothers’ wisdom and align personal with public norms just because everyone else has – imagine what their own mothers would say if they proposed this for this students!

Therefore – wikis, blogs, podcasts, classroom forums

In light of the challenges associated with social networking sites I think that they should just be avoided in favour of other Web 2.0 applications. Wikis and blogs limit the amount of information students have to reveal to one another, and educators can set classroom cyber-policies to limit what information is collected and/or shared. While these policies may seem counter-intuitive to the Web 2.0 phenomena (assuming Web 2.0 is loosely defined as a philosophical position that advocates recognizing and embracing student particularities so that students can ‘drive’ the learning process) I would suggest that such policies fundamentally accord with introducing 2.0 into education. While we could let education be guided by technology, technology is most effective when surgically applied. As such, educators can and perhaps should use wikis, blogs, et cetera, but should make sure to use them in a targeted ways. A part of effectively targeting technological resources may involve limiting the particularities that students can express – these limits only relate to class-used tools, so students remain free to extend personal discussions to other social spaces.

As administrators as well as teachers, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that educators can institute cyber-policies that limit personal disclosure (though, admittedly, enforcement may be trickier). Am I off base with this position, or right on target?