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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011

A Hack Education Project

Social Media: Adoption and Crackdown

This post first appeared on Hack Education on December 2, 2011. Part 2 in my "Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends of 2011" series.

The Growth of Social

The human population hit the 7 billion mark this year. 800 million of us are now on Facebook. And that old "six degrees of separation" thing? Facebook says that thanks to its network, there are actually just 4.74 degrees that separate us all. We're all closer now, so the story goes, thanks to social media.

That's opened a world of possibilities in education. No longer need a teacher feel isolated in the classroom. Even if there isn't a strong support network at her/his school, there are incredible ones online. No longer need PD be scheduled; it's on-demand and real-time. No longer need it be imposed from "above"; educators have built their own learning communities online.

And it's opened a world of possibilities for students too -- the ability to communicate, collaborate, and study with their peers online.

There have been a number of ed-tech companies move to cater to the social (media) learning trend -- and not just this year, of course, as educators' usage of social media is hardly new. (It was one of the important trends that I identified for 2010 too.) But perhaps one of the best indicators of schools' adoption of social media this year is the hockey-stick-like growth of Edmodo. At the end of 2010, the startup announced it had 1 million users; by the end of October 2011, that number had more than quadrupled.

One of the key selling points of Edmodo is that the startup offers safe social networking to schools. That is, teachers can create private virtual classrooms and monitor their students' interactions there. Parents can have Edmodo accounts too, giving them access to their child's work there, as well as a way to communicate with their child's teacher. Edmodo looks a lot like Facebook; the interface is similar. But it's not Facebook, and that's important as many schools are still reluctant to embrace the site and are likely to filter Facebook from their local networks.

Cracking Down on Social

The state of Missouri went one step further this year, passing Senate Bill 54, a law aimed at preventing child sex abuse that contained language to restrict teacher-student interactions on social networking sites. Dubbed the "Facebook law," SB 54 decreed that "Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Former student is defined as any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated."

While the legislation purported to protect children, it also could have prevented teachers and students from almost all online contact. Many protested that the law went to far and restricted free speech. A Missouri circuit court judge issued an injunction before it went into effect in late August. The state legislature then revisited the topic, and the governor signed a repeal in October.

Although Missouri's "Facebook law" made headlines, the state was hardly the only place to weigh these sorts of restrictions on educational use of social media. (Ohio, Rhode Island for example.)

Students were targeted too for their "inappropriate behavior" online, most recently in the case of 18-year-old Emma Sullivan who tweeted a critique of Kansas governor Sam Brownback, whose staffers in turn contacted Sullivan's school, demanding she apologize. For its part, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case this year of a former high school student in Connecticut who was disciplined for out-of-school, online postings she made. The Court declined to review the ruling by a U.S. Court of Appeals that decreed that the school officials did not violate the student's First Amendment rights by disciplining her for conduct -- vulgar comments made online about school faculty.

While most teachers and students already have their own personal policies about whether or not they want to friend one another and about what they think is okay to post online, more schools are crafting social media policies that lay out guidelines for acceptable use. Because like it or not, students are on Facebook.

Facebook versus COPPA

They're on Facebook, even if they're under age 13. That's against Facebook's Terms of Service, but it's hardly stopping anyone. Earlier this year, Consumer Reports published a story on underage Facebookers, finding that some 7.5 million children under age 13 have joined on the site. In fairness to Facebook, the social networking site does say that it makes a good faith effort to kick those users off the site. About 20,000 under-13-year-olds are expelled from the site every day, Facebook's chief privacy officer testified to the Australian parliament.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ruffled feathers this year when he indicated that was interested in allowing those under 13 to join the site. Or rather, he was interested in challenging the restrictions that COPPA (the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act) places on websites that allow those under-13 to sign up.

COPPA is over a decade old now (passed in 1998, the same year that Mark Zuckerberg himself turned 14), and this year U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D.-Mass) and Joseph Barton (R.-Texas) introduced updated privacy legislation "The Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011."

Clearly the rise of social media -- both at school and at home -- has raised all sorts of new concerns about children's privacy and safety. But as danah boyd, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, and John Palfrey write in an article published this fall about the age restrictions associated with COPPA, there are unintended consequences, including putting parents in the position to lie and to condone lying about their kids' ages:

First, because children lie about their age, these sites still collect data about children under 13 that COPPA would otherwise prohibit without explicit parental consent. Second, rather than providing parents with additional mechanisms to engage with sites honestly and negotiate the proper bounds of data collection about their children, parents are often actively helping their children deceive the sites in order to achieve access to the opportunities they desire. Were parents and their children able to gain access honestly, the site providers might well present them with child-appropriate experiences and information designed to enhance safety, provide for better privacy protections, and encourage parent-child discussions of online safety. With deception being the only means of access, these possibilities for discussion, collaboration and learning are hindered. Finally, such a high incidence of parent-supported ToS circumvention results in a normalization of the practice of violating online rules. This results in a worst-case scenario where none of COPPA's public policy goals for mediating children's interactions with these Web sites are met.

Enter G+ (Under 18 Need Not Apply)

One of the big pieces of social media news this year was Google's launch of its own social network, Google Plus -- an attempt after several failures to "get social" (Google Wave, Google Buzz) to compete with the likes of Facebook for domination of the (social) Web. Although there were lots of things about G+ that seemed to make it well-suited for schools -- granular privacy controls, for example (an argument I made several times), Google Plus has remained unavailable to those under age 18. That's meant that the social network is unavailable as a feature of Google Apps for Education (except at the university level).

For its part, Google says it wants to "get it right" before opening Google Plus to K-12 schools. And "getting it right" still seems to be something that the tech industry, lawmakers, schools, teachers, parents and students still struggled with this year. How can we best take advantage of social media's potential for connected learning? And if learning is social and social media sites foster learning, how do we protect student privacy while maintaining openness and transparency?

Do schools roll their own, private social networks? Do they participate in mass (social) media? What happens when business and advertising pressures run counter to schools' needs? Case in point: this year, one of the social sites that educators flocked to early -- Ning -- was acquired by the "lifestyle media" firm Glam Media.