How can schools deal with blogging students?


In defence of @LissyNumber – and a look at how schools can work with students to develop suitable social media policies.

I was in that final generation of people that experienced secondary school without the internet. I completed the main bulk of my A-levels in 1998. Following a year out in work, I joined university where the internet was ‘the norm’ – and a complete different way of doing things compared to pre-internet world. In that sense, I am part of a unique generation who has seen education from the world of no online to completely online as if it were done by the flick of a switch. There was no ‘awkward transition’ for me.

Lessons from the past

Some of you may be aware that between my first and second years of university I did a three month paid placement with what was the Lord Chancellor’s Department (now the Ministry of Justice). This was in the summer of 2000 – by which point I was a digital native. At the end of each day, I would head to an internet cafe (since closed) on The Strand to send emails and take part in internet chats.

Back in the office, every other floor had an ‘internet enabled’ terminal. For the rest of us, we had access only to the intranet (which, given its time still had a huge amount of really useful information on it). There were fax machines all over the place though. Some of the very old hands would tell me about typing pools and the days of where an entire floor would have a single landline for the phone that everyone would have to use. It almost seems quaint now, but that is how it was. It will only be a matter of time before organisations become far less freaked out by social media that everyone will have access to it.

What did @LissyNumber say?

Lissy is one of Puffles’ youngest followers, part of a quartet of people who started following Puffles when they were in the run up to their GCSEs. She’s been tweeting and blogging for quite some time – perhaps in the same way when I first stumbled across Rosianna – who I first spotted when she was a sixth former but who has since graduated and has at the same time set the standard for video blogging while passing A-levels, graduating and spending a year in the USA at the same time.

What’s your point?

There are a lot of very talented young people out there who are far more familiar with and comfortable with social media (and technology in general) than the adults that teach them. This creates a huge cultural problem for teachers.

That problem being?

My memory of A-levels was us being passive recipients of information from teachers and a very limited number of textbooks. The internet and social media has changed all of that.  During my school days I took for granted the assumption that teachers knew everything and that I didn’t. Ditto with church. There was no one else to make the cases for the alternative…which led to a huge amount of confusion during year 9 RE (religious education classes). The parents of one of my friends at the time were Muslims, and opted to withdraw him from classes. I thought: “Why can’t I do that? I go to church every Sunday and I am being taught about religions that believe in stuff that my church disagrees with. Therefore I should turn around and say “My priest says…therefore you’re talking nonsense…sort it out with my priest.” I never did because in those days I was petrified by anyone who had authority over me – parents, teachers, church, the police, you name it.

That was the mid-1990s for me. Less than 20 years later it’s all changed. Teachers know that students have access to the internet – and that the latter are potentially one tweet/status update/blogpost/text message away from someone with far more authority on any given subject than they are. How do you even begin to respond to that world if you are a teacher at a secondary school? (I’ve not even started on issues around online bullying or libel/false accusations).

“My school may or may not be reading my twitter feed”

…The first line from Lissy’s blogpost “You never know when a future employer might read it…” …which makes me wonder what her school would make if they knew Puffles was retweeting her Twitter updates to an audience of MPs, peers, elected councillors, university professors, people in the uniformed services, journalists, activists…you get my drift.

Through blogging and tweeting, Lissy and friends are able to engage in conversation with adults in a way that was not possible when I was at college. To this day I wonder what impact having social media would have had on things such as my choice of A-levels to my final exam results. Being able to watch online digital videos covering subjects that my teachers of the day were never able to explain to discussing whatever the issues of the day were with people who had similar interests that I could not find at college.

The paragraph beginning For starters, the school has to actively seek this stuff out… is particularly interesting for me. It sounds like the school authorities want to shut something down, but are particularly uneasy about how to deal with it – hence the vagueness of what has been said to the students concerned. As a result, this has caused needless anxiety to those that use social media but who otherwise have nothing to do with it while failing to identify what the supposed offence is, let alone the perpetrator concerned. It’s like a police officer appearing on the news saying “If you are watching this, we know that some of you have done something really bad, but we can’t say what but that we are coming after you”. Which ends up achieving what exactly?

I’m not trying to belittle the concerns that teachers have

…because they are very real. It’s not fun having social media ‘hate pages’ set up in your name, or having people posting potentially libellous comments on internet forums – or even stuff that you’d rather not be in the domain of the students you teach. Think of all of those teachers who are single and are looking for a relationship. Do you join an online dating website? What if your students find your account? In a matter of minutes the content of said profile can be around the school – virtual ammunition for mischief-makers.

If Whitehall departments and multinational corporations are struggling with people’s use of social media, what chance do small schools have?

Exactly. At least large organisations can potentially throw money at the problem and bring in consultants to advise. Schools can’t.

So where can they turn to?

The students themselves.


Why not?

Because…they are children?

…who might well be more familiar with social media than the teachers and the authorities, or have links to people and organisations that do. That and they will be able to provide insights into how young people are using social media in a way that a conference room full of adults might not.

Many schools have school councils of the equivalent. Now is the time to make good use of them. Can schools work with students to educate staff and students alike on all things social media? Can they agree some codes of conduct on social media use – in particular outside of school? Are there schools out there that are already doing something similar – in which case how can best practice be spread?

Keep on tweeting and blogging, Lissy

Yes, there are more than enough people out there that use social media in a destructive and abusive manner. It’s not just teenagers. It’s just that Lissy’s not one of them. I’d rather teenagers were using social media in the manner that Lissy has done, safely, sensibly and safeguarding herself and her identity from potential abuse while being able to engage in debates with a wide cross-section of society.

What about teachers?

I completely understand teachers’ concerns about being on the receiving end of online abuse and gossip from those that they teach. There is a huge responsibility on the institutions that employ them to provide both training and support as is necessary. My concern is that teachers are getting neither in the amounts that they need. This then leads to the risk that teachers, current and former respond in a manner that is unbecoming to the profession. [Updated to add. That comment has been withdrawn]. Engage with the argument/debate by all means, but don’t throw personal brickbats at those who are still in their teens.

What’s happening locally?

Locally to me in Cambridge, I don’t know. But once I’ve got my checks done (I’ve recently become a school governor – and child safety is paramount, especially in the current environment) I’d be very interested in facilitating a workshop for teachers and school administrators on how to deal with the challenges and opportunities of students using social media. We only ever seem to hear about the bad stuff. What about those that use social media to engage with wider society and those who are genuine experts in their academic fields? Think about how this sort of engagement could enrich the learning of both students and teachers alike.

As always, interested in your comments on how to safeguard both students and teachers from the bad sides of social media while ensuring they make the most of the opportunities that social media provides.

Just to add, I’ve just realised “Lissy” might be short for Alicia – which is a complete coincidence re: my previous article on ballroom dancing!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s