When Social Bookmarking (Any Tool) Goes Bad ...

10/31/2008 10:09:00 am

I'm working with a group of teachers in a mentoring capacity. In conversation with another mentor in the project a question came up about social bookmarking. As I read through my take on the issue I thought I'd like to share it here to collect input from a diverse group of people. I wonder if teachers and administrators come out on the same side of these issues:

"So here is the question, the kids could then start tagging stuff as well to be shared with the teachers and other students, which would be really cool. But what if a kid tags something in appropriate? Can the person that first used the unique tag remove that tag? Does that tag creator have some ownership? Or is that just a risk we take??"

Did you ever have a kid tag something inappropriate?

I've been using delicious in my classes to have students aggregate and share content since November 2005. What is described above, while I recognize it COULD happen, has never happened to me in the last 3 years. This sort of action strikes me as particularly pernicious and malicious:

• A teacher sets up an assignment where kids collect useful resources (web pages) and consistently tag them using a tag the entire class agrees on for the purpose. For example, one of my class tags is pc40sw08. Not likely to be stumbled upon by happenstance.

• A student then tags an inappropriate site, say a porn site, using that tag and it gets aggregated with all the other quality content the rest of the class is generating. Kind of like one kid throwing black paint at a mural the rest of the class has made.

Like I said, while something like this is possible it just strikes me as exceptionally unlikely. I imagine the consequences would be similar to what would happen to the student who throws paint at the class mural, amplified somewhat because this is a very public thing to do. There are parallels to cyberbullying with this and I suspect consequences would line up similarly.

In order to remove the offending site the student who used the class tag to tag it (the porn site) would have to delete that tag from that resource in his/her delcious account. There would be no other way to remove the offending site from the aggregated list of sites.

This underscores why discussion of digital ethics is so important regardless of what we teach when we take it online. This is how I do it.

Lots of food for thought in this. To be completely frank, I see this discussion as more of an intellectual exercise than something that might actually happen. Some teachers may feel that my perspective is naive. Fair enough. Then again, I teach in an inner city school and I've been blogging with my classes going on 5 years. Lots of other educators use social bookmarking in a similar way. I'm fairly well connected and informed about this use of social bookmarking in an educational context and while I of course cannot possibly be aware of the experiences of every educator who has done this sort of exercise with their students and what sort of things have gone wrong this is something that has just never come up. If it did it would blaze a fire of commentary across the blogosphere and that hasn't happened.

So all this gets me thinking ... teaching and learning transparently on the web may open a door to abuses that aren't possible in an offline classroom. A PR disaster for the school or school community can happen in ways that are very public and aren't possible in a face-to-face offline learning environment. Maybe we should close the door on all this stuff ... or, are the benefits greater than the possible harm? How likely are those harms? Do we need a 0% harm solution before teaching and learning in this way? On the other hand, isn't it possible that harm happens every day in classrooms all over the world; since it happens behind closed doors and never sees the light of day, well, that's better than if it happened on the web, isn't it?

Photo Credit: Week 6: August 7 - 13 by flickr user Brooklyn Museum
Light of wisdom - I by flickr user carf

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  1. Rather than argue with folks who never use these tools, I'd concede to them that yes it can and perhaps will happen. So what? In fact, assume that it will happen. Certainly you'll want to have a plan in place that may or may not adequately address the issue but don't be surprised.

    The benefits far outweigh the costs. In fact, it's not even close. The that's the main reason you're even having the discussion. I've yet to find someone who uses this type of transparent learning environment scrap it because of a misdemeanor. They don't need to be convinced of the value.

  2. I had to respond to this one and BOY did you get me going!!

    I agree with Dean and thanks for this profound post!

  3. Very profound questions.
    What would bother me is just how long the 'scars' of such a misdemeanor would hang around cyberspace and/or gather their own momentum.

    Kids are impulsive and try to push boundaries all the time. That's normal.

    We've all done profoundly stupid and embarrassing things as kids in the school context, which fortunately were dealt with (hopefully by compassionate and competent teachers) and completely forgotten.
    Would you like some of that stuff to be evident still when you're looking for a job or a college entrance years and year later?

  4. Anonymous2/11/08 02:08

    Darren, I tend to agree with you... the likelihood of a negative episode taking place is quite remote. Dean is quite correct as well, the positives outweigh the negatives. Michele Martin's recent blog post on social media and inappropriate behaviour echoes your own Darren. People seemingly do the right thing. http://tinyurl.com/6lpl8c

  5. @Dean: Your experience matches my own. The excellent blog post that John links to above really underscores all the points I hoped would come out of this discussion.

    @Vicki: Wow, looks like I started a fire. ;-) Glad your shared your thoughts here and there.

    @gwweipo: Quite right. I try to encourage kids to think about this all the time in class. It's one of the topics that comes up at the start of each class in a post I call Digital Ethics that I linked to above.

    @John: Thanks for pointing to Michele's post. It's bang on the point I was was trying to make but she is far more eloquent than I.

    From Michele's post, some of the particularly poignant take aways for me are (many of which she highlighted herself):

    "positive culture begets positive culture"

    "When people behave in "inappropriate" ways, the community members often handle it themselves."

    "If people have negative experiences with using social media in their organizations--if people are behaving unprofessionally or inappropriately--I think that there's something a lot deeper going on that social media is simply bringing to the surface."

    "...unprofessional behavior does not arise in a vacuum. It's a product of organizational culture. Social media will make that culture visible, so when you ask "will people vandalize our wiki?" what you're really asking is something about the quality of your organization's culture. "

    "...if they're going to be negative on a blog, which is a public forum, you can only imagine what they're saying behind your back."

    "...social media brings out the best in people. There is an inherent sense of sharing, transparency and community that these tools can build that I've seen over and over again."

    If anyone reading this hasn't read Michele, well, head over there and check her out.

  6. Darren,
    I recommend to teachers that they create student accounts and have the students log in using those accounts. The teacher then has the control to go in and remove a bookmark. This would keep the social bookmarking classroom based and teach the students the value of sharing resources. If students have their own social bookmarking account, they can always add their student account to their network. I have a demo account set up like this at delicious.com/lee_kolbert
    If you look at my network, you'll see pseudo student accounts.

  7. @Lee Thanks for the tip and link to your delicious account. But, to be honest, I've of two minds about your suggestion:

    Mind 1: This is an excellent suggestion! A very elegant way to exert some control over an activity that may be ruined by one unthoughtful student.

    Mind 2: I was going to say I thought your suggestion a good one for middle school but that it would be different with older kids in grades 10-12 (aged 15 to 17+); those kids are more mature. Now I'm thinking, shouldn't we be teaching this kind of responsibility to all kids? In my head I hear an echo of Dean's comments above.

  8. Darren,
    re: "shouldn't we be teaching this responsibility to all of our students?"

    Yes, absolutely!

    BUT... we are frequently too idealistic.

    The truth is, we do what we think is right and we go down in flames defending our position. Along the way many students benefit.... until one screws up.

    Then, the resource is pulled. The teachers get "spoken to." The reigns are pulled in tight and efforts to teach curriculum in innovative ways get trashed. Now, social bookmarking becomes as evil as anything else labeled "social" in our schools.

    And, although we've gained 2 steps forward, it's unfortunate that we have to take that 1 step back.

    I'll concede that my idea is best suited for elementary and maybe some middle school students, but sometimes I believe we unfortunately have to make the choice on which we are really in the business of teaching; curriculum or responsibility.

    Setting up student accounts where the teacher has some control is the best way to ensure the curriculum gets taught. Responsibility will still be embedded because there's still room for the kids to cause mischief if they want.

  9. Anonymous5/11/08 11:33

    Hi Darren,

    Your measured and reasoned explanation was, to me, perfect in response to someone who is interested, is willing to explore value, but has little or no experience. For late adopters who hear lots about dangers, I think your approach is critical in helping them move forward.

    Michelle’s article is a gem indeed, and thank you for pulling out key concepts that can deepen thinking around this issue.

    In my opinion, 0% harm exists in our lives only if we were to exist in a bubble. Teaching and learning with transparency on the web –yes, there are possibilities for abuse, just as there are in each aspect of our lives. We daily, make decisions, based hopefully on reason and possible benefits that allow for abuses; we don’t abandon our actions for that fear. My perspective aligns with yours, in that given the potential for transforming learning, we need to guide our students to make those “reasoned decisions” in this case through careful consideration of the ethics of digital citizenship. With that guidance, we need to allow them the responsibility to live up to those ethics.

    I understand that in many situations, this risk taking is prohibited or strongly discouraged. I’m wondering if “reasoned” conversations with parents and administrators around these issues, with examples of successful practice, engaged learning, and articles such as the one referenced can help alleviate the reluctance to allow students to become decision makers.

    Until that happens, is helping late adopters to understand the importance of “digital citizenship” and the benefits of adopting these practices through conversations in which the tone is reasoned and encouraging as has been yours, critical to our profession moving together into 21st century learning?

    Thanks so much starting this conversation,

  10. Hi Darren,

    I am the co-founder of a social bookmarking app, Buzka.com. A number of our users are teachers and your question has come up before which is why I'd like to share my thoughts.

    Yes, there is always a risk of this happening, but I feel that the issue and challenges are the same whether its confined to the classroom or concerning the web at large.

    My experience is that users of social applications who are encouraged to create personal profiles and empowered to contribute to the good of the whole so to speak, behave rationally and don't post offending content or inappropriate links.

    On the other hand, we actively filter and manually flag many spam users who deliberately seek to use their accounts for personal gain.

    The bottom line is that we rarely observe users in-between these two extremes.

    I suppose from a prevention/control point of view, it is possible to minimise such behaviour if you can encourage students to take owership of the content they are tagging or contributing. Use the tool as part of the social dynamics of the classroom, not as a replacement or substitute.

    If a student does decide to abuse the system, it will quickly become clear who they are (usually reported by the community of users) and a ban is the standard and effective action to take.

    This happens all the time with social web apps and I don't think it necessarily needs to be any different in the classroom.

  11. This discussion has become quite rich. Thank you all for contributing.

    @Lee: I don't think we are frequently too idealistic. I think kids act responsibly in an environment that respects them and trusts them to make good choices by giving them some freedom ... even if that means a mistake is made on occasion. Like I said in my post, I've been at this a few years now and it just has never happened. So, while I appreciate what you say the data of my subjective experience continues to support my view and the comment Dean started this thread of with.

    @Lani: You state so eloquently I can only point at. I think you're right about parental involvement. If they saw the personal value that accrues from using social bookmarking (or any other tool) I suspect we would garner powerful allies in our classrooms. I wonder how many parents would come out to a "Parent Can Learn Too" night where we showcased one tool, taught them how to use it, and let them take that experience home to continue the conversation with their kids?

    I know that in some schools this would be hard where social issues around parental involvement with their kids precludes something like this from taking root. Then again, we'll never know if we don't try ... hmmm ... now I guess I have to put my foot where my mouth is. ;-)

    @jinnan I'm very glad you've added your voice to this discussion. I think people (teachers, students, and parents) need to hear how you deal with this sort of issue from a service providers perspective. What's most interesting to me is that, while we come from different worlds of work, we seem to have had similar experiences using social media.