Leveraging Social Media in Times of Crisis

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on February 25, 2018

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft a-gley.

magnifying glass over social media collageI’d planned to hunker down the first week of February and write a post about using social media for good. However, life intervened and it didn’t get done. In retrospect, that was good because things happened that led me to think about social media in a different way.

The first event had to do with an education technology conference in Seattle. I attended a concurrent session presented by Conn McQuinn who has recently devoted a good chunk of his professional time to studying neuroscience in learning. The title of his session was “Being a Well-Adjusted Cyborg.” One of the first things he said was, “Neuroscience and research can help us make better and more intentional choices about using technologies.” He went on to say, “We (educators) often adopt new technologies and/or use them without truly reflecting on their impact.” I was hooked.

Key Points

Here are two points he made that deserve consideration.

Point #1: confronted with all the outside stimuli constantly bombarding us, our brains sort out what we need to pay attention to using three criteria:

  • novelty
  • things/people we care about
  • dangerous things.

Point #2: Maslow’s hierarchy identified physiological and safety needs as people’s highest priorities. Not so. Conn says our need for love or belonging supersedes our need for food, clothing, security, et cetera.

What does this have to do with technology in general and social media specifically? Let me frame this question more clearly with a few additional questions.

How do you feel about your smartphone? Where do you keep it at night—in another room or on the nightstand next to your bed? Have you ever retraced your steps to retrieve your phone after leaving it at home? Do you find yourself surreptitiously (or even openly) checking social media sites and email while attending meetings, during meals with family or friends, while watching a movie or engaging in some other recreational activity? If so, does this mean you are addicted to your phone or to social media? Perhaps. But it may also indicate that you have unwittingly fallen for triggers intentionally incorporated into the design of mobile devices and online apps—behavior you can change through awareness.

Remember, our brains are wired to pay attention to novelty, people and things we care about, and danger. Mobile devices offer us ready access to all three of these attention grabbers via the apps we use. We never have to be bored, or feel isolated and while we may not enjoy things that feel threatening, negative attention online is nearly impossible for targets of such vitriol to ignore. Does understanding what’s behind our compulsion to check Facebook or Twitter help check that behavior? I think it can, if we make more thoughtful decisions about what technologies we use and when we use them as opposed to just going with the initial impulse to see who has ‘liked’ our latest posts or to watch the latest video gone viral.

Social media in a crisis

At precisely the same time I was listening to Conn’s presentation, a 19-year-old former student walked onto his high school campus in Parkland, Florida, pulled a fire alarm, and started shooting students as they evacuated the building. As has been the case since the early days of social media, students and teachers used their smartphones throughout this disaster. Some were reaching out to friends and family members. Others were posting photos and video to social media. It was reported that a few teachers used email to coordinate with one another to try to figure out what was happening and help insure student safety. All these behaviors mirror the points Conn made.

We’ve read and heard stories about such behavior before. I remember that in 2008 during terrorist attacks in Mumbai, police feared that terrorists would monitor social media posts to keep tabs on police activity as they prepared to rescue hostages. I thought about the millions of people who turned to social media in the hours and days following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and how the friends, family members, and neighbors of people stranded during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 came to their rescue thanks to messages posted online when more traditional emergency response teams were overwhelmed by the number of calls they were receiving. Closer to home, I know two school administrators who have dealt with campus shootings in their own districts.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, some pundits opined that students with smartphones endangered themselves and others because they were distracted as they posted messages (so they weren’t getting to safe places) or they were making noise that could have alerted the shooter to hiding places (e.g., notification sounds, talking). However, building on what Conn said about neuroscience and social media, I wondered what might happen if we had serious conversations about effective use of social media during disasters, both man-made and natural. I don’t want to give the impression that school shootings are a given that we cannot prevent because I do not believe that’s true. But there are plenty of other crises where thoughtful use of smartphones could be extremely helpful as well.

Being prepared should include social media strategies

My suggestion is to take the three things that capture our attention and sort out ways social media could be used to get critical information where it needs to go in safe, timely ways. We teach adults and students how to evacuate buildings during a fire or ways to protect themselves physically during an earthquake or lock down. Why not think ahead of time about social media strategies they can use during emergencies that would be beneficial. Take the idea a Parkland teacher had to use email and text to connect with fellow teachers and students and turn that into a plan. Or instill in students the need to silence their phones and wait to contact parents and friends until they are in a safe(r) place so they aren’t distracted during critical moments. Discuss when sharing specific information about specific locations or events via social media is helpful and when it might be a dangerous thing to do (and why).

Parents and students already view smartphones as lifelines and have since the events of 9/11. Perhaps it’s time to have frank discussions about ways to make these lifelines as safe and effective as possible.

Burns was right. “The best laid schemes” may still go awry, but it’s better—especially in times of catastrophe—to have a plan than not.

Resources for follow-up








The Homework Gap—Latest Wrinkle for Resolving the Digital Divide

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on December 16, 2017

cartoon of a chasmHistorically, the term digital divide referred to a lack of access to hardware and Internet connectivity. Basic technology access is less of an issue today; however, as we have increased the numbers of available devices and Internet-connected schools, we are discovering that solving the digital divide challenge is more complex than making ‘stuff’ available. We are discovering that, in addition to connectivity issues on campus, we also must address students’ use of technology outside the traditional school day, especially as technology-supported homework activities become increasingly common. Failure to attend to this challenge results in a phenomenon called the Homework Gap—a situation where, for a variety of reasons, students lack sufficient connectivity to complete assignments and then, in some instances, are penalized for not getting their homework done. What do mindful educators need to think about as they consider the current status of the digital divide off-campus and how it might be impacting teaching and learning?

False assumptions

It’s not uncommon for educators to form false assumptions about students’ access to technology at home based on information provided by parents and students themselves. This often happens when students and/or parents are asked questions in surveys or other data collection activities that fail to get at the information educators actually need. For example, it’s not enough to know that a student has home access to a tablet device that is used 30 minutes daily. It’s also necessary to know what type and model of tablet, what operating system it is running, how it connects to the internet, its screen size, if there are peripherals (e.g., a keyboard) and if the student is sharing the device with one or more other people as well as what the student is doing while using the device. The same is true for laptops, desktop computers, and smartphones. These specifics are needed to fully understand the quality of students’ off-campus connectivity.

There are similar concerns related to Internet connectivity. If there’s home access, what type and how robust is the network? If there’s no home access, where do students need to be to get online and is it possible for them to get there? If they are relying on a data plan for connectivity, can the plan support the required work and what is the monthly data allowance? Is the plan shared with other devices?

Equity concerns off campus often result in students not being able to complete homework as assigned or in them having to go to extreme lengths to keep up with their work. Students who are sharing a device with other family members or who have limited or no Internet connectivity at home may want to do their work, but not be able to due to circumstances beyond their control. Not only does this hurt them academically, but may have detrimental impacts on family relationships.

Quick fixes aren’t the solution

What can educators do to resolve Homework Gap concerns? Arriving at solutions requires effort and flexibility along with a recognition that quick fixes may take care of problems in the short-term, but are not ongoing solutions. For example, you may have heard about schools that enter partnerships with companies that will provide tablets with free 3G or 4G connectivity for one year or some type of WiFi hot spot. This is a generous offer that may immediately address lack of Internet access at home, but what happens at the end of the year? Typically, schools that take advantage of this kind of donation cannot afford to assume the cost of these accounts at the end of the year. With no back-up plan, users are reduced to relying on limited WiFi connections resulting in little or no use of the devices off campus.

Ongoing solutions require a lot of work and ingenuity. One way to begin might be to seek out agencies, organizations, and schools within the community that might be willing to partner with you to design long-term solutions. For example, Next Century Cities supports mayors and city leaders who are willing to partner with local businesses and schools to bring affordable Internet to local residents. Another possibility may be to work with local your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to learn about affordable options for families that cannot afford expensive Internet packages. It may be necessary to negotiate short-term immediate connectivity solutions such as access to WiFi networks at the public library or an after-school program, but if this is the case, be clear from the beginning that it is a temporary solution and plan for how you will follow-up with a more permanent solution.

Given the information above, how does the Homework Gap impact your students and what permanent solutions can you identify that could help your student bridge this new aspect of the digital divide?

N.B. The information provided above originally appeared as part of a longer article on digital divide issues in Today’s Catholic Teacher Magazine (Winter 2017).




Protecting Your Digital Data Privacy

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on May 6, 2017

PrivacyRecently, I went to a local jeweler to get a ring repaired. The sales associate used her tablet device to complete a work order for me. When she requested my address and phone number, I didn’t give it a second thought. Then she asked for my birth date. When I questioned why she needed to know, she shrugged and mumbled something about sending me a birthday card. I decided not to provide that information. Next she asked for my wedding anniversary date, glanced up at me and said, “Oh, I guess you won’t want to tell me that either.” I smiled and shook my head. Not a huge deal, but it did get me thinking about all the times we give people personal information without asking why it’s needed or how it might end up being used.

We live in a society where the boundaries of privacy are pushed every day. Educators are increasingly aware of the need to safeguard student data privacy, but what about protecting our own? Given that Congress recently repealed the online privacy rules designed to limit the ability of Internet service providers (ISPs) to share or sell various kinds of customer data as well as the requirement that ISPs notify customers when a data breach takes place, responsibility for protecting personal data now appears to lie squarely with individual consumers. What can we do to protect our own private information?

Passive vs. Active Data Collection

There are two general methods used to glean data from individuals. The first is called passive data collection. Passive data collection may involve use of slick online tools that collect and record data without an individual’s knowledge, but it can also be as simple as a customer service representative or data entry clerk entering information gathered during a phone call or office visit into some type of customer data base. As a result, it’s the rare person who has no online presence these days.

Here are a couple of examples of passive data collection. Do you make online purchases? Virtual shoppers seldom realize that they are leaving a trail of data in their wake as they browse for a new dining room set or an article of clothing. Using cookies or other sophisticated programming strategies enables merchants to compile a wealth of information about individual shoppers based on which items are reviewed, how much time is spent looking at each item, how the site is navigated, etc. In turn, this information is shared with other online platforms people frequently visit. This is what makes it possible to go from virtual window shopping to Facebook only to discover a personal newsfeed is now filled with ads featuring the very same items reviewed elsewhere just a few minutes earlier.  Even individuals who don’t own Internet-connected devices don’t get off scot-free because personal information about them is being stored online by someone else—medical records, school records, and virtually all public records for example. Hopefully medical and school records aren’t publicly available, but if they are online, they are vulnerable. In addition, online aggregators pull public records from a myriad of resources to create readily accessible individual profiles that include very personal information. Check out Intelius  for a taste of what I’m referring to.

Active data collection requires a little more cooperation on the part of an individual. This type of data collection happens when someone completes a registration form to download a white paper or responds to a survey from an airline or hotel about a recent trip. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that by filling out a product review or questionnaire they are providing valuable marketing data to whoever requested the information and whoever they may opt to sell the information to. For example, have you ever logged into a site like Amazon.com or Netflix and seen recommendations for products or movies you might enjoy based on previous searches and purchases or rentals? These data are used to build a personal profile for you and may be shared across platforms to aggregate information you’ve provided in various locations. Much of these data are easily manipulated by changing the information in the Preferences area of an account. Try it! And speaking of profiles, every social media platform and most online stores ask users to complete lengthy profiles under the guise of making it easier for other like-minded users to find you. That may be the case, but it’s also true that the more complete the profile, the more marketable your information becomes.

What Can You Do?

There are various steps you can take to help protect your privacy. For instance, avoid leaving an easy-to-follow online data trail by using private browser windows or learn how to block cookies and location data. Natasha Stokes offers tips on how to browse anonymously. Her suggestions range from employing a web browser’s incognito feature (easy to do and most browsers offer this capability in Privacy) to using something called a VPN or virtual private network which is more complicated and usually requires a subscription fee.

Another way you can protect personal data is to visit one or more data aggregators to read what’s been recorded there about you. These website collect public information about individuals, pulling it all together to create personal profiles. Some are quite extensive and invasive, but there are nearly always ways to have the information removed. Visit piplintelius, and spokeo as a start. Some of these sites will remove your data on request. Others direct you to do to the data source. For instance, I was surprised to see that my LinkedIn profile is a source of a great deal of the data showing up in these aggregated summaries.

Think about the data requested when any type of purchase is made. Ask why a company needs your zip code or birth date before providing that information. The day after I gave the jeweler my phone number for the work order, I received a sales call from them, but also learned they failed to call about another repair that will need to be made soon and which could have been done at the same time, had I been notified! Decide if a warranty registration or chance to win a raffle merits handing over personal data. Pass on responding to surveys or requests for product reviews, no matter how persistent the merchant may be. Maximize privacy settings on social media accounts.

The Circle, a 2013 book written by Dave Eggers and now a movie starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, is a dystopian tale about technology, transparency, and privacy in a society where “secrets are lies” and “privacy is theft.” In this narrative, the fight between good and evil boils down to whether or not there is a need for privacy in the digital age. I’m not suggesting that readers should back away from using the Internet, but it’s time for everyone to think about what data are being collected, how, and why. Only then will individuals be in a position to start taking back control of their personal information.



Recognizing Lies: Redefining Digital Literacy

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on April 20, 2017

truth or lie arrowsWhat is your take on these recent news stories?

A Chicago janitor made himself a millionaire 20 times over by taking out life insurance policies on teenagers and then murdering them to collect on the policies. (April 2017)

Mark Zuckerberg said that he is “disgusted with social media” and he plans to leave Facebook in the near future. (March 2017)

NBC’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ has been cancelled thanks to low ratings. (March 2017)

None of these stories is true, but each was widely distributed across social media platforms in recent months. Does it matter to the rest of the nation if a murderous custodian is rampaging through Chicago, if Zuckerberg is ready to wash his hands of Facebook, or if SNL is being cancelled? Probably not, unless your job is to encourage tourism in Chicago or you are a stockholder in Facebook or NBC. However, other lies-disguised-as-news articles that may make a difference are flooding social media outlets daily.  Such articles are written specifically to influence readers’ thinking about an array of important issues, and  people whose primary news sources are Facebook, Twitter, or similar platforms may make decisions about these matters based on distortions of the truth or outright lies.

Take the U.S. 2016 election as an example. Pyotr Levashov, an infamous Russian spammer, was recently arrested and accused of using the Internet as a vehicle for manipulating the November election . He’s just one of many. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says that up to 1000 Russian ‘Internet trolls’ worked to prejudice the U.S. election by publishing lies-disguised-as-news. At this point we don’t know how much influence these articles ultimately have on readers, but the surge in deliberate use of misinformation has spotlighted the limitations of Americans’ skill set when it comes to differentiating between fact and fiction in media.

What are our options for turning this around? Daniel J. Levitin, author of Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era (2017), says that educators need to step up right away to address this problem. “We have apparently failed to teach our children what constitutes evidence and how to evaluate it.” He acknowledges that misinformation has been around for a very long time, but is concerned that increased access to all sorts of deceptive materials coupled with our lack of ability to effectively scrutinize these items makes the need for direct instruction of these skills more evident than ever.

There is no quick fix for this. Yes, articles are popping up all over the Internet that offer tips for deciding if information is accurate.  There’s nothing wrong with sharing this information with colleagues and students, but for the long haul, it’s going to take more than a quick brush-up on rudimentary review strategies to fix this problem. It’s going to require taking time to teach students—and ourselves—to slow down a bit and look at information through a more critical lens.

Levitin suggests we can learn to identify misinformation by focusing on three key areas:

  • the ability to evaluate information presented in numerical form
  • identifying faulty arguments offered verbally or in print
  • using the principles of the scientific method to differentiate between fact and fiction.

Commonly accepted definitions of digital literacy typically refer to students’ abilities to find, evaluate, and use information. Now we need to get serious about what that means. Weaponized Lies offers an excellent foundation for educators who want to deepen their understanding of what’s required to think more critically about the waves of information washing over us all. I urge educators to read it. Then, armed with this information, we can make better decisions about how to bring these skills into classrooms.

Some additional resources you may want to explore.


Future Ready Learning: The new national ed tech plan

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on June 24, 2016

Cover of Future Ready Learning planThe first National Education Technology Plan, Getting American Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge, was published in 1996. This is noteworthy because prior to the release of this plan, there was little incentive for schools or other education-related institutions to invest much in the way of time or resources into developing instructional technology plans. The first national plan was built on four goals:

  1. Professional development for teachers
  2. Teacher and student classroom access to up-to-date hardware
  3. Internet connectivity for every classroom
  4. Access to digital learning materials

This early document became a catalyst for the American public to change its thinking regarding the impact technology might have on instruction. The next three plans—published in 2000, 2004, and 2010—incorporated these goals and introduced additional topics including assessment, leadership, integrated data systems, productivity, and funding. However, the 1996 plan is held up as having had the greatest impact on K-12 education—probably because federal funding for education technology was made available in conjunction with the plan’s release. Now, twenty year later, the US Department of Education has released the fifth National Educational Technology Plan.

Entitled Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education, this latest plan incorporates five focus areas. They are:

  1. Learning—Engaging and Empowering Learning through Technology
  2. Teaching—Teaching With Technology
  3. Leadership—Creating a Culture and Conditions for Innovation and Change
  4. Assessment—Measuring for Learning
  5. Infrastructure—Enabling Access and Effective Use

These five areas support expansion of topics included in previous plans, but also allow for conversations not included in earlier documents. For example, the first focus area (Learning) features a discussion about something called the digital use divide. This is an access gap that’s created when some students’ use of technology is limited to consuming existing content while others are encouraged to use technology to support their own learning by creating content. The digital use divide has been recognized for quite some time, but not referred to specifically in prior plans.

A new twist on digital divide issues is broached in the fifth focus area (Infrastructure). In this case, it’s the need for students to have access to high-speed Internet at school and at home. Educators know that schools often struggle to provide reliable high-speed connectivity, but it’s important to remember that more than one-half of low-income students under the age of 10 don’t have any Internet access at home and even more have inadequate access. We’ve told ourselves that these students can use smartphones or get online at a friend’s home or the local library, but it’s just not the same as high-speed connectivity in every home.

And finally, the importance of leadership is heavily emphasized in this plan. This emphasis is tied directly to a related national initiative called Future Ready Schools, which promotes transformation of teaching and learning through access to—and effective use of—technology. In order to provide these kinds of teaching and learning environments, district (and site) leaders must be fully engaged in their planning and implementation. The TICAL project is a regional partner of Future Ready Schools, providing assistance to education leaders in and outside of California.

Based on the fact that previous plans have impacted design and implementation of instructional technology programs throughout the U.S. and it’s likely that this new plan will also influence future developments in education technology.  I urge you to read and use the ideas presented in the plan to broaden and update the discussion about the role of technology in education, specifically within your school or district. You may also want to watch TICAL’s Quick Take on the 2016 National Education Technology Plan.