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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Communicating with Parents

Posted by Lisa Marie Gonzales on November 13, 2017

School-to-Home Communications inforgraphic
Click image for article and full-size infographic.

Oh, how the times have changed.

I remember when I was a first year principal. Every Friday, I’d send home a flyer with all of the school events, and celebrate student and teacher accomplishments. I had envelopes full of little pieces of clip art that I would tape on (remember how to do that so the edges didn’t show?), print on a color of my choosing, and mass produce 600 copies.

Yay for technology! Now, the hours I’d put in each week back then can be reduced to a matter of a few minutes per day, but figuring out where and how to communicate with parents takes a little more thought.  There are so many communication channels!  We know the importance of parent engagement—not least of all for our Local Control Accountability Plans—but to get parents into our schools and involve them in decisions, we have to get the information to them in the first place.

A recent infographic about home to school communication brilliantly lays out a comparison between various tools principals use and parents’ perspectives about the effectiveness of each one.

Personal emails? Bingo!  Both agree: effective and specific.

Text messages? Only about 50% of both agree.  Hmm, and here we are in my current district looking to invest in a system to quickly text to communicate with parents. Maybe the regional competencies and expectations might be a little different? After all, here in the Silicon Valley, parents are letting us know they want more, more, more; but I digress.

App message updates to phones? School portals? Auto phone messages? Parents are saying not as effective. Maybe it’s because the survey focused on parents and teachers. I’m not sure. But the startling piece of the infographic that stands out to me is the effort we put into social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Parents think this is a much less effective way to get information about their school or district.

In my district, we recently encountered an interesting scenario. At middle school release at the end of the day, we “heard through the grapevine” that a fire had broken out less than a mile from the school. Multiple times we reached out to the local agencies for updates, but little was available. We had no information to rely on to make decisions about contacting parents or releasing students. In an era of information at our fingertips, we could find nothing.

Within a few hours, our district was getting slammed by a number in our community regarding our lack of sharing information (that we didn’t have, by the way). We wanted to be responsive, but also knew that accurate information was essential. In a subsequent debrief with other agencies, we were told they were communicating via Twitter.

Twitter

We could not get a person to give us information in an emergency. We were supposed to rely on Twitter updates. Welcome to the 21st century.

Don’t get me wrong. I use social media.  I love Twitter and Facebook. They are quick and effective for disseminating information. But perhaps a survey to parents in our own communities about what they prefer to use would benefit us in our communication plan. In this day and age, there is no catch all, but finding that healthy balance in a way that enables us to respond in an informative, timely, productive manner is certainly the way to go.

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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.

 

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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.

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Books fall open, you fall in

Posted by Leslie Miller on April 28, 2016

The author's daughter shares a story on her iPad.Like many educators who are also mothers, I dreamed of reading to my children every night before bed.  I saw myself reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, gently tucking them in, and watching them drift off to join Aslan in Narnia.  I managed to fulfill that dream when they were small and loved picture books.  Yet somewhere around the time my eldest wanted a more challenging reading experience than The Very Quiet Cricket, I realized nightly reading was a road block.  What with homework and nightly routines, I just couldn’t do it!

Smartphone apps

So, I turned to my smartphone.  I found two apps I really liked.  One was the for-pay site Audible.com which, like so many Amazon products, offers a wide range of books to choose from for adults and children.  The other site I chose was Overdrive.com which allowed us to connect through our local library card to a wealth of free audiobooks, e-books and movies.

I downloaded Beverly Cleary’s collection of Henry and Ribsy to my phone. One particularly hot afternoon in the car, when my brood was fighting and my internal temperature was starting to rise, I turned it on.  Magic happened!  They listened. In fact, when we got home, we sat in the driveway listening because they did not want the story to stop. They were like camels crossing the desert to an oasis.  They drank deeply.  I knew we were on the right track.

As research has taught us, listening to adult readers builds in a child the value of becoming a successful reader.  It allows children to learn how to read at a natural pace and grows the enjoyment of listening to spoken words of a story.  If we think of oral comprehension as the foundation of the development of reading and vocabulary, then it is easy to see how listening and reading comprehension are interlinked.

Matthew Effects

In the primary grades a student’s maximum level of reading comprehension is predicated on the child’s level of listening comprehension.  Students exposed to stories with increased vocabulary will inevitably have a greater depth of knowledge and more developed academic vocabulary.  Keith Stanovich has described the so-called “Matthew effects” in reading—the wider the variety of reading, the more cumulative the child’s vocabulary and early acquisition of reading skills become, while the child not exposed to the cognitive exercise of tiered vocabulary can have gaps in her schema and will likely become a poor reader.

The beauty of online stories is that no longer am I the gatekeeper of reading more complex text.  At any time, my daughters can pick up a tablet, pop on their headphones and listen to stories unfold. The tablet becomes more than a screen to watch a movie or play a game; it becomes a way to connect with the library. With the current additions to Overdrive.com, children can enjoy hearing the story read aloud while following the text on screen.  While reviewing one particular Star Wars story, I noted how the inclusion of John William’s theme music, the rich voice of the narrator and high interest text invited the reader to become enthusiastic for the story.   Our smart devices become living books that unlock the reader’s imagination.

“Books Fall Open

Books fall open,
you fall in,
delighted where,
you’ve never been.
Hear voices
not once heard before,
Reach world through world,
through door on door.
Find unexpected
keys to things,
locked up beyond
imaginings….
True books will venture,
Dare you out,
Whisper secrets,
Maybe shout,
across the gloom,
to you in need
Who hanker for
a book to read.”

David T.W. McCord

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