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








Is the Digital Native a Myth?

Posted by Michael Simkins on August 1, 2017

The younger generation uses technology in the same ways as older people — and is no better at multitasking.

That’s the assertion of a recent opinion piece in Nature. It caught my eye, partly no doubt, because I tend to agree, at least to a point.  The article was prompted by the release of a paper by European academics Paul A.Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere, “The myths of the digital native and the multitasker.”  Highlights from the paper include:

  • Information-savvy digital natives do not exist.
  • Learners cannot multitask; they task switch which negatively impacts learning.
  • Educational design assuming these myths hinders rather than helps learning.
Infographic: Digital Native does not mean tech savvy
From “Does not compute: the high cost of low technology skills.”

A key point is that being immersed in digital technology does not automatically equate to being technologically savvy.  I have observed this in students in online courses I teach.  They use technology constantly, but they can be quite naive about it.  They use technology the way I drive a car—I know how to make it go and how to make it stop, but I have only vague ideas about how a car works.

What do you think?




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.


The WHY of Public Education

Posted by Lisa Marie Gonzales on September 11, 2016

Palm holding card with the word WHYStart of the school year has been notable on Facebook as almost every parent with whom I’m acquainted has shared those infamous first day of school photos.

And as students and staff report back, organizations such as Phi Delta Kappa International, US News & World Reports, and even state departments of education are releasing data and reports that coincide with the start of the new year. The most notable one that has come my way to date has been the Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) article on perceptions held by the public regarding public education.

PDK’s 48th annual public poll entitled “Public Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” measuring opinions about public education, lacked consensus over the main purpose of public education. 45% of its respondents, representing a random sample of more than 1500 adults covering all 50 states, believe public education is meant to prepare students academically. Another 26% feel the primary role should be to prepare students for citizenship, while another 25% feel the purpose is to prepare students for the workplace.

What I find most puzzling is the lack of explanation of preparing students for citizenship, but even more so that 26% of respondents felt this was the primary intent of education generation after generation. The survey went on to share more data about how students are performing, opinions on keeping schools open when failing, and general perspectives on what our schools are doing to meet the needs of their students. And before I digress too much, let’s take a moment and look at the list of tasks we expect from our teacher, let alone our public schools. We’re responsible for teaching all subjects, receive hefty criticism when students are obese and we aren’t doing enough with physical fitness. We cover sex education and driver’s education, and the list goes on.  I think this picture says it all:

Many words for teacher showing the varied roles a teacher plays

But back to the survey. There is clear confusion about what the purpose is of education, of public education. With the split data shared above, should we be doing our work differently? If only 45% feel we should be covering academics, then should we be doing less in a focus on academics?

When I think of conversations I have with parents about the use of technology, I get push back that a focus of tech to communicate and collaborate should be reduced. Granted, I always advocate for a balance. But yet…we have workplaces with a colossal reliance on technology, and if we focus on the 25% of parents who want us to prepare students for the workplace, then there really is a role for workplace preparedness, which includes technology.

I don’t expect the responses to change. A great deal of expectations are placed on the deliverables of our public education system. I predict that the confusion will also continue – much is expected of us. And much will continue to be expected. And the WHY won’t change.

But it may morph a bit. Stay tuned.


Will Future Ready Make a Difference?

Posted by Stephen Vaughn on February 26, 2016

Future Ready logo with question mark overlaidMany superintendents of school districts in California have signed the Future Ready Pledge. Many of those districts have begun the process of evaluating the “readiness” of their districts for the future by using the great tools that Future Ready provides. They have developed plans to implement the suggestions generated from the surveys and tools. In some cases, districts have dedicated resources, including funds and people to implement and monitor their progress. However, even with doing all of this, I contend that it won’t be enough to make a significant difference for most school districts. Here is why.

There are still too many barriers to the implementation of an effective plan to be truly Future Ready. The first barrier is the existing employee contracts. Usually, most school districts have contracts that restrict and limit the process for staff development, as well as the evaluation process and the time that employees are in contact with students. The second barrier is the time constraints imposed by the transportation of students. This limits the options that are available for integrating training. The third barrier is the culture of autonomy that exists in most districts. Because most teachers still teach in isolation, they can ignore many of the requirements needed to have a 21st Century instructional program and no one will be either aware of it or able to do anything about it. The last barrier I will mention is the current tenure system. This system makes it very difficult to dismiss teachers who do not have the ability to implement an effective Future Ready program.

I recognize that there are a few districts that are making great strides, but the truth is most districts aren’t radically better than they were five years ago in terms of implementing a Future Ready program.  And I would submit that even in the case of districts that are doing well, the reasons why are tenuous and progress could end if a few things changed, such as the leadership of the district, the leadership of the associations, or the economy.

What do you think? Share your thoughts by clicking “Leave a comment” or by using the “Leave a Reply” form—you’ll see one or the other below this post.