Social media in education: ethical concerns

The Higher Education Academy is currently running a series of practitioner workshops – Changing the Learning Landscape. One of these, organised by Teresa MacKinnon at the University of Warwick, focused on making effective, safe, efficient and appropriate use of social media in learning and teaching. At a focus group during the workshop, Steve Wheeler (Associate Professor of Learning Technology in the Faculty of Education at the University of Plymouth) and Mark Childs (Senior Research Fellow in eLearning at Coventry University and Loughborough University) encouraged participants to identify and share concerns about the use of social media in their practice. Four key issues emerged.

A code of conduct or legislation is needed

Teresa MacKinnon
Teresa MacKinnon

Educators feel exposed without guidelines on how to use social media. Participants suggested that having a code of conduct would allow them to demonstrate adherence to guidelines if problems occurred. Social media was seen as a particular source of problems in education due to the potential for individuals to be permanently tagged with a digital trace. Once social media are used self-censorship can be more difficult than simply not taking part in online interaction at all. This may be one reason why some people resist the use of social media completely. As a result it may be unfair to impose the use of social media on students, as it opens up the possibility of them being tagged and put at risk in this way. The possibility was also raised that, as a response to repeated exposure to social media, society will become more accepting of a range of different behaviours, which was viewed as optimistic by many of those present. An opposing viewpoint expressed was that, as technology becomes better at tailoring our social networks and our internet searches, this will isolate us from opposing viewpoints (a “filter bubble”) and anything that does not adhere to our peer groups’ behaviour will be considered even more inappropriate. If connections to others are imposed on our students through social media use in teaching and learning, this would increase the potential for more cultural clashes of this sort. A solution could be to lock down all communication to purely work-focused interactions, but research indicates that doing this severely undermines the ability of groups to interact online. An effective social dynamic is important for building trust and without it individuals are not able to represent themselves as fully-rounded ‘authentic’ people. These issues raise the importance of providing pseudonymity in online interactions as well as the need to consider how we balance professional identities and authentic identities whilst online.

Online harassment

Mark Childs
Mark Childs

The issue brought of online harassment and the balance between censorship and freedom of speech was also discussed. It was suggested that cyberbullying could be due to the ‘cyber-disinhibition’ that comes with being online, particularly when people are anonymous. Delegates expressed bewilderment at the motivation of people who harass others online, and suggested there is a need to understand more about the reasons why people engage in such behaviour to help address the issue. Previous experiences of cyberbullying may be a reason why some students are reticent to participate in social media, since this may expose them to renewed harassment or cyberstalking. These problems can be limited by removing anonymity, but then this runs counter to the need for pseudonymity noted above.

Intellectual Property (IP)

The third ethical issue discussed was that of content IP in social media. There is a lack of awareness of who owns materials placed in social media and of how to protect the IP of students who use it. There is the precedence of shareware within online interactions and lessons to be learned from creative commons, and perhaps IP is not as important as it used to be because we are more accepting of the concept that ideas are free. There was some opposition to free sharing, but the general opinion expressed by delegates was that it is those who are more reticent to share ideas who tend to be the weaker ones – perhaps the fewer ideas you have, the more jealously you guard them. Accrediting ideas in social media is also difficult, and accreditation can become separated from content as posts and messages are compiled and shared. However, it was noted that people are more forgiving of accidental misuse and inadvertent plagiarism in social media than in academic journals and books.

Authenticity of voice

Steve Wheeler
Steve Wheeler

Issues about knowing the offline identity of others when online were also discussed. These included spoofing of identities (sometimes inadvertently) and false claims of experience (sometimes for fraudulent reasons, sometimes to become part of a group, and sometimes because of a syndrome known as Münchausen’s by Internet – a version of Münchausen‘s by proxy). It is important to remember, however, that many people only feel they can be themselves when online because their sense of self is at odds with their physical form, or because their immediate peer group cannot accept their true nature. This means that their online identity is authentic, and different from their offline one. There are also a range of cultural reasons why people may need to perform in a particular way online (not using their real names, not using their image) and we should not enforce particular requirements on users, since it is impossible to anticipate what all of these issues may be.

Guidance is needed

Overall, the discussion highlighted a growing awareness and confidence with ethical issues around social media use. Educators have a good understanding of what the problems and challenges are, but there is a lack of progress towards solutions. Staff and students need guidance, codes of conduct, protection (and some leniency) for the use of social media in education to grow, understanding will increase with engagement. A code of conduct should respect the right of the individual to present themselves in a way they see fit, expressing their personal viewpoints whilst being sensitive to the open nature of such communication and behaving in a lawful and respectful manner towards others.

HEA – Changing the Learning Landscape.

Photographs by Sue Beckingham, Steve Wheeler and Terest MacKinnon, used with permission

Mark Childs, Senior Research Fellow in eLearning at Coventry University and Loughborough University

Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of Learning Technology in the Faculty of Education at the University of Plymouth

Teresa MacKinnon, Principle Teaching Fellow, Language Centre, University of Warwick

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member

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