Fear of oversight is stronger than ever! Have I said too much?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), writing on power and punishment, described how we moved from a world in which our freedoms were limited through the exercise of external power to one where our freedoms are limited through the exercise of our own self-control. This is even more true today of our behaviour online. Tech savvy users are careful not to put anything into an email or an online post that could reflect badly on them in the future. The fear of oversight and the fear of the documentation of any misdeed controls our behaviour. We are not as free as we think we are.

On social networks there are many invitations to support political causes – ‘refugees’ vs ‘border protection’, ‘social welfare’ vs ‘economic self-responsibility’ etc. Some people are afraid to express their views on topical issues like these. Others express their views freely, sometimes to their cost. Most of us self-regulate because we fear the exercise of power against us. Civil authorities and future employers may respond unfavourably to some free expression online. The possibility that our views may be observed by others controls us.

In important respects our behaviour is more effectively controlled today than ever before. That has both positive and negative consequences. One of the positives is that it encourages us to behave responsibly – to be accountable and to be ‘good citizens’. Those who are caught out in the act of bullying or expressing racial hatred online run the risk of serious consequences to their careers and to their reputations.

Many people who are building or maintaing their careers choose to keep separate professional and private profiles. There’s a lot to be said for that. It’s not what I do, but I understand why separation makes sense for many people. If you want followers on Twitter who are interested in education, then perhaps it’s best not to tweet about your weekend sailing the Whitsundays or who you’ll be voting for at the next election. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. How public and how focused do you want to be?

I mostly post in public across a range of topics that interest me. I’ve already completed two careers – one in teaching and one in business – so I’ve less need to be careful than someone in their twenties with a lifetime of work and future employers ahead of them. Nonetheless, I still moderate my posts. I act part-time as teacher, professional developer and consultant, so I try to portray a professional image online. If I’m ‘googled’ I want people to gain a positive impression of me.

That doesn’t stop me from broaching more controversial subjects – religion, sex, politics etc. – but when it comes to discussing topics about which people are especially sensitive, I’m more likely to use a pseudonym or to communicate with a restricted audience. My arguments are sometimes more forthright and aggressive in these contexts, but I always treat people with respect, even when they say outrageous things. I do this because I’m ‘a good citizen’, but also because I know that, since my anonymity  can evaporate at any time, being ‘a good citizen’ is in my own best interests. If I’m aggressive in putting a logical argument, but remain respectful of the person on the other side, I can live with the consequences. If I call them ‘a fool’ or ‘an idiot’, it neither makes me feel better nor creates a positive impression for those who might come across my rudeness.

Following Foucault’s advice, we need to be aware of the structures of power that exist around us. We have to be careful what we say and who we say it to. Exercising self-discipline is even more important in the twenty first century than it was in the twentieth. Students, teachers and anyone who is active online need to understand the importance of promoting an image of themselves that creates a positive impression for as many potential viewers as possible. It’s worth deleting those Facebook profile pictures featuring a beer in the hand or cigarette in the mouth. Image matters.

Big Brother Poster

Professional Networking – Learning from people I’ll never meet.

Social Networks and Online Communities

Learning through Social Networks and Online Communities is mostly about learning from people I’ll never meet. Occasionally, to my delight, the unexpected happens, and I get to meet a person I’ve interacted with extensively online. When that happens we greet like old friends.

I’ve learned a great deal from my direct teaching experience, from face to face PD sessions, from my students, from my teaching colleagues and from reading material they’ve recommended, but I’ve learned still more from connections online.

I’ve connected through Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn and online communities like the Google Teacher Academy, the PLP Network, and more recently, VicPLN. The sharing and discussion in the VicPLN and the Australian-e-Series Facebook groups illustrate just how useful online communities can be for discovering educational ideas and resources.

I’ve still much to learn about professional networking online, especially on Facebook, which I’ve used mostly to stay in touch with family and friends, and Pinterest, which I’ve used less frequently. I’m looking forward to learning how to better use Facebook professionally this year. I’ll continue exploring Pinterest too, though I’m less sure how active I’ll become there.

Google+ and Twitter

I do most of my networking on Google+ and Twitter which are now the second and third largest social networks respectively. They make it easy to read the thoughts of interesting people and to share my own thoughts with them. We can converse, argue, laugh, learn, engage, and, if we’re busy, ignore one another – something we can’t do face to face. Often the discussion revolves around a shared link to an online article or resource outside Google+ or Twitter, but it can also be a direct conversation with no external linking involved.

The key to success is making connections – to circle people on Google+ and to follow people on Twitter – the more the merrier. If you don’t do this, you’ll suffer the ‘ghost town’ syndrome or, if you’re a celebrity with many followers but minimal people you’re following, your ‘networking’ will be no more than advertising.

It’s also important to share, though you can start by ‘lurking’ as a follower or circler until you gain confidence. With Twitter it helps to use hashtags like #VicPLN or #edtech. They make it easier for people who don’t follow you to see your tweets. With Google+ it helps to join Communities which function like Facebook Groups.

Managing the Avalanche of Information

As I write this post I have more than 4000 people in my Google+ circles and more than 7000 people have circled me, so there’s too much information to show in readable form on screen. The flow is filtered automatically by Google and Twitter so that it’s possible to read, but it’s too rapid to digest. I use three strategies to manage the avalanche of information.

Firstly I use simple search. Both Google+ and Twitter allow me to enter searches that return posts or tweets relating to whatever search term I enter. If I want to read what people are saying about the Gonski education reforms, all I need to do is search for ‘Gonski’.

Secondly, I filter the stream to narrow the results. In Google+ I do this by switching from the full Google+ stream to circle streams or community streams. I might browse my ICT in Education circle’s stream or my Philosophy community’s stream. In Twitter I use TweetDeck to display separate columns for streams like the #vicpln hashtag and for individuals I find especially interesting.

Thirdly, I use automatic collation tools like Flipboard and Paper.li that present my streams in digital newspaper format. These provide a relaxing magazine like experience and, since I’ve only chosen to circle or follow people who share my interests, I invariably find interesting things to read.

Hanging Out

Google+ Hangouts also provide a great way to communicate more directly with others. Hangouts are similar to Skype except that you can have up to 10 people appearing on screen at one time and you can stream Hangouts to YouTube so that others can watch live or view a recording later. I’ve sometimes used hangouts to bring distant experts into discussion I’m having with teachers. The most impressive hangout recipe I’ve seen so far comes from Amanda Rablin and Roland Gesthuizen whose weekly ACCELN (Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network) Google Hangouts offer great value. You can read how they manage their hangouts here.

Google+ vs Twitter vs Facebook

Twitter and Google+ are very different tools. Twitter is better for discovering and discussing breaking news. Google+, like Facebook, is better for longer and more detailed discussion. I prefer the clean advertising free interface of Google+ and the ease of managing sharing compared to Facebook. Facebook’s advantage lies in its massive user base. If I want to find out about the next big family gathering, I go to Facebook, not Google+.

Google’s network began as a place for geeks, but that’s changing.  Already it has passed Twitter to become the second largest social network behind Facebook. I highly recommend it as a place for intelligent discussion. If you want to start Google+ with a bang, here’s my simple four step recipe for success.

Block or unblock? You can’t learn if you can’t do.

Facebook and Twitter are blocked at my primary school. I think that’s reasonable for students, but not for teachers. We expect to unblock Twitter and possibly Facebook this year after we’ve completed some staff PD on professional networking. If I was at a secondary school, I’d favour unblocking Twitter, Facebook and Google+. They all offer powerful educational potential and, to stay safe online, students need to learn how to use them safely and responsibly. We also need to teach them how to manage and control the distraction of social networking – no easy task, but an important one. When we teach students to ride bikes and drive cars we use real bikes and real cars. When we teach students to use social networks, we should use real social networks too.

Is blogging good for school children?

Blogs have tremendous educational potential.  They provide a communication space that teachers, children and parents can use to develop writing, share ideas and reflect on work being undertaken at school in any subject area.  They enable children to showcase their work and to receive feedback and encouragement from friends, family and fellow students.

What are blogs?
You are reading one.  Blogs are websites maintained by people to describe events or make commentary on news or subjects of interest.  Blogs are mostly made up of pieces of writing, called posts, written by the blog owner.  They may also contain images and video and usually have links to other blogs and web pages.

Do blogs threaten children’s privacy or safety?
Blogging on teacher-monitored blogs is a comparatively safe online activity, but since anyone can see a blog and anyone can post a comment on a blog, there is a risk that unwanted comments will be posted.  Usually comments don’t appear publicly on a blog until they are approved by the blog’s owner (this is the default setting for most blogs), so inappropriate comments will only be seen by the blog owner (child) and the teacher administrator.  School children should be taught about cyber bullying and all school blogs should be monitored to ensure appropriate behaviour.  It is rare to find anyone outside the school community posting on a school blog.  Children should not share personal details like their address or family photos.  Once a photo or video is posted on a blog it can be viewed and downloaded by anyone.