Thursday, 20 November 2008

Student profiles on Ning

For the second time I am learning to use Ning in an international school project. We are gradually finding partners and more new members are signing up. The difference, compared to last year, is that this time the Ning is publicly viewable, whereas last year we opted for a private site. Then we had no problem with student profiles. They were asked to use their first names, and could choose whether to upload their picture or not (in some schools, it is strictly forbidden to publish students' photos). Safe, easy, no problem.

This time, however, I had an interesting incident just this week, which led me to some serious thinking about young people's online profiles in general. On this year's Ning I have set the signing up procedure to demand administrator approval from any new members. Lucky enough I did! A few days ago I received an email with a new request for membership, but being somewhat unsure about the identity of the person (mainly based on his age, which was older than the regular high school student) I sent him a confirmation email asking for some extra info. What's more, I was slightly annoyed with his profile picture, in which he was smoking a cigarette (not something I would like to advertise on a school-related site!). I also emailed the teacher I guessed had referred the boy to our project. To my surprise, I received a reply in which the boy explained that he actually had a totally different name, but never used his real name on the net. Fair enough, we advise students to either only use their first name or a nickname. However, the name he had chosen wasn't a nickname, but a real first name and family name - only not his own. He had probably also faked his age. And the last straw for me was that overlooking what I was so occupied with on the computer screen my music freak husband asked: "Why are looking at the photo of that dead singer?" What, who!? Even his photo was not his own, but he had totally fooled me with it!

Feeling increasingly uneasy about this I started looking into other social networks that are popular among our teenagers. I soon noticed that it is actually quite common for them to use a photo of a favourite celebrity as their profile picture. Their peers probably instantly recognize whoever it is. I gather this is a way to portray themselves through association with people they admire while protecting their own identity at the same time. Or am I wrong? From what I hear and read, it seems that the majority of today's teenagers are well aware of the dangers lurking in online environments, and know what information about themselves not to disclose. The focus, however, always seems to be on safety first, which to me begs the question: shouldn't it be possible to be safe and truthful at the same time? Sociologist Danah Boyd conveys this dilemma nicely in the following:
I also can't help but wonder if there are other costs to all of this deception that we're promoting as a safety mechanism. What does it mean to tell an entire generation that the way to be safe is to lie? Lie about your age, your name, your hometown, etc. All for good reason. Are we creating a generation of liars? Sure, it's a "white" lie, but that's a slippery slope, no?

Matthew Ingram, also referring to Danah Boyd, writes: of the freedoms that the Internet provides is the freedom to try on
different personas, to pretend to be someone else, to role-play. By now, most
people have probably gotten used to the idea that not everyone is who they claim
to be on the Internet.

Accepting all this to some extent, I still can't help feeling that assuming somebody else's identity in a school project is something I simply can't condone. Role-plays like these should have their place somewhere else. Or has it become old-fashioned and irrelevant to instil the values of honesty and openness to students? Some of the pictures students seem to be using are violating copyright laws, too, although I suppose many of them pick these profile picture from services such as this 'Free Celebrity Myspace Icons', for example.

If I have understood it correctly, these pictures should be FREE to use by anyone without any issues with copyright. Yet, to me this is one critical issue that would draw the line between social and educational networks. I like the idea Vicky Davis advocates that social networks in education should be called EDUCATIONAL networks, as she illustrates in this slide from her marvellous presentation 'Differentiating Instruction With Technology'.

Without any concerted effort to bring up these issues with young students, the only model of online behaviour they have is their own SOCIAL networks. I feel it should be the duty of teachers to model more formal and professional online behaviour than what most of our students are used to. Online profiles are something reasonably new, and many teachers of my generation are quite unfamiliar with this part of our teenagers' lives, which is why it is critical that we at least peak into this world every now and then to have some hunch about what is going on there. We should discuss with our students what kind of profiles to create to avoid them haunting you later when applying for a high-flying job, for example. From my limited experience, this is by no means self-evident. For us teachers, it would be common sense not to publish e.g. a topless photo of yourself online, but some boys even did this in one of our previous projects - fully aware that we teachers would see them, and know who they are. When addressed about this it turned out that it wasn't a prank to make the teacher blush, but they were truly oblivious to what might be the problem with their online profiles. My next job now is to write down some basic guidelines about students' online profiles for all the members of our project. So far, I have only managed to find scattered references to this particular aspect, while online safety rules abound. So I will be largely compiling my first draft from scratch. It will be a similar ongoing process as the international school project 'netiquette' that I keep refining year after year.

I am also tossing with the question whether I should maybe make the Ning secure and private again. After all, we are not inviting comments from non-members either way. On the other hand, it would be a new learning experience to write and present for anyone to see and read. However, this wouldn't change my conviction about the requirements the profiles should comply with. Whether I am making our Ning into a 'creepy treehouse' for students with these rules and restrictions is yet another question...


Keith Lyons said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Ning. i am working on a site at and your insights will help me enormously.


sinikka said...

Thank you Keith. Good to know that what I wrote is of use to someone :)