May 7, 2020

Snapchat, Instagram, & Twitter Drive Controversial Conversations in Schools

This post was published in NAIS Independent Teacher Magazine (link)
Image via Unsplash
Social media, not schools, has emerged as the place where students discuss controversial events and ideas, a trend that teachers and parents need to address proactively. From politics to school discipline, from sexual harassment to racism, when our school community stumbles into disagreement, our students debate in polarizing spaces without adults present. As educators and school leaders, we have to accept that we cannot graduate responsible citizens without directly addressing the problems created by social media.

As a teacher who wants to be there to help students through social and political strife, I frequently find that my students have already expressed their opinions and aired their differences on social media before they arrive in class, and I'm never privy to the details. This fact makes those controversial topics hard to cover in my classroom for a number of reasons. First, we’re not all starting from the same point. Some students know more than others in terms of what’s been posted, and all of them know more than I do. Second, it means that many of the students have already publicly taken sides on any given issue via those online posts. When students have already voiced support for a side and know they’re not alone, it’s harder for them to listen to others, compromise, or change opinions. And other students are less likely to engage a student who has already staked out a position.

Fundamentally, I believe that students should have as many controversial conversations as possible face-to-face and—if we can swing it—with an adult present. I feel fortunate that that’s how I learned how to articulate opinions supported by evidence and how to disagree civilly. Through conversation, I figured out how I felt about contentious issues. Productive conversation incorporates body language, and face-to-face conversations promote empathy and understanding. And it’s crucial to have an informed mediator present to help facilitate a fair, civil, and factual conversation. If those conversations take place in the classroom, a teacher can push students to use evidence and to find common ground. An educator can help students see and consider the additional nuances and complexities of a controversial conversation. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening.

Instead, students are using Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter to discuss controversial issues. Here’s how that tends to go when something controversial happens at school or in the world. A student (or group of students) takes a stand on the issue in a public setting or in a public post. Then, other students react to it by responding to the individual directly or indirectly by posting their own commentary online. On Snapchat, that can happen semi-publicly with a story or more privately with a “private story.” On Twitter, that often happens via “private Twitter”—smaller Twitter networks where students connect only with their close friends and where students rant about things that irk them. Frequently, when controversy arises in these spaces, students screenshot the altercation and send it to group chats for further discussion (often leaving out the initial participants).

During a community meeting, a campus club did a presentation on Flint’s water crisis where they mentioned and explained the term “environmental racism.” Before students arrived at my next class, not 10 minutes later, there were already memes circulating on Twitter and Snapchat by students who ridiculed the concept of environmental racism (and their classmates who worked to raise awareness) by posting an image or emoji of a tree and writing “the trees are racist” and many variations of that message.

When this happened, I was incredibly disappointed. I was upset with the content of the post, as it showed that students were ill-informed and unwilling to listen to their peers. And, I was upset by the us versus them mentality that resulted from the meeting and was exacerbated by the posts. Before anyone had considered the topic thoughtfully, each student had staked a position by “liking” a post. It’s hard to get students to understand context and reconsider a position through instruction and discussion once they’ve already connected themselves to a cause on social media. I was also upset that this all happened digitally rather than face-to-face. Digital interaction allows students to confine themselves to their own polarized network with friends who are more likely to support them. And finally, I was upset that no adults in the building were aware of these posts. If they’re not aware, they can’t create the time to host a conversation to help students articulate their opinions (in more than just a meme-style post) and respond to each other civilly.

The event described above made me wonder how frequently these topics and responses emerge online among our students without adults having any idea that it’s happening. Spoiler alert: It’s common! Unfortunately, there are a number of triggers that result in students gravitating toward digital spaces with networks of like-minded peers to address contentious issues. And all of these issues hurt teaching and learning in our classrooms and erode the values of our school community.

Sometimes our school rolls out a policy that students disagree with, and they post about it online. Our school has shut down student T-shirt ideas, modified themed dress-down days, and opposed national political decisions. These actions have resulted in angry, uncivil posts where students attack the school or blame other students (directly or via subtweet) for being the reason something got changed or shut down. Other times, these controversies come from national politics or current events, which our students often encounter through these same social media apps.

When the President ended DACA and committed to building a wall on the southern border, students fought it out digitally over who was welcome and who was not welcome in the country and, by extension, the school.

Political quarrels like this one can lead to long Instagram threads where students attack each other’s politics, race, socioeconomic status, and more. These disagreements disproportionately hurt our most vulnerable students. Behind screens, it’s easier to express disrespectful, unsubstantiated feelings, and it’s easier to dismiss opposition. It’s also easier to post something inappropriate and then claim you were joking if others call you out on it. This happens all too frequently in the digital spaces our students occupy.

In society at large, and in our schools, we’re seeing a rise in echo chambers—spaces where people learn from and exchange ideas only with like-minded individuals. Unfortunately, many of these spaces do not value the things schools and teachers do when it comes to discussion and collaboration: things like veracity, civility, humility, and empathy. Nevertheless, when controversial conversations begin online, our students retreat to their smaller, more private digital spaces—whether that’s a group chat, a Finsta or a private Snap story—to unload their most controversial opinions. And these echo chambers breed conformity, diametric thinking, tribalism, and, at their worst, radicalization.

One day, two students shared with me that they spent the last evening sitting together arguing back and forth with classmates about mass shootings, school safety, and gun control. While one student researched information, the other tweeted their opinions bolstered by this information. It went on for hours.

In addition to the problems of echo chambers online, it’s clear that our students are also suffering from confirmation bias, carefully cherry-picking facts to “win” an argument. Unfortunately, both in our schools and nationally, conversations have become zero-sum games in which one party “wins” and one “loses.” They’re trying to score points, measured by likes and retweets, and they are using simplistic tactics like memes and hypotheticals, which are exacerbated by the superficiality of much online conversation, to persuade passive onlookers.

No matter how these controversial conversations start, having them online polarizes our school community. Both locally and nationally, online disputes result in the loudest, most extreme voices being amplified. Bystanders promote extreme voices with “likes” even if those liking the post don’t agree with it in its entirety. And, those upstanders who disagree, or want to better understand the complexities involved before speaking up, often retreat into smaller networks or offline entirely. After all, these online conversations are antithetical to complexity.

The conversations incubated in echo chambers and waged by extreme voices equipped with confirmation bias lead to a number of assumptions about who is on which side of an issue and why. There is no context. Instead, tribe members attack a projected worst version of an opponent.

Finally, it’s important to understand that even after these debates occur online, it doesn’t drive students to meet and talk face-to-face the next day. On the contrary, they will literally walk past someone in the hallway that they were arguing with online the night before without saying a word. The next day, these disputes will move through the school via hearsay or screenshot, but rarely do the actual participants seek to clarify or further discuss, face-to-face, what was typed. As a result, these exchanges affect the learning in our classrooms for several days—and not just with the students involved.

Proactively addressing the problems described above requires us to pay attention to digital disagreements and endeavor to bring these issues into our classrooms for face-to-face conversations. Classroom conversations are a vital counterpoint to online echo chambers. Students are unable to confine their discussions to their preferred networks. Teachers can head off confirmation bias. And with face-to-face conversations—even with like-minded individuals—extreme statements get tempered by the group, by facial expressions, by tone, and by additional information (and space for more characters). These face-to-face classroom conversations highlight the seriousness and complexity of an issue. They promote empathy and they provide the space and support for participants to evolve their opinions as they learn more. Finally, and perhaps most important, moving these conversations off of social media and into the classroom teaches students citizenship via consensus and coalition building, which will help us graduate leaders equipped to move people and solve problems.

November 25, 2019

Dear Parents: YourKids are on YouTube, what do YouDo?

In the best-case scenario, YouTube represents a fulfilling space for learning, for connecting and for creativity. As contributors, users can creatively share passions and connect with a global audience eager to collaborate and provide feedback. As consumers, users can learn from a network of experts and professional organizations. Whether that’s studying for a physics test, learning a new song on the guitar, keeping up with current events, or auditing a college level course, YouTube’s versatility makes it a valuable tool for our society--one that encourages us to be active, informed citizens ready to teach, learn, and improve our world.

In the worst-case scenario, YouTube transforms us into passive, entertained, consumers where we watch endless videos from an algorithmically curated playlist. YouTube’s algorithm--which certainly does not share our values--is famous for pushing extreme content including misinformation, conspiracy theories, and hatred.  

As a parent, how do we ensure our children use YouTube in the best-case scenario--as active, informed citizens--and not in the worst-case scenario--as passive, entertained consumers? Well, in the same way that the examples above depend on “how” children use YouTube, as parents, “how” we respond to our children’s use of YouTube will determine our success in moving them towards the best-case scenario. 

How do our children use YouTube?
Unfortunately, we can’t count on YouTube to promote consumption and creation in line with our values. YouTube has consistently failed to moderate content, so that our children aren’t exposed to inappropriate, vulgar, and hateful content (YouTube has also been busted by the FTC for storing data of children under 12). For example, they won’t control content on the YouTube kids app, and they refuse to make tough decisions about inflammatory content on YouTube. YouTube’s bottom line depends on a metric called “time on site.” Therefore, YouTube’s algorithm--which accounts for 70% of its views--either feeds us entertainment or a steady stream of fear and outrage because that’s what yields clicks, shares, and engagement. It nudges users towards more and more extreme content understanding that "time on site" skyrockets when users fall down a rabbit hole of sensational content. And its been effective: Users watch over 1 billion hours on YouTube a day and researchers have proven that both flat earthers and the alt-right have expanded their reach thanks to YouTube’s algorithm. 

Hopefully, our children aren’t watching sensationalized, controversial content or getting sucked down a rabbit hole of extreme content. But it’s easier to get sucked in than we might think. Watching a video about Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump during the 2016 election led users to conspiracy theories about the government. Typing in “Federal Reserve” leads users to conspiracy theories about the Fed and follows with more about the Illuminati. Frequently, our children arrive at YouTube when sent a link by a peer in group chat or by a user on a message board--locations where extreme voices ring the loudest while introducing our children to “edgy” or offensive content that--should anyone be offended--is immediately labeled just a joke. That algorithm and these preconditions mix for a toxic binge.

The most direct draws to YouTube for our children are interests and influencers. Whether they want to hear political opinions, learn about video games, or practice new make-up techniques, on YouTube, our children enter tight-knit communities led by individual creators rather than professional organizations or civic leaders. In the last year, all of these YouTube communities have faced intense public outcry for offensive content. YouTube stood by the homophobic content of a political contributor; YouTube’s top account encouraged gaming viewers to watch anti-semitic videos; and racism rocked MUA (make up artists), one of YouTube’s tightest communities. YouTube’s algorithm links like minded accounts. Therefore the actions of a handful of creators (or users) will determine the videos recommended to our children. Clearly, we can’t count on YouTube’s content creators and leaders (or their loyal followers) to teach the algorithm to recommend quality information and highlight civil, intelligent leaders.

YouTube’s most powerful, yet esoteric, draw is the potential for a creator to become an influencer. In today’s economy, every child wants to be an influencer because top influencers make millions just by producing content (selling or reviewing products, teaching, or recording your daily life). It’s incredibly challenging to become an influencer and many who do so burn out. Fans demand access and content. As a result, influencer’s lives and videos become more extreme with the demands of their fans. Nevertheless, our children rarely see the darker side of being an influencer from mental breakdown, to drugs, to bankruptcy (see Justin Bieber or James Charles). It makes sense that young people want to aspire to that life, especially when they only see the positives.

How do we respond to how our children use YouTube?
We have to do two things 1) rethink the assumptions we make about YouTube and 2) ask better questions when our children use YouTube. 

Generally, adults write off YouTube as an entertainment app or a strange voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of strangers. But if we trivialize the app or whatever content our children may be consuming, we will not find common ground and therefore we won’t be able to steer them toward that best-case scenario mentioned above. Instead, we need to change our assumptions. 59% of Gen Z users cite YouTube as their primary learning tool. YouTube is not a collection of videos, it’s the information system for our children. We must engage our children with those stakes in mind as we seek to listen, to learn, and to empathize. Start with a “help me understand...” so that our children will lead the conversation about their interests. Then, we can evaluate where they are and how we can try to steer them towards the best-case scenario.

Currently, when we ask our children about YouTube we say, “what are you doing?” or “what are you watching?” This results in an instinctive dismissal because the majority of the time, they’re watching something we don’t understand. Instead, we need to enter conversations looking to ask, “how does this video/this creator make you feel?” And, “what do you intend to do with the information you’re learning?” These questions get to the heart of YouTube’s impact on children, and they get to what children take from the platform and how they use it in their lives. This will help our children understand when they are on YouTube as a passive, entertained consumer, and not an active, informed citizen. And, again, it will help us use their words to steer them towards the best-case scenario.

As we investigate our children’s mindset and actions, so to must we investigate YouTube’s. We should have honest conversations about YouTube’s goals of ad revenue via user generated content, user data, and an addictive algorithm. The best way to fight back against YouTube’s thousand coders is to get online with a strategy--know what you seek and know what you will do after acquiring it. That way your “time on site” is clearly defined by your interest and goals and not those of a billion dollar corporation. To help your child learn this skill, ask, “how (in what state of mind) did you get on YouTube? What were your goals?” That way, we can determine what extent of time online was intentional rather than algorithm-driven. This strategy helps create active, informed citizens. There’s a handy browser extension called DF YouTube that eliminates all algorithmically generated content from YouTube. Start here!

Finally, if your child strives to become a creator perhaps with ambitions of being labeled an influencer, support them. More often than not, it’s just a phase and not worth the disagreement. YouTube is great for learning and being creative. Embrace it. In all academic pursuits, hopefully your child is researching, iterating, emulating, and showing resilience. This process allows them to see that best-case scenario even if they may be striving for it in a time, place, and area of interest that likely won’t endure. And of course, if you have privacy concerns (which you should), ask them to start posting “unlisted” or “private” content using a pseudonym (and read this article for additional suggestions about controlling the data Google mines on all of us). 
Let’s commit to preparing our children to use this wonderful application as active, engaged citizens, ready to learn, connect, and create. You’re a parent, so you know It’s hard to change a child’s habits, but with an app as powerful as YouTube the stakes are high. So, listen to understand, ask the right questions and--as in all things--act as a role model in your life online and off!

October 21, 2019

Technology and the Poisoning of the Pedagogical Well
The potential that technology has to transform education is tremendous, but over a decade into its adoption, it’s still just that, potential. That’s because as more teachers and schools have deployed technology, they’ve poisoned the proverbial well--individuals and organizations have adopted technology poorly and it’s ruining technology’s promise for the rest of us.

It’s not that schools and educators aren’t trying; schools are spending a fortune on educational technology from devices to consultants to professional development, and teachers are quickly updating their lessons and practices to accommodate a technologically saturated student body. Venture capitalists, silicon valley companies, and tech billionaires are using money and influence to embed educational technology in schools. 

The reason all of these constituencies are dedicating resources to technology is because it allows access to the world’s information; as such, teachers can provide autonomy to students so they can pursue interests and expand and deepen their knowledge beyond the classroom walls. And, technology provides inexpensive, user-friendly applications so teachers can inject engagement and creativity into their classrooms. 

Imagine a student researching a topic of interest. Today, that includes access to the world’s information, and access to the world’s professionals. Google is the ultimate learning tool. Once curious and informed, students can go straight to the source by digesting the words of a professional by watching TED Talks, listening to podcasts, or reading their work online. With social media, students can do this indefinitely with the follow button. Even better, they can directly converse with a professional via email, tweet, or message. After a deep, sustained research process, students can think critically and communicate creatively with a number of free tools and professional examples. From Google, Apple, and Adobe to tablet applications and online editing tools, students have an endless suite of products available to them to create and share a masterpiece (not to mention a thousand online tutorials to help them learn how to create or edit something their heart desires). The technology described above has powered excitement in education around project-based learning, personalized learning, experiential education, gamification and many more. 

Schools and administrators quickly seize upon the successes of the individual teachers that are savvy in academic technology, and they try to push others to do the same. From schools to students to teachers, as more constituencies embrace technology and seek ambitious, positive goals, it has resulted in short-sighted, pedagogical failures. Technology’s ubiquity, has birthed bad pedagogy, which has poisoned the well for the technologically and pedagogically savvy.

SCHOOLS - From progress to convenience 

As schools and administrators have seen the success of technology in learning, they have pushed teachers to adopt technology for the sake of “progress” and 21st century learning. Those ambitious goals fade within a year or two, and what schools have actually come to depend on with respect to technology is convenience. When all teachers post assignments online, grade online, and communicate online, it allows a perfect paper-trail for administrators to explain problems with students and teachers alike. Administrators reference technology to talk about 21st century skills and a 21st century job market; many have adopted words like innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurial--only to force students into the same centuries-old factory model of subject-bell, subject-bell, repeat and for homework with task-submission, task-submission, repeat. When students seek autonomy and creativity elsewhere, like social media, schools are quick to play whack-a-mole hoping to limit agency and enforce conformity. Schools are decidedly not teaching digital citizenship and media literacy, thereby ensuring students are not using their devices as an extension of their intellectual and character education and are not leaving school with 21st century skills ready for a changing workforce.

STUDENTS - From learning & creativity to distraction 

If you sit in the back of a high school classroom with devices out, you will see videos, messages, and games running concurrently with classroom instruction. Our students use technology all the time; and, capitalism has driven the biggest tech companies--from social media platforms to video games to streaming services--to compete for their attention in order to sell advertising. Companies do this by traveling down the brain stem to keep our students hooked. For some teachers that celebrate the creative pursuits of their students via devices, these apps and connections can foster learning, collaboration and creativity. But to most teachers, these pursuits are a distraction from the course content. Most teachers now see open devices in class as a headache. Many aren’t allowing students to take notes on devices anymore. 

TEACHERS - From transformative learning to “package and submit”

Because teachers see many of their students as distracted, they struggle to leverage technology for depth of research, collaboration, and creativity (let alone sustained engagement). Instead, teachers are leveraging technology the way schools are, more for convenience than for progress. As such, teachers are implementing poor pedagogical techniques to meet the parameters created by schools and students around classroom technology.  

To control for the parameters placed on them, teachers have perverted technology use from autonomy, deeper learning, and communication/collaboration/creativity to a much more small classroom culture of what I call “package and submit.” In order to ensure their students are on task and using the resources that they’re supposed to, teachers ask students to use their devices for simple knowledge-based tasks and then demand to see each task (and sometimes grade it). Whether an English teacher asking students to answer questions about an author or submit reading journals or a Science teacher asking students to turn in a worksheet, a pre-lab, and a lab, tasks are small, and checkpoints are frequent. Often, students will go to Google; they use the copy and paste features on their devices in order to package information and submit it. This style of instruction is not at all innovative or creative (read: not progress), it’s just easy (read: convenient), made even easier by modern learning management systems like Google Classroom. 

Schools and administrators are totally okay with package and submit culture; in fact, they welcome it. It’s good for administrators and parents because assignments are transparent and available online. Many schools are even going to open online gradebooks. And these grades depend on whether or not a student can package and submit, which is largely objective. This has led to grade inflation, specifically for organized students (rather than inspired or intelligent students). Clearly these changes are convenient for administrators and parents, but teachers too have learned to embrace them, understanding that grading transparently and objectively is an easy way to keep administrators and parents off one’s back.

That said, administrators are trying to have it both ways by also pointing to a successful technological project to justify the widespread use of technology in school (and purchase of devices, applications, and professional development). But those successes are declining, fast. 

The methods described above that we currently use to administer technologically-driven pedagogy are simultaneously undermining it. If a teacher gives significant class or homework time for an assignment that allows autonomy and creativity, he will find that his students will spend some of that time off task, cut corners (copy/paste), and submit and forget it. That’s because that’s what all of their other teachers are requiring, and our students are being conditioned to package and submit (and they’re getting good grades!). And that’s ruining academic technology for the rest of us. Even if a couple of students did embrace autonomy, enjoy learning outside of class, and submit something truly creative and unique, the math is simple for most teachers: for what percentage of my students did this project go as planned? And how much of my course content did I forgo to create this technologically driven opportunity? These fears and the uncertain results of a unique and creative project or activity lead to a regression in digital pedagogy, a regression to convenience, to package and submit, and to transparency and objectivity. The well is poisoned.

If we truly want our students to succeed in our schools and beyond, we have to plan for autonomy and creativity and give our students time to acquire a depth of knowledge in an area of interest. Only then will students better understand themselves in digital spaces and uncover professional opportunities in digital spaces. If we don’t, more and more administrators and teachers will embrace “package and submit” (and grade) as the only way to ensure students complete an activity or project requiring technology. As this gets worse, the medium becomes the message; if computers in school becomes synonymous with Google, copy/paste, and package and submit, that will become the norm for our students not just in school, but also in the professional world. 

If we don’t fix our pedagogy, our students will still explore interests in digital spaces where they have autonomy, and creativity. They’ll just do it without our guidance and mentorship. Today’s information landscape is complex, deceptive, and even dangerous. Let’s not outsource our job as teachers to YouTube, Reddit, Netflix, or Fortnite. Unfortunately, up to this point, instead of leaning into those spaces, we’ve shut them down. 

The good news is we can solve this. After all, we made this mistake; we ruined the incentive structure for students and teachers using technology. We need to start by listening to our students, mentoring our students in digital spaces, and trusting our students when we embark on technological exercises. We must endeavor to get our entire faculty on the same pedagogical page with respect to technology. Finally, but most importantly, we have to investigate the structures that drive our schools and modify things like our schedule or our gradebooks to maximize for a new style of 21st century digital learning, one that embraces autonomy and engagement, promotes depth of research, and rewards creativity.

September 17, 2019

Dear Educators: Algorithms are Radicalizing our Boys

Recently, I've seen several tweets from educators asking about how to teach internet culture, specifically how to help our boys avoid radicalization in online spaces. It's imperative that we address this in schools. As someone who has had his eye on this issue for a number of years, I'll do my best to help move the dialogue forward by presenting the problems in layman's terms.
First, and foremost, it's important to provide a basic understanding of how these online spaces work. The engine that drives the internet is "time on site" and the best way to increase the amount of time people spend online is to manipulate them psychologically into getting and staying online. That's why games and social media companies use variable rewards--just like slot machines--to get people online. Those rewards release dopamine, which yields clicks. To keep you "on site," tech companies mine your data so they knows who you are, what you like, and what is most likely to get you to engage. Then, they feed your data into an algorithm that manipulates you into clicking on more things you might like.

What tech companies have learned is that feeding people affirmation gets clicks, but feeding people fear and outrage yield even more clicks, shares, and engagement. That's how Twitter and Facebook juice time on site. Another successful model is to nudge users towards more and more extreme content. That's why users watch over 1 billion hours on YouTube a day. "Time on site" skyrockets when users fall down a rabbit hole of extreme content; conspiracy theories work perfectly. That's why flat earthers and anti-vaxxers have experienced a resurgence in the internet age. For more examples and a better explanation of the above, check out Guillaume Chaslot's website AlgoTransparency and listen to Zeynep Tufecki's conversation with Ezra Klein.

Yes, algorithms manipulate users to stay online and that process is self-sustaining. Becca Lewis's research on "reactionary right" video creators revealed that not only are creators radicalizing audiences, but audiences radicalize creators too. As YouTube's algorithm knows too well, users want more and more extreme content--especially people who spend a lot of time getting information on YouTube. So if a creator wants to please his audience, like the algorithm, he too has to move towards the extremes.

In the book Networked Propaganda, Harvard researchers saw this radicalizing movement happen in more traditional forms of news as well. Their research showed that Brietbart's content was further right (read: more extreme) than Fox News's content and, they were getting more clicks and more shares--especially on immigration. As a result, Fox News tacked rightward to keep up. This could only happen in an age of social media drives audiences to websites, thereby affecting their bottom line. Of course, Fox's rightward tack is partially motivated by money. Even teenagers in Macedonia realized they could make a quick buck (sometimes 3K a day!) off traffic from social media by pumping out misinformation with click-bait headlines to Trump voters. 

In 2019, Gallup reported American's trust in mass media has dropped 8 points to an all time low of 32%. Among Republicans, trust dropped 18 points to 14%. This lack of trust in the mass media is most pronounced in young people. Perhaps that's partially why 94% of 18-24 year-olds use YouTube daily (Pew) and 59% of Gen Zers cite YouTube as their preferred learning tool (Mary Meeker). Perhaps needless to say, teenagers are at the forefront of this algorithmic radicalization.

Do our boys fall down algorithmic rabbit holes of extreme content? Yes and yes. If you want to know more about how, I highly suggest this thread. Seriously, read it. What it fails to mention is where our teenage boys first find media that pushes them to believe, say or do something "edgy" or anti-pc. In my experience as an educator, that most frequently happens 1) via gaming videos on Twitch or YouTube including the corresponding comments section (and chat apps like Discord) and/or 2) via political videos or podcasts on YouTube. Both Guillaume Chaslot and the Berkman-Klein Center have shown YouTube's tendency to push users towards far-right videos and conspiracy theories. Zeynep Tufecki proved that even watching a Hillary Clinton video inspires YouTube to start recommending Trump videos and eventually far-right content. Then, as the thread above explains so well, once our boys parrot something they hear in this space and get push-back from a parent, teacher, or peer, it often pushes them further into the media diet that prompted them to say/do something inappropriate and down the rabbit holes that algorithms feed them.

For example, the most famous gaming streamer on YouTube is Pewdiepie. He recommends anti-Semitic channels and has purposely provoked critics by doing a Nazi "heil" and using Fiverr to get people to hold up an egregiously anti-Semitic sign (Vox). The way algorithms work, if Pewdiepie gets even a small percentage of his 100+ million subscribers to click on these other channels, YouTube begins to connect them and recommend these channels to Pewdiepie subscribers even if they don't take him up on his recommendations. Connecting accounts and videos like this creates the network of edgy (to say the least) content recommended to our teenagers. For older males, Joe Rogan's podcast might be the trigger that connects listeners to alt-right leaders like Alex Jones and Jordan Peterson--both guests on Rogan's show.

I assume most educators, and very few administrators, have no idea what algorithmic extremism is, let alone how it works on our students. Hopefully, this article gives us enough background to begin discussing this issue and bringing it into our curriculum. In order to address these problems, we must lead discussions with our teenagers about their media diet and it's crucial that we are informed, honest, and open. We should identify and empower student leaders who will act as upstanders in the face of the negatives in this space. Finally, we must emphasize do's over don'ts and positives over negatives in order to avoid pushing students away from us and towards internet communities that don't share our values. Obviously, this will be challenging, but we're educators, and none of us want to relinquish our responsibility to impart knowledge and values in our students to internet celebrities or to algorithms.

August 1, 2019

Schools are obsessed with EdTech; Social Media must be next
Over the last decade, schools have been obsessed with purchasing and implementing educational technology, so much so, that it has created a need to incorporate new digital skills in the curriculum: media literacy, digital citizenship, and digital portfolios. In just the last few years, we've seen our students (and our society) struggle with online issues like bullying, misinformation, hyper-partisanship, and increasing stress and anxiety. But, schools cannot teach those skills or overcome those obstacles until we teach Social Media. That's because these skills and these obstacles are born out of the fact that our students are using the EdTech we celebrate to spend time on social media. Nevertheless, schools are going to great lengths to naively ignore social media entirely. It's time for our obsession with EdTech to evolve; we must embrace and teach social media.

Leveraging social media to teach digital citizenship, media literacy and digital portfolios will fundamentally change education. I use social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, newsletters, and podcasts) to become a better teacher. In that space, I've built a network of experts and professional organizations (media literacy), I've connected and collaborated with colleagues (digital citizenship), and--through this process--I've built a robust digital portfolio of my work. This should happen for all of our students in all of our classes. It's what meaningful technology integration looks like. It meets students where they are, it helps them develop and explore interests, and it teaches them skills and best practices to succeed beyond school. 

In the last decade, schools have embraced educational technology from outfitting our physical classrooms with devices, to restructuring personnel with more IT and EdTech coaches, to increasing budgets for software and consultants. We've spent a fortune on EdTech in our schools. Audrey Watters reported that in the last five years, investors have sunk over $13 billion into EdTech startups. An entire network of EdTech "thought-leaders" have gained out-sized influence on our professional learning from Twitter to conferences to consulting. And yet, outside of class, our students aren't using the EdTech software we buy, they're not employing the EdTech skills we teach, and they're not listening to the consultants we hire. They're connecting and consuming on social media.

Schools are partially responsible for our student's time online, which is over double digits (see Neilson or eMarketer). We are putting devices in their hands, giving them fast WiFi, asking them to complete homework online, and then ignoring everything else that happens in that space. Do we really think that our students are leaving our classrooms and using the cool EdTech app we taught them in English that day?

To address the rising use of social media and the problems created by social media, it seems logical that social media should get the EdTech treatment--more space, more personnel, and more money. As someone who has been participating in discussions online and speaking about teenagers and social media at schools and conferences for years, I'm always flummoxed by EdTech's omission of social media. At ISTE, one of the largest EdTech conferences in the world, "social media" appeared 5 times in the program, and some of that was to sell schools on security/privacy and mindfulness, not to use social media as a powerful tool for teaching and learning.

Currently, schools have a see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil stance towards social media. Schools react to social media controversies with discipline rather than teaching social media proactively. Some schools attempt to block it entirely (no, it doesn't work). Imagine demanding your students enter classrooms to learn, engage civically, and collaborate professionally, but then giving up on all of that once they open up their screens. That's not good teaching.

Even schools that acknowledge social media's role in our world stop short of meaningfully integrating it into the classroom. Schools talk about digital citizenship; good schools may even discuss controversies that happened online, but we never go to the source and teach social media. That's like teaching poker without cards. The same is true of teaching around media literacy and digital portfolios. Schools show students what a good source is; good schools may even teach them how to fact-check something, but we ignore student's social media diets entirely, which could be littered with terrible sources and bad role models. That's like playing a poker hand without looking at your cards. Finally, schools ask students to complete amazing projects; good schools may even aggregate great work and put it into a school-issued template or event, but we never help them construct and manage a public digital portfolio that could open doors for them in college and beyond. That's like having a royal flush and folding it.

To teach digital citizenship, a classroom teacher might ask a student, "should you share ____?" That student is savvy enough and a strong enough critical thinker to deliver a smart, nuanced answer. The same is true of media literacy and digital portfolios--"is ____ a good source?" and "what would a potential employer think about ____?" I've seen my students get these questions right time and again. And yet, those same students, get these questions wrong all the time outside of this classroom exercise (frankly, so do adults). That's because digital citizenship, media literacy, and digital portfolios have to be lived. And only when we bring social media into our schools, can we truly help our students live these skills everyday.
"Anyone who thinks they're doing a digital citizenship curriculum--if you're not using social media, if you're not talking about social media, you're not getting through to your kids." -ISTE19
For every time that ignoring social media has provided a school plausible deniability for an online controversy, there are a dozen more times when that same school could have identified a problem early and created a teachable moment. That alone should convince schools to embrace social media. More importantly, social media spaces have become the de facto authentic audience for our students. That's the new student center where discussions occur, that's where students share talents, and that's where students work collaboratively. Schools will benefit from acknowledging this fact, discussing the impact of it, and teaching students to use the space intelligently and thoughtfully. Finally, and most importantly, we're forgoing the opportunity to prepare our students for the world they will inherit beyond school--one that depends on professional learning and collaboration, networking, and career advancement, all of which should be happening on social media.

Whether social media gets the EdTech treatment or not, we must acknowledge its impact and bring it into our classrooms as soon as possible. Graduating lifelong learners and good citizens requires us to teach digital citizenship, media literacy, and digital portfolios. We can only do that successfully if we integrate social media into our curriculum and our communities. At the least, teachers can show students how they learn online, where they get information for class, and how they collaborate with other professionals. Teachers can include an auxiliary reading list of social media accounts for interested students. Teachers can create opportunities for students to collaborate with professionals online. And, teachers can ask students to contribute quality work to a digital portfolio. I'm not holding my breath for schools, investors, and consultants to embrace this pivotal part of our student's lives and our society and neither should you.

July 24, 2019

HS Sports in the age of Social Media: When Losing is Winning
Last year, I wrote about how athletics have been instrumental in teaching perseverance in an age of grade inflation.
 That's because, when my team loses, we lose. There are no retakes, no extensions, and no extra credit. And "success" is variable, you do not have to win every game to be successful, and even sometimes when you do win, you didn't "succeed" (read: play) the way you should have. These conditions cultivate athlete and team agency and buy-in for a coach's instruction. This process fosters grit and perseverance.
While I stand by the gist of the thesis, that in sports, unlike school, failure is failure and grit and perseverance are required to succeed, lately I have been worried that college recruitment and social media have encouraged our student-athletes to overcome losses not with grit and teamwork, but with status fueled by individualistic, ego-boosting transactions on social media.

After every game, athletes create highlights and share them on social media to build a brand as a talented athlete. As a result, I've seen my players compute their successes or failure based on how they played as an individual--and what that might mean for status and college recruitment--and not how the team played or what the team needs to do to succeed.

I'm not a Luddite, I see the power of video in sports: it helps athletes learn new skills, it helps coaches game plan and develop players, and hopefully it's helping with equity in college recruiting. But, I think it's imperative that coaches understand what else comes with the combination of cloud-based video and social media.

Even before the pervasive presence of social media, I've regularly heard certain athletes describe a tough game like, "we lost. But, I scored four goals." But social media allows athletes to post their highlights online, or to pull up the game film, jump to their favorite clip, and turn their screen or phone so a classmate or friend can watch. In advisory one morning, I asked a basketball player how his game went last evening; he pulled his phone out of his pocket and showed me the dunks he had in the game. It was already on social media.

As a coach, I get frustrated with the transactional and individualistic nature of sharing ones highlights publicly online, especially after defeat. I can only imagine what it feels like to a team captain that, driven by social norms, has to "like," "comment," or "reshare" a highlight by a teammate posted a day after a tough loss. I'm also concerned about the fact that my athletes are openly sharing all of their best work so that our opponents can easily study our plays, and our best players' tendencies. And I wonder what impact that has on my own team when we go head-to-head with a team with a lot of talent. I know many of my players have seen all their highlights; will that mean they think we won't have a chance and will try less?

At the same time, I must acknowledge that the forces driving the changes described above aren't going anywhere. College coaches are asking for highlights online and athletes gain status when they show off their great work. And, succeeding in one of those areas usually leads to success in the other.
When college recruitment requires athletes to extract highlights from every game, I can't be sure players are internalizing my message after a game. When I tell my team we need to play together as a team, we need to talk more on the field, or we need to prepare better for a tough opponent, that doesn't resonate with an athlete looking to make the jump to college sports.

When I played college sports, before highlights on social media, we had to guess how good an incoming player was based on his high school team's success and his statistics. If you had great stats on a bad team and/or in a bad league, you still had to prove yourself. In that sense, your high school team's success mattered to your status as an incoming college athlete.

Today, athletes build status on social media with their highlights. An athlete's most-liked posts are a season-long highlight and college offers. Since athletes around the world are all marketing themselves online, they have plenty of others to follow, like, study, and emulate. This becomes self-sustaining. As a teacher, I've seen my students using a free period to watch other player's highlights on social media. And often, our students choose not play for their high school team because they think playing outside of school is better for college recruitment. This selective participation has gotten worse every year. We had a tennis player at our school that would call in sick when he was matched up against the most talented opponents. We had a number of talented football players threaten to leave the school because our coach left and their acquaintances (and other coaches) at other schools tried to recruit them to leave. All of these decisions are in pursuit of status.

Recently, The Atlantic picked up on this trend in high school and college basketball. The article quotes Chase Adams, who had a 7th grade highlight video rack up 14 million views. He has 100k followers on Instagram. My athletes dream of this:

“at the end of the night, I get a notification on Twitter, ‘Chase Adams new game video.’ The way social media and the video world works, you never know when someone is recording you. They’ll just put out a video as soon as the game is over,' he says.

Now, Adams is followed by NBA players he grew up admiring and local celebrities like the rapper G Herbo. Like the other young athletes he plays with, Adams has become conscious of his own brand."

Our student-athletes are branding themselves online everyday. As coaches, we need to understand this new reality and adapt accordingly. In all of the stories I included in this article, status drives our athlete's decision-making. So, if coaches hope to teach perseverance, teamwork, and how to overcome adversity, they're going to have to figure out how to turn those skills into a new currency, status.

July 14, 2019

Shoo, Shapiro!: Hosting Civic Conversations without Conservative Media

J Rosewell, Unsplash
From the Women’s March to Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the March for Life, few causes have spurred national civic action in the last few years like abortion. While Boomers, Gen X and Millennials have reached an age where their opinions on this divisive issue are largely set, Gen Z is still up for grabs. As a high school teacher, I’ve watched these first-time and soon-to-be voters feeling out their stances, often through empathetic, insightful discussions, only to be foiled at every turn by Ben Shapiro.

It’s powerful to watch sixteen and seventeen year olds contending with abortion: They’re relatively new to the topic, they rarely get the chance to discuss it, and they’re only beginning to understand the consequences of their votes and their beliefs. And when talking to each other, unlike politicians and pundits, they can’t dodge questions, repeat talking points, or preach to the choir. They have to engage and understand their peers--those who will be their lab partner in science, their peer editor in english, and their teammate in debate club. In other words, they have to thoughtfully engage with one another. And that engagement is productive--until someone mentions a taboo created by conservative media--like Planned Parenthood or Medicare for All--that shuts down discussion and prevents my students from seeing the common ground that they share.

This spring, at the private high school where I teach, two junior girls planned an optional student-led forum for those who wanted to talk about the wave of heartbeat bills being passed at the state level. While the students who attended were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the right to choose, I was glad that a couple of pro-life students showed up, too. One student in particular, Joe, argued vigorously that life begins at conception. When someone followed up by asking him about women who were medically or financially not in a position to have a child, Joe suggested that federal grant programs could help with that. But that productive dialogue dissolved when someone pointed out that Joe had just described Planned Parenthood.

“No. Not like Planned Parenthood,” Joe reacted.

Planned Parenthood was a non-starter — his favorite media personality, Ben Shapiro, had made that very clear.

The students continued their discussion, talking about financial support and healthcare for infants. Another pro-life participant said that in order to enact pro-life laws, she felt we must have Medicare for All. This compromise helped pro-choice participants understand another point of view that starts with the same assumption about supporting infants.

Once again, this conservative flashpoint shut the discussion down.

“No. Not medicare for all. That doesn’t work.” Joe said.

Before Planned Parenthood or medicare for all were mentioned, Joe seriously considered the equities of restricting the right to choose and what support society must provide should it force women to carry to term and give birth to children. But once the labels Planned Parenthood and Medicare for All were used, Joe’s independent judgment was overtaken by his devotion to Ben Shapiro. Joe’s knee-jerk reactions, the result of so many hours of listening to the 9th most-downloaded podcast on iOS, impeded the communication and understanding that otherwise characterized the conversation.

After the forum, Joe recommended I listen to Shapiro’s podcast, emailing it to me the next day and assuring me that Shapiro explained Joe’s views much better than Joe ever could. I disagreed. It was powerful to hear Joe voice his own opinions and respond to the arguments of his peers in-person (not to mention, seeing both sides find some common ground). Joe disagreed, noting that he felt “Shapiro [responds to counter arguments] better than anyone”

After the forum officially ended, most of the participants stayed to keep talking. This conversation represented good progress for our students. Often when we discuss social issues, there’s faux agreement in the room because our conservative students remain silent until after the forum, when they can express their ideas in their own echo chamber. For example, a couple of years ago, we had a forum about the Pride Flag because the flag hanging in our student lounge kept getting torn down. Clearly there was a faction at the school that opposed the flag, but no one spoke up at the forum, meaning it failed to achieve any understanding, compromise, or cathartic effect.

I assume liberal students could also stymie compromise, or wait until after the meeting to express their true opinions together, but I’ve never seen it. That could be because of the topics or the format. But one thing is for sure, there is no voice like Shapiro for teenagers on the left.

Empathetic face-to-face conversations are a powerful tool for progress in our current politically polarized era. There’s a lot to be optimistic about with Gen Z. They care about others, they listen, and they engage with each other. They’re still at a stage where they’re open-minded to each others’ views and to their own intuitions--Joe’s intuition, for instance, was that society has an obligation to support mothers and infants. But understanding others and solving nuanced political problems will continue to elude us until we get Ben Shapiro--and the knee-jerk conservatism that he advocates--out of the room.

May 29, 2019

Teaching Media Literacy Through Social Media

This article appeared on KQED's In the Classroom blog in February!

In 2015, Wes signed up for my Mass Media course, hoping to learn about journalism, broadcasting, graphic design and film. He discovered a passion for film and graphic design and he quickly rebuilt his Twitter to follow writers, directors, producers and filmmakers. This feed provided more films to watch, more critics to read and more directors to emulate, which in turn inspired him to start experimenting with iMovie and Photoshop, and later Premier and After Effects, in order to create and share his own films and designs. At the end of the course, I asked students to upload their favorite projects to a digital portfolio. To this day, Wes still updates his digital portfolio!

In talking to Wes recently, he mentioned how important reforming his social media feeds was in helping him realize and pursue his passions. On many of his accounts, he stopped following “friends” and began learning, critiquing, emulating and collaborating. At first, he blogged about horror films on Tumblr, then he produced his own film reviews on YouTube, and now he’s analyzing and critiquing films on Letterboxd with other film buffs. Wes said he felt fulfillment when he applied for a job and the interviewer had seen his work online!

If you’re like me, you get frustrated that despite our best efforts, students continue to encounter and share misinformation, use poor sources on assignments and post inappropriately on social media. Over many conversations with students, I realized I’m struggling with this because I’m trying to teach media literacy skills in a “lab” environment with artificial conditions. There's a big difference in showing something to a student and saying "Is this a good source?" or "Should you post this?" and actually having students regularly ask those kinds of questions in the course of their own social media networks. To address this, I decided to build instruction around student interests so that students can interact with media in a network that matters to them. I thought that if students started from a place of genuine interest, they would be more likely to consume and create media intentionally and skillfully. And this learning will have “real-world” impact for them. I’ve been experimenting with this instruction for several years in my my history classes, my media classes, and now in my social media elective. Here’s how I did it.

Consuming Quality Content
Building a personal learning network starts with social media. First, I work to pique students’ interest in a topic, then help them connect with professionals and organizations that are producing quality content about that topic on social media. One tool I use repeatedly is the “list” function on Twitter, which allows me to curate a collection of public figures and organizations that my students can follow. Here’s an example of a list focused on journalism and current events for students in my Mass Media class, and here’s an example for my Contemporary World History students to keep up with global news and developments. I built a website for students to build their own personalized learning networks for interests that span beyond the content of my course.

In addition to following these lists, students work to build their own. One student emailed me after class to tell me that on her school account, "I only follow newsworthy feeds... about human rights, international news or politics.” Perhaps the best thing about helping students build their network is that the learning continues every time they open their social media apps. A number of my students continue to check the international news list from our class two years after the course.

Producing Quality Content
Locating and consuming quality content is just the beginning of creating and joining a personal learning network. We also need to empower our students to produce quality content to inform these networks. For example, I hosted a class blog, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter or Soundcloud account where students share articles, podcasts and videos. Producing content for these shared accounts can be a jumping off point for contributing to students’ own personal networks. For instance, here’s an example of a student who chose to repost her work onto her own digital portfolio.

When assigning media creation, I embrace student choice. In my social media elective, I ask students to demonstrate progression through the course skills chart (image below). They can do so in any medium. A student can write (like this student who wrote well-researched social justice posts); record a podcast (like these students who wanted to help their peers understand climate change); or even create a model (like this student who wants to be an architect). When evaluating, I look for argument, evidence and some fluency (and creativity!) in the medium they choose.

In the same way that consuming quality content becomes self-sustaining, this effort to create also becomes self-sustaining. As a teacher, I work to help students create and share their first piece of original, informative media. Over time, I can step aside and let them develop proficiency in their mediums as they work to improve their networks, which is essential. Because it’s not enough to learn online, one has to be understood as such, and the only way to do this is to contribute thoughtfully. Ideally, each student’s network will act as an authentic audience that gives feedback. At the least, the professionals and organizations in the student’s network can serve as role models to emulate when it comes learning and sharing online.

In order to graduate media literate students, let’s allow them to follow their interests online. That way they experience online spaces with the interest, critical eye and collaborative mentality of a responsible digital citizen. Savvy media consumers build large networks of professionals and organizations that deliver quality content. Skilled media producers contribute meaningfully to that network, emulating professionals and creatively including their voice. We can mentor our students through this growth and watch them as their participation in networks launch academic, civic and professional opportunities delivering fulfillment to their lives.