The Current Logo

On Open Networks, Digital Standards, and Privacy Concerns

Written by Jennifer Smyth
August 10, 2013

The principle that hangs me up is “Openly Networked.” If I think about networks as systems and people, I can talk for days about how Bioethics Day broke down walls between curricula, between school and home, between school and community, and allowed us to connect with neighboring schools (and school systems), not to mention a university halfway across the state. All of this took place on the campus of the community college that houses our school, which is in itself a kind of “open network.” The evidence is all right there in the video, which includes footage of: students, parents, and teachers participating in discussions and labs; students from a neighboring school system presenting their work with genetic engineering; and a student-facilitated panel discussion with film-makers enrolled in Wake Forest University’s Documentary Film Program.

You won’t see students using a lot of technology in that video – all of the tech that’s there is supporting oral presentations. I could argue the point that students shot the video, but I ended up editing it after school was out, so that feels like an implementation that’s weaker than it should be. Overall, Bioethics Day feels more analog than digital.

And while sharing the video itself might count as “open networking,” it’s really not that open. I have it set to “Private” on YouTube, which means you’re only seeing it embedded here because I provided the link. It’s not searchable; it’s part of a network that I, as teacher, have some control over – I get to choose where it gets embedded, and who sees it. I maintain that control because my students navigate a world-wide web where Predditors exist and will post pictures of teenagers, from any source, without consent, for their pervy pals. I maintain that control because YouTube commenters are THE WORST, and I don’t think my students should have to deal with that mess.

I maintain similar control over the Google Drive folder housing the Bioethics Day-related documents we created. I shared that folder for a conference presentation because (1) I trusted the audience of teachers in the room, (2) students were co-presenters, and their nametags already included first and last names, and (3) their parents gave consent, via field trip form, for their attendance, but this folder includes student first and last names as document creators, and it makes me nervous to have it out there. That nervousness is alleviated a bit by the fact that it’s not in the first five pages of Google results for “Bioethics Day,” but not enough for me to share it here without removing students’ names as “owners” of the documents – something I’m just not willing to do (Note: this is, apparently, a decision district sysadmins feel comfortable making – they’ve now deleted students as owners of some docs, they have deleted some docs outright, and the docs that remain belong to me and several different “deleted users.”). I also maintain control over the documents in the way that I’ve published the folder – interested folks can add materials to their own Drives, but they can’t make any changes to our originals.

I have mixed feelings about this kind of control. I’m controlling these resources to protect my students (as are district sysadmins), but in doing so, I’m keeping students from a wider audience. I want more people to know how awesome my students are, but I don’t want students to become targets for trolls (or worse). I could use TeacherTube or publish our documents as web pages, with authors denoted by first name and last initial, but I want my students to experience the web, and its applications, in as many authentic contexts as possible. That’s why I’m controlling students’ published experience, making it less authentic. That irony does not escape me, and I have no easy answers to this dilemma. My lack of certainty worries me: I think I’m doing the right thing, but what if erring on the side of caution means we’re not fully experiencing Connected Learning?

I’m also aware of the ways in which the privacy concerns I have mirror those students and I discussed in our reading of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: district acceptable use policies and forms are asking for parents’ informed consent for posting of student images, video, and work; in making decisions about what to share (or not share), I’m considering the permissions parents have (or haven’t) given; in areas where I may fall short in addressing these issues, district sysadmins are there to ensure student privacy is protected, a function similar to an IRB.

While I still have questions about authenticity, the process of trying to work through these issues for myself – exploring all of the different kinds of networks my students engaged around Bioethics Day (and the degrees to which they engaged digital networks), and considering issues of informed consent – is instrumental in clarifying my understanding of what Connected Learning really is: it’s not just a useful framework for meaningful use of technology in my classroom, but a framework for meaningful learning.

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