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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015

A Hack Education Project

Social Media, Campus Activism, and Free Speech

This is the eighth article in my series Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015

As long as I’ve written these year-in-review stories, starting back in 2010, I’ve noted some of the tensions surrounding social media and schools. On one hand, social media gets touted as facilitating “connected” or “social” learning, “personal learning networks,” and the like. On the other hand, social media is still viewed with suspicion. Sites are blocked on some school networks; some schools ban students and teachers from interacting online; and some schools monitor what students and staff say online. (Some students and staff monitor one another as well, sharing emails, videos, images via social media in turn.)

So like many of the topics I write about in this series, it would be easy to say that not much has changed when it comes to social media and schools. But to do so would ignore one of the most important trends in education: the powerful resurgence of campus activism. This activism is deeply intertwined with social media – in terms of organizing, documenting, and spreading messages – and with concerns about attacks on free speech.

Who’s Using Social Media?

The Pew Research Center released several reports on social media in 2014: on mobile messaging, on parents’ use of social media, and on teens’ usage.

In a report (PDF) that provides an overview of social media usage, published in October, the organization said that “Nearly two-thirds of American adults (65%) use social networking sites, up from 7% when Pew Research Center began systematically tracking social media usage in 2005.” When looking at adults’ usage, there are small differences in the rate at which men and women and at which different racial and ethnic groups use social media: 68% of women, 62% of men, 65% of whites, 65% of Hispanics and 56% of African-Americans use social media today. Those who live in urban areas, with higher education levels, and with higher household income are more likely to use social media. Young adults, between the age of 18 and 29, are the most likely to use social media – 90% of them do.

Facebook is still the most popular social media site, used by 72% of Internet-using adults (that is, about 62% of all American adults). But the growth of Facebook has plateaued. Growing in popularity are messaging apps like Snapchat that delete messages, as well as image-heavy sites like Instagram and Pinterest.

Facebook remains the most popular social media site for teens too, used by 71%. It’s the one they say they visit most frequently as well. As with adults, Snapchat and Instagram are popular among 13 to 17 year olds. According to Pew, boys are more likely than girls to say they visit Facebook regularly; girls are more likely than boys to say they use Instagram. Snapchat is used more often by wealthier teens.

But all in all, Pew found that “92% of teens report going online daily – including 24% who say they go online ‘almost constantly.’” “African-American and Hispanic youth report more frequent internet use than white teens. Among African-American teens, 34% report going online ‘almost constantly’ as do 32% of Hispanic teens, while 19% of white teens go online that often.”

Recommended reading: danah boyd with “An Old Fogey’s Analysis of a Teenager’s View on Social Media.”

But even if social media has seen widespread adoption by adults and teens alike, it still faces obstacles to being used at school. eSchool News reported in May about the number of efforts made by districts across the US to restrict the contact that teachers and students have with one another. So the results of a University of Phoenix survey released in September probably shouldn’t be a surprise: just 13% of teachers use social media in the classroom. To be clear, it’s not that they don’t use social media at all – 78% of them said they do for personal use. But the survey found a great deal of reluctance to using it for professional purposes – to communicate with students or with parents, for example. In fact, that reluctance has increased over the past few years, Education Week noted.

Social Media Surveillance

The reluctance for teachers to adopt social media might reflect a belief that seems to persist at school: that students using social media are simply up to no damn good. They use it for cheating. They use it for sexting. They use it for bullying. They’re distracted by it. And on and on.

States and districts have taken differing approaches to students’ social media accounts. In January, The Washington Post examined a new law in Illinois that would require students hand over their social media passwords if their school has reason to believe that their social media accounts have evidence she or he violated a school policy. Even if it’s posted at home, after school hours. In October, Education Week reported that, “Wyoming could become one of the first states to institute broad protections for students unwilling to give school officials access to their social media accounts.”

Many schools have also turned to social media monitoring tools that analyze all public status updates across various platforms. The Orlando Sentinel reported in May that “What Orange County students – and staff – post on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube is now being monitored by their school district to ‘ensure safe school operations.’” Ensuring “safe school operations,” of course, gives schools a very broad mandate.

As I noted in the previous article in this series, Pearson’s use of social media monitoring during the Common Core exams – ostensibly to curb cheating – attracted a fair amount of negative publicity. But to be fair to Pearson, this is something that most corporations probably now do – they’re monitoring us to protect their brands.

In the UK, it was less concerns about cheating than “extremism” that was offered as the justification for surveilling students’ online activity. Al Jazeera reported in October that

Schoolchildren in the UK who search for words such as “caliphate” and the names of Muslim political activists on classroom computers risk being flagged as potential supporters of terrorism by monitoring software being marketed to teachers to help them spot students at risk of radicalisation.

The “radicalisation keywords” library has been developed by the software company Impero as an add-on to its existing Education Pro digital classroom management tool to help schools comply with new duties requiring them to monitor children for “extremism”, as part of the government’s Prevent counterterrorism strategy.

To be fair, this surveillance isn’t just a practice undertaken by K–12 schools. Students in college also found themselves in trouble for things they posted online. A student at the University of Tulsa was suspended over offensive Facebook posts (made by his husband), for example. The Kansas Court of Appeals reversed the University of Kansas’s decision to expel a student for tweets he made about his ex-girlfriend.

The Trouble with Yik Yak

Without any doubt the most controversial piece of education technology in 2015 was Yik Yak. (And yes, I know that it’s probably controversial too to label it as “ed-tech.”) Certainly it was the one most frequently written about as everyone from The New York Times to Inside Higher Ed to The Pacific Standard to the Guelph Mercury weighed in on the havoc that Yik Yak has wreaked.

Yik Yak is part of a broader trend in tech, no doubt: the rise of anonymous messaging apps. When I wrote about data and privacy last year, I observed that “In light of all this surveillance at home and at school, it seems quite noteworthy to see the adoption of these apps by students.” This year: same as it ever was, I suppose. Except this year both campus administrators and law enforcement pushed back, demanding in several highly publicized cases that Yik Yak hand over data about its users. (Spoiler alert: anonymous messaging apps mostly aren’t.)

In conjunction with some of the other events that I’ll explore here, Yik Yak became a major site of conflict and harassment on many campuses. It announced at the beginning of the year that it would improve the process for reporting abusive posts, but that hardly stopped them from being posted in the first place.

Students were suspended at several universities for making “hurtful comments” and for making threats using the tool. Colleges struggled to address Yik Yak; of course, they struggled to address the issues that Yik Yak tended to underscore: rampant racism, homophobia, and misogyny on campus, for example. In October, “72 women’s and civil rights organizations urged the U.S. Education Department to tell colleges that they must monitor anonymous apps like Yik Yak – frequently the source of sexist and racist comments about named or identifiable students – and do something to protect those students who are named. The groups said they view anonymous online abuse as an emerging issue under provisions of the Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.”

Via Vox’s Libby Nelson: “Colleges’ Yik Yak problem, explained.”

Yik Yak is not the only app like it on the market or even the most highly funded. It’s raised $73.5 million total. If you’re talking messaging apps more generally, that amount puts it far behind Snapchat, which has raised $1.17 billion. One of these companies’ competitors in the anonymous messaging app market, Secret, did shut down this year, after raising $37 million.

Another app worth noting for its popularity among teens: Jott, which works without a data plan or WiFi connection. The app uses a mesh network instead, making it useful for those teens who don’t have a data plan on their mobile device and allowing them to bypass some of the filters and blocks that school networks have in place.

Social Media Sousveillance

As all the social media monitoring underscores, there’s already plenty of surveillance on school campuses. But the ubiquity of mobile devices has also create opportunities for students surveil back, to record videos of one another, faculty, and staff.

A number of notable cases this year: video of University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members singing a racist chant, prompting the school to sever ties with the organization and expel two of students. Kennesaw State University apologized in June after a student made a video of him attempting to meet with an academic advisor (and being accused of harassment for doing so). In October, a student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina videotaped a school resource officer violently throwing a fellow student, a young Black woman to the ground, purportedly because she refused to comply quickly enough to her teacher’s demand she put her phone away. Both students in that case were arrested. The video – horrific – went viral. Ben Fields, the sheriff’s deputy, was subsequently fired.

These student-made videos are very important as they provide visual confirmation the arguments that students have long made about police brutality, campus racism, and so on.

Free Speech and Job Security

There was some resolution this year to one of the big cases of free speech and social media from 2014: Steven Salaita’s firing by the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. That was when the university withdrew an offer of employment for the Native American Studies professor following tweets he made about the Israel and Gaza.

Why I Was Fired” by Steven Salaita.

In January, Salaita filed a lawsuit against the university – its administrators, trustees, and donors. UIUC sought several times to have the lawsuit dismissed. The university was forced to release emails pertaining to Salaita’s employment (and from those we learned that UI chancellor Phyllis Wise had used her personal email account to try to avoid scrutiny as the school made its decision to rescind the job offer. Wise resigned shortly afterward). In November, the university paid $875,000 to settle the case.

Salaita was far from the only tenured professor who lost a job for something she or he posted online. He was far from the only one who found his job threatened this year, despite the supposed strong tradition of “academic freedom” in higher ed.

An incomplete list:

In January, Tim McGettigan, a sociology professor at Colorado State University Pueblo, filed a lawsuit against the school for violating his free speech rights, charging that the university blocked his computer access after he tried to organize protests in response to planned layoffs. Also in January, Marquette University grad student Cheryl Abbate wrote about what she experienced following a blog post by professor John McAdams criticizing how she handled a discussion of gay marriage in one of her classes. Marquette University took to revoke the tenure and fire McAdams. Northwestern University Laura Kipnis was investigated this spring for an essay she published that defended the right of professors to “hook up” with students. (She was cleared of any wrongdoing.) In May, Saida Grundy, an incoming professor at Boston University, found herself in hot water over comments she made on Twitter about white privilege. In July, there were rumors (false) that the University of Memphis had fired Zandria Robinson for comments she’d made on Twitter. Also in July, tweets from University of Wisconsin Madison professor Sara Goldrick-Rab stirred up controversy. The University Committee issued a statement condemning her, but the Faculty Senate said there would be no disciplinary action taken.

(In many cases, the professors who found themselves in trouble for their blog posts and Tweets were targeted by the conservative news site Campus Reform, which The Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed “Higher Education’s Internet Outrage Machine.”)

Goldrick-Rab’s tweets were a commentary on the moves by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to end tenure in the state (in part she urged incoming students to avoid the school); and I think all these concerns about academic freedom and faculty activism and/or misbehavior cannot be separated from the political climate that Walker’s efforts exist in – a belief that professors, like students, cannot be trusted.

Recommended reading: “Everything But The Burden: Publics, Public Scholarship, And Institutions” by Tressie McMillan Cottom.

There was a lot of handwringing this year about threats to free speech, but there wasn’t necessarily a lot of critical reflection about who gets to speak and who gets punished for it. A growing intolerance to free speech – the work those darn “language police” as Jonathan Chait described it in January – has lead to a “great renaissance of public shaming” that is “sweeping our land” thanks to social media. That’s the argument of Jon Ronson’s 2015 So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which tried to push this narrative (one that Jacqui Shine masterfully dismantled in her review of the book).

Power matters. It matters when it comes to faculty speech. It matters when it comes to students'.

Campus Protests

It’s been five years now since Malcolm Gladwell published his article in The New Yorker arguing that “the revolution will not be tweeted.” Social media is built on “weak ties,” he argued, and therefore could never become powerful enough to make substantive social change. Others have lambasted and derided “hashtag activism” since then. I’d like to think that #BlackLivesMatter is proving them wrong, particularly with the role that Black students have played in “reinvigorating” campus activism.

From The Atlantic, “Campus Politics: A Cheat Sheet.” As that article highlights, there have been major protests across many, many universities this year (in the US and elsewhere). Harvard. Yale. Princeton. Amherst. Claremont McKenna College. University of Cincinnati. The University of Missouri. Protests have occurred at high schools too: in Baltimore, in Chicago, in Seattle, and elsewhere.

Student Activism Is Serious Business,” author Roxane Gay wrote this fall. Indeed, the protests have drawn attention to racial inequalities, police violence, punitive educational practices and, according to The New York Times, these might play a role in the Supreme Court decision in the Fisher v Texas case. Certainly the Justices’ comments and questions during oral arguments underscored the biases that run throughout US institutions.

I don’t want to commit the inverse of Gladwell’s error here. That is, I don’t want to suggest that social media is the reason for this renewed activism; that it’s the glue that gives #BlackLivesMatter (or any other political hashtag) its solidarity or a technology that gives it its fuel.

But when I look back over the events that occurred at the University of Missouri in November, for example, it’s pretty striking to see how social media and the tools I’ve written about here – Twitter, cellphone videos, Yik Yak, and the like – have helped to elevate the public’s awareness of the racist climate on campuses and have helped students across campuses to share strategies and support. Social media might not drive activism, but it certainly shapes what and how we know about political events, particularly as the national media dismisses certain stories as merely “local interest.”

(Think: #IStandwithAhmed. Think: #CharlestonSyllabus. Think: #FeesMustFall. Etc.)

Throughout the fall, students at Mizzzou grew more and more frustrated by the administration’s lack of response to several racist incidents: Peyton Head, the president of Missouri Students Association, was called racist slurs when he walked across campus, for example. In October, Concerned Student 1950, a student group named for the year the first Black graduate student who was admitted to the university, staged a protest at the homecoming parade, confronting the car of university president Tim Wolfe. The car bumped into one of the protesters, graduate student Jonathan Butler. At the end of October, a swastika drawn in human feces was discovered at a residence hall. On November 2, Butler began a hunger strike.

On November 7, the Legion of Black Collegians posted a photograph to Twitter of some 30 football players linking arms with Butler. “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” read the message accompanying the photo. “We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences.” (The tweet was retweeted 3000 times.) The next day, the school’s football coach Gary Pinkel tweeted a photo of he and his team arm in arm, “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.” (This was retweeted 15,000 times.)

On November 9, Wolfe resigned. (The Nation’s Dave Zirin offered “3 Lessons from the University of Missouri President Tom Wolfe’s Resignation.”)

The protests continued, as did threats of violence against student protestors via social media. (Two white students from nearby colleges were arrested for threats they’d posted to Yik Yak.) Fearing for their safety, some students asked to have classes cancelled, and a screenshot of a rather unsympathetic email from a professor who refused to do so went viral, also thanks to Twitter.

As journalists flooded the campus to report on the protests, they came in conflict with some students, who were reluctant to have all of their demonstrations and meetings filmed and who wanted a “no media safe space.” Again, cellphone video went viral, this time showing a professor calling for “muscle” to block reporters from filming.

As it’s wont to do, the media quickly reframed the story to be about itself, to be about free speech – a “diversion,” as Jelani Cobb suggested in The New Yorker – and the spotlight on campus racism threatened to be lost in the narrative that the press and pundits were happily formulating: that there’s a growing illiberalism on campus, that political correctness is running amok.

If not for the revival of campus activism this fall, I think the focus of that narrative would have been on “trigger warnings.” My god, there were so many op-eds written this year about trigger warnings, and I confess I didn’t keep track of them, as most – not all – tended to dismiss students’ experiences and students’ pain. Based on the frequency with which they came up, you’d think they were on the top of almost every syllabus. But according to a survey conducted by the National Coalition Against Censorship, trigger warnings are neither widely used by professors nor widely demanded by students. But again, stories about trigger warnings fit a certain narrative that students are refusing to listen to ideas that they find uncomfortable or that they disagree with. Even President Obama suggested students were “coddled.” No doubt, there were a handful episodes – again, often drawn from a student’s update on social media – that went viral, such as a story from Duke about freshmen's purported refusal to read Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home.

Recommended reading: Aaron Bady’s “Against Student Stories.”

CUNY’s Angus Johnston has recently published an article in Rolling Stone that summarizes the campus activism of 2015 much better than I have here. “There’s No College P.C. Crisis,” he argues. There are nonetheless a number of crises that schools do face: ongoing struggles over free speech, tenure, academic freedom, labor, racism, misogyny, violence, and so on. It seems likely that we’ll see all of this continue to play out – and play out on social media – in the coming year.

This article was first published on Hack Education on December 19, 2015