Watching the detectives: Rethinking the way we teach digital identity

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Social media is a disruptive and potentially transformative practice for adult education. According to Edudemic, 91% of college faculty in the US are incorporating social media into their teaching, 80% of academics have at least one social media account and 2/3 of students access social media during class . There are wide variations in the understanding people (academics, administrators and learners) have about social media, both in its scope and scale. In the context of my recent posts about the notion of ‘e-learning potential’ I have riffed on the idea that resistance to pedagogical change arising from technology comes in many forms (action/activity, vicarious willing of failure, and lack of empirical research). The reactions to social media and the practices and policies that emerge can be seen as another form of resistance, which I call ‘It wasn’t me, it was them’. We look at learning innovations like social media in the context of ‘well we would use social media more, but employers are demanding a certain professional image of our graduates so we have to be careful’ or ‘learners use their social media in my lectures too much, and if they’d put their Facebook away for five minutes they would have passed’. I worked for an institution a few years back that actually banned all social media from staff and student machines on the premise that social media represented nothing more than a time wasting opportunity.

 

Of all the things I have seen that get academics angry (especially at conferences), social media is right up there. From the dangers of stalking, to the power we are ceding to corporations who own social media, to how it will change the world (already has, naysayers) through to the discounting of its impact as hype, social media and its use by our learners is debated ad nauseum. At lot of this argument is based on limited experiences, spurious assertions and sometimes Daily Mail level sensationalism (we won’t go into the case of the poor girl who lost her Police Youth Czar job and was interviewed by police for offensive behaviour because of tweets made as a 14 year old…as we say in Australia, we often live in a wowser society)

Wowser

In Australia, it is a derogatory word denoting a person who saps all the fun out of any given situation. Derived from the temperance movement in Australia and New Zealand at the turn of the C20th, when it was hurled as an accusation towards conservative teetotallers who were too prim and proper to relax and socialise, it has become a more generic term that can be assigned to any straight bore lacking a sense of humour, especially petty bureaucrats and Aussies politicians.

 

But equally, there is a generational gap in terms of social media usage. Phone calls, memos and faxes were replaced by email for my generation (I am proudly GenX). The average 14-21 year old rarely looks at their email inbox but will send between 1200-2000 texts, tweets and IMs a month. Yet the decisions about what constitutes acceptable social media usage as part of professional practice is made by people whose practices are not generally in line with those of their learners (such is the broader problem with e-learning generally, discussed in an earlier post) or were not exposed to the environment in the content we made is displayed and shared in different and technologically facilitated ways (who needs a slide night when you have a photo-stream, who sends out paper invites when you can create a FB event?).

 

So, to put this in context, I want to highlight some of the issues for HE around social media resistance by being deliberately provocative about what is a contested but extremely common practice and how we as institutions react to its impact…let’s talk about the detective employers who use online vetting…

 

‘They call it instant justice when it’s past the legal limit.’ – A case of employer-led practice development

 

There has been significant and some would argue hysteric media hoo-hah around the rights of an employer to ‘google-stalk’ or more politely ‘online vet’ potential employees, looking at their social media profiles and their shared content to see if they fit their company’s values. These companies check peoples Facebook profiles, read through their tweets and peer into their photo and YouTube viewing histories. There are HR services that have cropped up to help facilitate this investigative process. As HE institutions discuss the emergence and impact of social media, the constant chattering of resistance and cautious action points to how employers can find anything they want out about you, and that even if you take those photos down, they are still there, for the boss of your potential dream job to see and deny you the corner office. And with that, our narrative changes from the transformative power of social media to looking at how we can lock it down, teach students about the dangers and nasties of social media usage, that we have all the answers about the professional way to present yourself online.

Google stalk (from the urban dictionary)

search for facts/information about someone by looking up their name, address and any other known facts on google

Example: I spent all day google stalking our new neighbours – the one downstairs runs a record company from home

 

What right do employers have to look at social media profiles?

Every right on the planet (bar one). They are publicly accessible. The internet makes it easy. The law has no issue with anyone legally looking at public information. Note the bar one. I challenge their moral right to do so. ‘Oh very dangerous’ I hear you cry! And yes, it is a sweeping assertion designed to polarise the debate. Hear me out. Some people compare online vetting to the employer’s right to ask you to submit to a health check, a drug test or a credit or background check. There is one difference. I consent to those. They cannot happen without my consent. The social media stalking by employers occurs WITHOUT consent, under the tenuous notion that because it’s public, you have given consent. That sounds like reverse engineering to me. They also argue that they are not looking for just the drunk selfies you put up but for the good things you do like charity work or helping your nanna mow the lawn.
Going for a job as a bank clerk is not public office. You are not required to be held to the arguably contradictory standards people who hold political office are. Why does an employer have to vet you? How does a picture of you holding a pineapple cocktail enjoying yourself indicate that you have an alcohol problem, and is that any of their business?

Scenario

George goes for his first job after university. He wants to work in the city for a major bank after finishing his finance degree. He sends LargeBank PLC his CV, they ask him for an interview. Laurie, the recruitment officer asks some questions to ascertain whether George is ‘LargeBank material’ and holds their values. The interview ends with George feeling good. He goes to the pub with his mates to debrief and relax as he usually does every Thursday. Laurie follows him to the pub, noting that he is at a pub (does he have an alcohol problem?) and he is there at 4.45pm (is he a lazy worker?). He sees a mate who he hasn’t seen in years at the pub and gives him a hug (he seems pretty rowdy and loud, is that an issue in our office?). He takes off his tie and suit (hhhm, causal dresser?) and sips his beer (must be a lager lout). George goes to the toilet (skiver!) and Laurie goes to all his mates while he is away and ask questions about George. Do they have embarrassing photos they can share with her? Any stories of holidays or former girlfriends? She might even ask if he has done any charity work. Is Laurie breaking the law? Probably not. Is it any different than looking through George’s Facebook? Yes, looking through the Facebook is anonymous and easy. And you have little or no risk of being detected, challenged or having the information filtered or interpreted. You get to form your opinion without any pesky potential employee getting in your way. Isn’t the internet wonderful? Lucky they didn’t have it my day, eh?

 

What does this mean for HE?

Employability is at the core of the policy agenda for HE and is a critical consideration for many of our learners. There is a tension then between the importance and proliferation of social media and the practices of employers. A variety of surveys have estimated that online vetting practice is occurring in between 1/5 and 2/3 of employers (a huge range I know, but how many of them truly admit something that has both legal and ethical implications). With professional practice, graduate attributes and personal development become increasingly prevalent in curriculum and learning, teaching and assessment, the practices of employers in this area are not necessarily challenged by the academy, but normalised by our acceptance of them. If employers are actively vetting their potential employees, then do we as a university alter our social media usage and practices to ensure that learners know the ‘stranger danger’ of having public profiles, sharing content and collaborating? In this scenario, is our most important lesson the one about how you construct an identity, as opposed to evolving one? Should we talking about managing internet privacy, taking professional headshots, using social media as tool to promote a personal brand?

 

There is no black and white here, but whilst I normally find myself answering such questions with outraged self-righteousness, I also know that there is a middle ground in this case. This middle ground does not lie in the scare tactics, the fear mongering or in normalising the arguably unethical practices of some employers (indulge me for one sentence: if any potential employer of mine online vetted me without my personal life without my permission, I would respond to them by saying that it is their values I hold in my contempt and I would not want to work for them!). The middle ground (to return to the point) lies in developing and supporting practices about how to use, shape, influence and lead on social media. What is the power of the community, of crowd sourcing and of collaborative media creation? It is the assumption that education prepares the manager of the future and that they will be the people making the decisions in probably less time than their parents or mine for that matter.

 

Teaching someone what not to do is often negative and frankly, of the moment. It is giving someone a list of fish they shouldn’t eat before you give them one they can. Using social media as part of HE should involve finding out what media they already use, how do they use it, how do I use it, why do they have an avatar or an alias? What skills have they acquired in using social media? How do we then transfer, repurpose, remix and reuse those skills for professional social networks, how do we analyse and understand the behaviours of others on social media, giving us insights into customers, community and societal and civic responsibilities? It is teaching them how to fish, how to share that knowledge with others and how design, develop and deliver the best fish recipe ever. Social media is not an instrument of hype any more than email is new-fangled way to say stuff. It is a fundamental aspect of society. Employers and institutions have to face up to that, and so do their practices, their expectations and the policies.

One thought on “Watching the detectives: Rethinking the way we teach digital identity

  1. Very interesting article. (I am currently researching a Masters dissertation on the subject of professionalism on social media and how it is used for healthcare students in a HE setting.)
    I agree with a number of points you have made (i.e. moral right of employers to “pry”). However, the complicating factor may be patients who research their potential clinicians prior to receiving treatment. These practitioners have a Code of Conduct to which they must adhere, so that they do not bring themselves or their profession into disrepute. The challenge for these individuals is how they manage historical social media posts in this environment. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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