Last week, I introducted the 6th grade to our internal social network creatively entitled, The Social Network. This is the fifth year we’ve used an in-house solution powered by Elgg. We archive the previous year’s work, upgrade to the latest version of Elgg, and start with a new blank space every year. Not only does this free the server manager from the drudgery of importing the old stuff onto a new system, it reinforces that a social network is only as valuable as the information its users freely include and share. As Don Buckley, the Director of Innovation at The School at Columbia University, will tell you, a social network is populated with the following information: Who are you? Who are your friends? What do you do?
The 6th graders were really excited to join in, and we had a pretty great 30-minute discussion about appropriate information to include in a digital profile and how to behave online, especially in light of the fact that The Social Network is part of our academic suite of tools. I reminded them that they were too young to legally have a profile on Facebook, but I discussed in detail things I found inappropriate. I don’t just judge; I tell them that I judge. I reminded them that they should carefully consider their actions in the virtual and the physical worlds, as it all goes towards building their character and their perceived character. I also gave them examples of kids and adults behaving badly online. [Usually I mention this sexting story when I talk about how everything online is public, permanent, and traceable: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/27/us/27sexting.html?_r=2]
Today, I was pretty annoyed and surprised when I found out from two different teachers that kids were creating private groups on The Social Network and personally inviting certain kids while gleefully excluding others. Or, maybe I’m just offended that they didn’t include me in a group formed “for pretty and popular kids ONLY!!!” So, this afternoon, I gathered the 6th grade together and told them I was disappointed and surprised that within a week of joining this shared digital space, they were already making unfortunate choices.
I reminded them that in the real world I would never have middle school “friends” on Facebook and that shouldn’t even think about trying to connect with me online until they can legally vote. But, here at The School, they should freely connect with their classmates and teachers. Outside of school, they are plenty of ways to ostracize based on gender, religion, race, ethnicity, sexuality, socio-economic status. Inside these walls, we should embrace our community and seek ways to learn, collaborate, and use the technology academically, creatively, responsibly. I also reinforced that it is ok to have private groups, but there should be a purpose besides being solely exclusive.
The kids came up with pretty great examples of acceptable private groups – grade level groups, class groups, homeroom groups, and maybe creative writing groups where you would want to share your work with a select group of peer editors. I asked them to consult a teacher before creating a private group. I reminded them that they should actively consult a teacher for most things, just like I do with Don.