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Social media and students When should speech be upheld?

universities step-in?
Rowes study involved students as well as teachers,
Peta Lee27 June 2014 Issue No:326 all of whom were shown various social media posts,
with varying degrees of offensiveness, and who
An Australian study of whether or not universities were asked to rank them from trivial to serious, as
should censor students social media activity has well as decide whether or not institutions should
thrown up some interesting findings. There was a intervene.
resounding no from students on whether
universities should monitor student-run sites, and Given that many students would regard their
the main message for universities was not to take Facebook pages and Facebook groups as their own
too seriously what students say on personal sites. private space, a prime goal of the project was to
establish appropriate limits for university
The Journal of Higher Education Policy and interference in these matters.
Management, published by Taylor & Francis, has
just published an article on 2011 research by John Another was to develop a categorisation model for
Rowe, academic registrar at Australias Curtin dealing with inappropriate or irresponsible
University in Perth, entitled Student Use of Social comments that had been detected or reported.
Media: When should the university intervene?"
Unexpected results
In it, Rowe summarises ethical problems faced by
institutions trying to protect their staff, students and A few results surprised me, Rowe told University
reputations. World News. Based on some actual student
behaviour issues with which I had dealt at Curtin
On whether or not universities should actively (student comments on teaching staff), I thought it
monitor non-university student-run sites, students was possible academics might be particularly
were sensitive: 72% saw student-run sites as no-go sensitive to criticism (more so than other staff).
zones compared with 54% of teaching staff and 42%
of non-teaching staff. However, I found that in general, teaching staff
were really no more sensitive than non-teaching
Many were uncomfortable with the notion of an staff. The only issue on which teaching staff
institution more actively entering the private social displayed a noticeably higher level of sensitivity than
spaces of students and monitoring student-run sites non-teaching staff was in relation to racist comments
for comments. about other students or staff.

Complex ethical issues I also found it interesting and a bit surprising that
non-teaching staff (that is, administrative staff) were
Difficult and complex ethical questions have arisen more inclined to think it was appropriate to intrude
for universities since the escalation of social media into student personal spaces private Facebook
use. sites, student-run Facebook groups etc via active
monitoring and so on than teaching staff.
Comments posted on sites like Facebook, for
example, are often stream of consciousness Many of the teaching staff who responded seemed
thoughts, expressed with scant regard to their very pragmatic about the issues.
potential impact. Occasionally they constitute
serious transgressions, including racism, Rowe said for earlier generations, criticising
homophobia, violent threats and admission of teachers and ridiculing their mannerisms or
plagiarism. appearance was commonplace. But the comments
were spoken, not written, or passed between
But do universities have a duty to intervene for staff students via handwritten notes in class or scratched
and student well-being? And should freedom of into wooden desktops or the back of toilet doors.
answer was clearly yes.
The likelihood of the subject of the comment actually
seeing it was small and even if it were seen or However, while both groups felt it was warranted for
brought to that persons attention, the chances of universities to take action with these types of posts,
linking the comment to a particular student were there was also a view that responsibility for taking
slim. Also, schools or universities would often action could equally be left with the police or with
immediately remove the offending comments, so service providers.
they had limited distribution and life.
Take-home message
The internet had changed this, he said.
Rowe said the main message for universities was
Many younger people seemed quite prepared to that they shouldnt take too seriously what students
post potentially questionable comments under their say on personal sites private Facebook or student-
own names, perhaps not realising these posts would run Facebook sites.
not be confined to just their friends. Even where the
original posting might be able to be deleted, it might A lot of what is said on personal sites (non-
already have been copied or further distributed. university sites) is deliberately and knowingly
provocative and aimed at an audience. My key
Foul language no problem finding is that it would be inadvisable for universities
to actively monitor these sorts of sites for negative
Added Rowe: There was a high degree of comments.
commonality between students and staff on what
constitutes the no-go zone of unacceptable Institutions can react if a complaint is made (and in
comment on social media. Students are not some cases, should react), but they should not
particularly concerned about use of foul language, actively seek out these types of comments to
but they seem very clear in their views on what is suppress or react to them. Many students would feel
OK and what is unacceptable. very uncomfortable if they knew universities were
actively monitoring such sites. Of course, comments
Racist, sexist or homophobic comments are in this on official university sites are another matter.
latter category. Students also see threats of violence
and admissions of cheating as unacceptable. Their When asked if he thought there were likely to be any
views are very similar to those of staff on these obvious changes to these issues over the next few
matters. years, he said: I dont think so. I think the key
findings will still apply although of course it will be
In students opinion, while they recognised that very interesting to test this!
certain types of comments posted on student-run
forums might warrant intervention and action by a In three years time, social media will be even more
university particularly threats of violence, racist pervasive and, in my opinion, being used a lot more
and sexist comments, admissions of cheating or by universities in a mainstream way to communicate
offers to cheat on academic work they also with students and even deliver learning experiences.
believed these sites were private spaces and not the
domain of universities. However, I still think students will want to have a
clear separation between their spaces and
They felt uncomfortable about universities entering university spaces, and will use each set of social
these spaces and actively monitoring them for what media accordingly.
institutions might perceive as inappropriate
comments: this was regarded as an invasion of On that basis, I think my findings regarding staying
privacy. out of their space etc will still be valid and I think a
lot of the other findings will probably still remain
Yet with particularly offensive or inappropriate posts, applicable as well.
both staff and students were in agreement: the
Traditional Education vs Online Education assignments on their own time as long as they meet
Should You Switch? the deadline required for communication.

According to the National Center for Education Computer-Based Learning


Statistics, about 4.3 million undergraduate students,
or 20 percent of all undergraduates, took at least This is the strictest version of distance learning, so
one distance education course in the 2007-08 much so that it almost mirrors the behavior of the
school year. And about 0.8 million, or 4 percent of all standard classroom. Within computer-based
undergraduates, took their entire program through learning, students are required to participate at
distance education. designated times and places, often ranging from a
computer or science lab to an actual classroom. As
These numbers are impressive, but even more so such, this option is typically ideal only for those who
when you factor in the rate of growth. A recent study live close to campus and are looking to take on extra
found that the popularity of online colleges is coursework through a system of independent study.
growing exponentially in relation to standard brick-
and-mortar institutions in fact, its a ratio of more Fixed-Time E-Learning
than 10 to 1. The most common type of online education, fixed-
But if youre currently enrolled in classes offered time e-learning sets a pre-determined schedule that
through a standard brick-and-mortar university, you can be kept from any location. Unlike computer-
should make sure you understand exactly what based learning, students are not required to attend a
youre jumping into before transitioning to online physical location. Instead, theyre permitted to
education and, more importantly, what your degree complete the coursework from home, school or the
will be worth in the real world after completing your office and then log onto the online learning site at
coursework. the pre-determined time. This type of distance
learning is also popular as it provides a live online
Types of online education forum that tends to supplement the social
component that can often be lacking for online
One of the main things to be aware of is that there students.
are four very different styles of distance learning,
often used in combination with one another but each Public perception
with its own unique requirements.
When considering switching to an online university,
Open Schedule the other major consideration you should be aware
of is the perception it will give you in the
These classes can be completed anywhere and marketplace. Some employers may worry about the
provide the student with the highest level of freedom legitimacy of a degree obtained from a school
possible, enabling them to incorporate the theyve never heard of. And its hard to blame them.
coursework into their personal schedule. Within this Degree mills abound on the web, with
system, students are given the course material and organizations that have legitimate-sounding names
a set of deadlines. Free to meet the deadlines conferring degrees on people for little more than a
anytime and anyway they choose, this style of online fee.
education is designed for self-motivated people who
dont succumb to procrastination. If transitioning to an online college, make sure the
college youre going to has a credible reputation (if
Blended Learning not a widely-recognizable name). The surest way of
doing so is pursuing a degree from the distance
This is a common version of distance learning that
learning arm of a well-respected traditional
offers an open schedule, but requires students to
university or, at the very least, an accredited
communicate in an established location, whether its
distance learning institute.
in a physical classroom or online via message
boards or chat rooms. Similar to an open schedule,
blended learning allows students to complete