A recent BBC News story tells of an investigation by Argyle and Bute Council into the activities of one of its teachers on Twitter. According to the report, the teacher had been posting up to 38 tweets a day, many of which were posted during school hours. Although the micro-blogging site is blocked on school computers, the teacher is thought to have been using her mobile phone.
Although the individual’s Twitter account has now had all messages deleted, some of the more interesting tweets quoted by the BBC report included:
“Have three Asperger’s boys in S1 class – never a dull moment! Always offer an interesting take on things.”
“The thought of having some of my S4 beyond exam time doesn’t bear thinking about – for them as well as me I suspect.”
“Depute came in while I was logging on.”
The individual talks about an interest in using IT and technology in education, and also runs a blog looking at such things. It is clear that they have a significant professional interest in the subject, and their use of Twitter appears to be a natural extension of this. As blogger and teacher Joe Dale points out in his post Creating your PLN [personal learning network] in Twitter, platforms such as Twitter and wikis:
can be used by teachers to create their own personal learning network and allow themselves to connect with others from around the world.
It is regrettable that attention has been brought to this practice due to what could be seen as inappropriate usage, but this really only serves to highlight the risks around Social Media, for both employee and employer, as well as the crucial need for clear policies to ensure that everyone knows where they stand.
A key issue for me is the fact that Twitter appears to have blurred the boundaries between professional and social networks. Facebook and the like serve as a predominantly social service, whilst sites such as LinkedIn provide a purely professional platform. Although some cross-over exists on these sites, it has perhaps never been so integrated as on Twitter. As one comment on Joe Dale’s blog post states:
on top of all the benefits of Twitter from a professional point of view, having had a tough time at the beginning of the year, I can say that Twitter was also a great personal support to me.
You can immediately see a potential for conflict here. If such platforms are being used as a place for support, how easily could the issues discussed there be linked back to the person? If someone is discussing a troublesome pupil, for example, how simple would it be for pupils or parents to follow that discussion and infer the identify of the individual?
This is a risk not just in an education context, but in any context where people are dealing with individuals or sensitive information. We’ve seen various stories recently of people getting into hot water for posting comments about customers, clients, and even employers. The risks seem obvious to me, but for some it is not so obvious, especially if you don’t fully appreciate how far your content can spread (actually, even I have been surprised recently by how prominently many of my own tweets appear in search engines).
The case of the Argyle and Bute teacher is not a one-off. Far from it. The Twitter4Teachers wiki, created by Gina Hartman, provides links to loads of Tweeting teachers (whom I will call Tweechers, although a Google Search suggests I’m not the first to use the term). A quick scan of some of the accounts linked to from here identifies a few comments that some could find potentially inappropriate, including this controversial post from an English and Drama teacher:
Darwinian missing link FOUND! Take THAT, you creepazoidal Creationists and shove it up your illogical arses!
Clearly, then, employees need to be made aware of how their online activity could impact their job and reputation.
Of course, another element of the Argyle and Bute story is the fact that the teacher appeared to be Tweeting during class time. This takes it to a new level, where the employee is potentially acting inappropriately by not doing their actual job. I don’t suggest that this is the case here – we don’t have access to all the facts and the Council itself has said they are not pursuing disciplinary action. But it is a major concern for employers in general, including my own organisation who block access to all such Social Media sites on the network (including sites such as YouTube).
My opinion, though, it that many of these issues are management issues, rather than technical ones. As the Argyle and Bute case clearly showed, people will find other ways of accessing these platforms, be it via mobile devices, proxy servers or even via mash-up style interfaces offering alternative routes into sites (for example, neither dabr nor Accessible Twitter are blocked by my organisation, allowing two easy ways to circumvent the Twitter ban).
Also, if staff want to waste time, they can do so in all manner of ways (online or offline). They may not be able to access their Facebook account, but they can probably still view certain other sites, or send text messages, or read a newspaper, or chat to a colleagues… This is why I would argue that it is a management issue, and whilst there are certain technical risks to allowing employees access to Social Media sites (bandwidth consumption, security vulnerabilities), the majority of them can be accounted for.
In conclusion, there is a clear need for organisations to adopt comprehensive policies to address the issue of Web 2.0 and Social Media, allowing employees to utilise the endless opportunities which these platforms offer, whilst mitigating against the risks, teaching its staff how to use the platforms properly, and therefore focusing the responsibility on to those who wish to engage with the technologies. In doing so, an organisation would be seen as progressive and open to change, and would also send out a clear message that their employees are trusted and valued.