Reading Neil Selwyn’s book ‘Distrusting Educational Technology’ straight after the Guardian’s focus on ‘the web we want’ last month has prompted this blog entry.

One of the chapters in Selwyn’s book focuses on social media – a hint of the theme is in the chapter title ‘Distrusting ‘social’ technologies in education’. Selwyn also reminds us that we need to take a pessimistic stance when we consider using digital technology in education. He advocates a more cynical approach to using technology than most people working in education technology usually adopt.

Turning to social media specifically, my pessimistic stance is as follows, with a prompt for action at the end, believing that change can happen.

Using social media is a commercial transaction so I want hard evidence that when I give my data to a social media company, I am getting a good deal in return. However I’m amazed at how so many educational bodies and institutions are keen to use and promote the use of social media to ‘enhance’ learning, without a critical look at how commercial social media companies operate.

For a while now I’ve been muttering under my breath about how there is an unfailing optimism and sense of hope that pervades all conversations about education and technology and this includes the use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.

My unease has grown but really came to a head when I read the Guardian’s articles on the ‘web we want’ and I got thinking about why is it left to womens’ groups and NGOs to lobby for changes – why aren’t all of us promoting the use of social media getting involved and telling these companies what we want?

As I work in education, I find it hard to believe that commercial social media companies in particular have been so gently let into the education landscape, without, as far as I can tell, a discussion about the responsibilities of the companies themselves. There are two issues that concern me

  1. The ongoing problem with sexual and racial abuse on social media
  2. The lack of discussion about what is the ‘cost’ of using social media and whether education should be urging their students/staff to use them when these are for profit organisations

First the problem of abuse online. When this is raised by advocates of social media in education I hear two things.

Real life is like that, we shouldn’t be protecting students in a ‘walled garden’, just ‘teaching them’ how to behave on social media.  There are nasty people in the world, students have to learn how to deal with them. This is real life.  You have to be pretty robust to cope with this if something like this happened to you.

Second – This should be part of your institution’s digital literacy strategy – a line from Jisc here , ‘Consideration should also be given to online safety, but this can be incorporated into digital literacy elements of the course.

Taking my cue from Selwyn I looked at Jisc’s pages on Social media. We are told ‘The role of social media has the potential to extend beyond learning and teaching to support student engagement in the broadest sense.

No mention there of the potential to abuse and denigrate. Whilst Jisc provides good advice on how to support students and staff, risk is only really mentioned when discussing Access and Inclusivity. All of the resources on social media focus on what institutions and individuals can do to ‘protect’ themselves with no guidance on how to contact social media companies, or how to lobby for change in how social media companies protect users. It’s as though the education sector has thrown up their hands and is only interested in remedial actions. I’ve searched high and low for some call for action from any educational organization.

Social media is what we make it

Eric Stoller, Jisc 2015

I thought this would be where I find what I’m looking for. But instead of this being a good starting point where Jisc starts to explain how educators as a community can and should influence the digital landscape… this doesn’t happen. Jisc’s message seems to be strongly in favour of accepting the social media status quo.  Use of social media is seen as ‘learning’ be it professional learning, lifelong learning, learning about digital literacies….it all up to the individual to ‘learn’. That’s all very well, but I’m reliably told ‘the world of the happy man is is a different one from that of the unhappy man’. One optimist’s experience of social media is not the same as someone’s who is in fear of abuse.

We have to be careful we don’t judge a victim of online abuse in the same way that women are judged about what they wear when they go out – if it’s down to a person’s level of digital literacy, aren’t we hinting at some proportion of blame?

Sian Hawkins in the Guardian says ‘there needs to be… accountability and an acceptance within the industry that these platforms can put women at risk.”

I’m not satisfied with the approach higher education in general has accepted the use of social media without asking for something in return. Jisc, for example, has all but endorsed Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest without so much as a mention of the wider societal issues that come with using these companies. These companies exist to make profit out of our data, and because there is a commercial transaction, we should be pressing for something in return. We need more information from commercial social media companies about how online abuse is monitored and dealt with. We need to act like our data is valuable and not give it away to companies without knowing how they keep us safe online. When an educational organization recommends the use of specific social media it should be seen in a commercial light with justifications about why it is being endorsed.

John Carr, a British government adviser on internet safety for children and young people, said: “There is a fundamental problem in this whole area and that is the complete lack of information about what is actually happening on these major platforms. These companies have become the 21st-century public utilities. It would be completely unacceptable for an electricity or water company or the police to say ‘we cannot give out that information’.”


So I return to the Guardian’s the Web We Want. It seemed to me that all of us, individuals and organisations such as Jisc and universities should be urging, if not insisting that commercial social media companies work with them to change policies and procedures for reporting online abuse. This job should not be left to women’s groups or NGOs as it seems to be. We, as a sector, should be angry and very alarmed that

the abuse of women online is at risk of becoming “an established norm in digital society”


I felt so strongly that as a sector we should be lobbying for better responses to social media online abuse that I have written to Jisc’s Chief Executive and Chair in April.

I await their response with interest. Is there any other body/organisation we should be contacting?