Sunday, 9 March 2008

The Breakfast Club 2.0: University Facebook Policies

Here's a link to a Ryerson Student newspaper article on the changing Facebook policy that’s been circulating in the news and is currently a hot topic nationally and internationally:

I truly think it's going to be difficult for students to change the policy proceeding along the lines that this author is arguing. Students need to understand when on-line activity is "public" -- we've never been able to defame our bosses, openly cheat on examines and assignments, steal content and call it our own, and then document those crimes for all to see in an easily traceable manner back to the individual. Many of the acts they’re documenting here are the equivalent of cheating on an exam, and taking a picture of it, then showing it to the professor... How do they expect a school to react?

I think the school administration will definitely listen to arguments about voices of protest being stifled, academic freedom being infringed, and intellectual innovation issues along the lines of the Creative Commons movements, Open Source and other such things, especially if there are pertinent cases to draw upon. I think though what is more at issue in the above article is the draconian punishments that are being handed out, and the lack of using those opportunities to teach students about what does and does not cross respectable and lawful student or citizen activity. Completely destroying a student's life because they're exploring the possibilities of a new technology is different from using the moment to guide the student's poor decisions into a more productive activity within reasonable limits.

Some people were asking for some background on the Ryerson case, so here goes. Every university has a Student Code of Non-Academic Conduct, and here are some links to Ryerson's:


These codes serve as blanket liability protection for, among other things, cases when a student does something in public that makes his or her university look bad in some way and the university wants to distance themselves from the student (or expel the student completely). Some general examples of when this code might be used is if criminal behaviour occurs off of the campus or destruction of university property occurs while the student is not actively engaged in "academic" behaviour, which would be covered by the Student Code of Academic Conduct. Most professors list links to these codes on their course syllabi, but many students don't know what their actual rights are on campus because like the plagiarism policy, those sections are often glossed over. In truth, these codes also exist for Faculty, and students and instructors alike should know that they overlap in many ways to create community panopticon to favour the university administration, but at the other end of the spectrum they also protect all of the academic community.

All universities have been trying to reformulate these codes in light of the Web 2.0 challenges. At Ryerson in 2006, a business professor, was "owned" on YouTube, and the university admin moved fast to squash the video, which was taken off YouTube fairly quickly, but they never delivered any universal university statement about the event and they only dealt with the event internally to that business class from what I know. However, they have been working on this policy since that time.

Most recently, at Oxford students have been fined for posting incriminating pictures of "disorderly" behaviour on Facebook, and the university has warned students to set their settings to friends only privacy levels:

In other words, the Student Code of Non-Academic Conduct has always had protections against any negative forms of university publicity which could affect the "value" and "reputation" of a university's degree conferring status. After all, who would want to go to a university where “x” happened? While that seems to be the line universities use in these cases, the code has obviously been abused in the past, and perhaps is being abused in these current cases.

I hope this background helps. I believe Ryerson’s code at this point is at a nascent phase, and if the university will ever be at a point where they will consider student input, it will be now.

Good to hear people are interested in these policy issues! I would definitely recommend writing your own response to the admin, and formulating how the code should be used if you want to change things now.

Here are two links to some previous posts on this topic from last year where I was harder on High School students for abusing Facebook for similar things, but having been familiarized with High School suspensions myself (for artistic reasons, of course), I believe university suspensions are of a whole different degree because they can affect a student for the rest of his or her life, whereas High School suspensions really never affect a person again afterward, unless of course, it’s The Breakfast Club:

1) Michael Geist:

2) Supplement:

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