What if we taught kids about social media by asking them to reverse engineer it?

Bait. By Zoë Hagerman. All rights reserved.

A couple of weeks ago, the parent council at our neighbourhood school hosted an evening lecture by a prominent social media expert. Earlier that day, the speaker had also given tips to all of the junior and intermediate kids in the school, my nine-year-old daughter included. I decided I should probably go to hear the talk so that at home, we would have a shared understanding of the messaging.

The intention of the talk for parents was to highlight the dangers of social media use so that they would feel more empowered to set clear, informed parameters for their children. The speaker made some useful suggestions for parents, based on his experiences in the field of cybersecurity and increasingly as a go-to resource for families who are trying to cope with the often heart-wrenching consequences of social-media activity gone seriously wrong. Given the grave consequences of cyber-bullying, and online harassment, including the unauthorized sharing of images in ways that malign or harm, the speaker’s strong position on the issue of how to parent or how to teach kids to (not) use social media holds a certain validity. He recommends rules, guidelines and consequences when kids break the rules. In his words, “You are the parent. You are the judge and the jury. You can take away their phones.” Sensible, right?

And yet, I left the evening feeling that beyond telling my kids what not to do (e.g., don’t sext; don’t be naive — if you create it and share it, it can be re-shared with anyone; don’t use your phone in your bedroom) the speaker offered me and the other parents in attendance no long-term, realistic, daily methods for supporting better choices, or for having the kinds of conversations that Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues at the Global Kids Online project have found to be supportive of online resilience.

I’m no “digital parenting” expert, but I do study digital literacies and how we can teach kids to critically evaluate information online. I’ve probably read thousands of articles about teaching and learning in complex systems, and about the ways that teachers can teach digital literacies skills through inquiry and multimodal composition. I teach graduate students on these topics and even lead a summer institute for teachers where we think deeply about digital literacies instructional strategies. And what I’ve come to learn through all of this work is that kids learn in environments where their experiences are honoured, where they feel respected and where there is trust. I’ve also learned that kids learn in guided activity. When they create things, have the opportunity to benefit from more informed perspectives and can reflect on their learning in the presence of a teacher and peers, they’re more likely to acquire advanced critical digital literacies skills (e.g, Coiro, Dobler & Pelekis, 2019; Mills, Stornaiuolo, Smith, Pandya, 2018).

I’ve recently finished Luci Pangrazio’s new book, Young people’s literacies in the digital age: Continuities, conflicts and contradictions (2019, Routledge) and in it, she offers an important provocation for teachers and parents that has me thinking about new ways to help children understand the way the Internet works.

Through her analyses, Pangrazio unravels the diverse and multifaceted ways that young people understand social media. It seems that young people are using social media to write themselves into the world, and to come to know who they are.

Pangrazio writes, “With ongoing technological development and innovation, digital communication and sociality are constantly in flux. […] digital media platforms no longer exist in a separate sphere and, […] have become intertwined with the fabric of everyday life. Social media now mediate the ways in which young people write themselves into being (Sunden, 2003). ” (p. 101). [italics added by me for emphasis]

And yet, the participants in Pangrazio’s study seemed to have limited understandings of the corporate drivers of these important identity spaces. In school, she explains, “the main education in regard to digital media came through cybersecurity programmes” (p.130). And although the programs offered some important information, the messaging was usually meant to “shock” students rather than equip them to be more critical of the way these media are designed.

As I read this, I was thinking about the potential consequences of our need as parents and teachers to “protect” kids from the dangers of the Internet by restricting access. If social media platforms are a part of every day life for young people, and have become a key sphere for identity development, then maybe kids also need more conversations that help them think deeply about how and why these technologies are shaping their identities. Part of the solution, it seems, might be to help kids realize how and for what purposes social media platforms are designed.

In schools, Pangrazio recommends instruction that helps young people understand how the internet is structured (p. 156). The problematic discourse of the digital native has led many teachers (and parents?) to believe that kids know how the Internet works — but evidence suggests that they don’t. Young people often overestimate their knowledge and need explicit instruction that can help them know how what the Internet is, where it comes from, how it is regulated, and used by diverse stakeholders for diverse purposes. To become critical users of social media, young people also need opportunities to unpack the complex design principles driving social media platforms and how information is used by social media companies to advance their corporate missions. Pangrazio suggests that young children can begin by learning key vocabularly such as platforms, algorithms, metrics, personal data, personalisation, profile, online community, security, privacy (p. 156). For older children, she suggests a range of activities that invite them to “reverse engineer” the design of the Internet and social media platforms as a way to reveal the underlying intentions, purposes and design decisions that people have made. “Not only would this approach build technical understandings of digital media, but it would also encourage young people to think about how the architecture of the platform shapes users’ preferences.” When we understand how and why things are made the way they are, we are always more empowered as consumers, users, participants, and citizens.

I would argue that arts-based, multimodal opportunities for expression need to be part of the ways we teach young people about the Internet too. When I ask my fourteen year-old about social media, she usually tells me that she only uses Instagram to DM her friends and doesn’t post anything because it makes her anxious. She doesn’t have Facebook or Snapchat. And yet, I know that this might change. I want to keep having conversations that will help her navigate identity construction in digital spaces, but as I have come to learn, there is no forcing a conversation with a teenager that the teenager doesn’t want to have.

So, she might not want to talk, but it seems she will draw. Entitled Bait, my daughter has used her preferred medium (art) to expose the interests and the architecture of social media. She is reverse engineering — in her spare time — to make meaning. In the image we see a small, child-like character looking longingly at a heart — the promise of connection — under an iphone/deadfall trap that is propped up by a stick. Peeking out from behind the trap we see Instagram and Snapchat poised to pull the wires/string. In this work I see my daughter being incredibly critical of the trap that is social media. I see an awareness of the bait that these companies use to lure in users. As humans, she seems to be suggesting that we crave connection and these companies know it, so they design platforms that are as irresistible as cheese to a mouse.

There are significant implications for this type of drawing as a way to provoke students’ understandings of how the Internet and social media work. Most importantly, evidence suggests that our instructional practices at school and our parenting strategies at home have to include much more critical dialogue about the way social media are designed. Limits are part of the solution, but we have to also create opportunities that allow our kids to understand and be critical of socio-technical systems that may not serve their interests or wellbeing.


Coiro, J., Dobler, E. & Pelekis, K. (2019). From curiosity to deep learning: Personal digital inquiry in Grades K-5.

Mills, K. A., Stornaiuolo, A., Smith, A. & Pandya, J.Z. (2018). Handbook of writing, literacies, and education in digital cultures. New York: Routledge.

Pangrazio, L. (2019). Young people’s literacies in the digital age: Continuities, conflicts, and contradictions. New York: Routledge.

For additional information about parenting in a the digital age, check out Parenting for a digital future, a research-informed resource curated by Dr. Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues at London School of Economics.

Why social-justice oriented digital citizenship matters: Viola Desmond, my tweet and its use by an alt-righter

Things got real for me on Twitter today. The Minister of Finance, Bill Morneau, announced that Viola Desmond would be the first Canadian woman to appear on a banknote. After a lengthy process of consultation and consideration of contenders for this honour, Desmond’s selection lifted my heart. This choice calls on all Canadians to consider the systemic injustices that people have suffered in Canada because of their appearance, culture, and ethnicity. As a white woman, and as a Canadian citizen, I see this nomination as an important call to all Canadians to take responsibility for gender-based and racialized injustices, and to recognize that we have a long way to go before we live in a country where everyone is treated with respect, dignity and fairness.

So, feeling all of these things, I retweeted Minister Morneau’s announcement and then tweeted at him directly.

And a few minutes ago, I received a notification that an account called @dacian_draco had quoted my tweet. This gave me pause. I don’t know this person. My tweets are usually for my students and colleagues. I don’t actively try to cultivate a massive Twitter following. I think about what my community of students and colleagues might find useful, helpful or of value, and I usually keep my communications focused on those goals. Today, though, was different. The Viola Desmond decision matters and I wanted to express my support for the choice publicly. So, I did. And then, it was used by someone else in way, that after careful scrunity, seems completely contrary to my position or reason for expressing my support for the banknote decision. The words Every.Single.Time. were used with my tweet quoted below. What did this suggest or mean? I really cannot know for sure, but other Tweets on this account’s feed express racialized hate. Tweets on this account seem to align with the alt-right movement, and with ideologies that promote white power and privilege.

I have helped many students to cultivate professional digital presences, and have helped many colleagues and students to create social media accounts, including Twitter accounts. During these conversations we have always talked about controlling our own messaging and engaging in respectful conversations that add value to our professional networks. And yet, here one of my tweets has been co-opted by someone whose interests seem antithetical to my own; whose ideas are offensive to me.

So I really had to consider, what should I do?

Doing nothing was a non-option. However, aware that a response on Twitter might lead to a ball of stress that I’m not interested in inviting, I decided a blog post would be my response. Public, but measured, and not limited by the constraints of the microblog.

Fundamentally, I cannot control how others use my tweets, but I can disagree with their uses by others. As a participant in social media spaces, I understand the risks. I may find the ideas expressed at this account offensive, but I recognize this person’s (or these persons’) right to express ideas on this platform. I will not condemn the use of my Tweet, but I will also not let it pass unrecognized. In sharing my thoughts on the Viola Desmond decision, I added my voice to the national discussion of the choice and its importance. And the response to my Tweet by an alt-right Twitter account tells me a great deal about where my priorities need to be. It tells me that in schools, we must help all children to feel a deep sense of community, to feel valued, to have agency and to have experiences that enable them to know and understand why diversity makes us stronger. This tweet inspires my own resolve to help students and teachers in Canada to become active, engaged, social-justice oriented participatory digital citizens.

If we are to realize the vision that Viola Desmond had for a more just Canada, I’m saying it here — I’m ready to do this work. My sleeves are rolled up.

Postscript: Twenty-six years ago today, I was injured in an automobile accident that claimed the life of a friend. I dedicate this post to her memory.


Question: Advantages of reading/writing online vs. reading print and writing by hand?

Icon-round-Question_markLately, I’ve been asked by several teacher colleagues for information that could help them understand the complexities of digital literacies, and by extension, digital literacies instruction.

I’ve decided to begin posting my responses to my colleagues on my blog, in case there are others who could benefit from these thoughts.

I also welcome input from others who could inform answers to these questions!

Here’s the first question.

“I have a question from our Foreign language department chair. Have you found any research on the advantages of reading/writing online vs. reading print (and writing by hand). These teachers feel that in their field the writing by hand is so crucial to learning the language. Thank you if you know of any research specific to learning languages and online vs print reading/writing.”

Here’s how I responded:

In response to your question, here are my thoughts. I do have some research to share — but first, a synthesis of my understanding that could inform your colleagues’ thinking.

1) Language learning is a complex socio-cognitive process that requires vast and varied opportunities for both comprehensible input, but also output. Work by second language scholars such as Stephen Krashen, Merrill Swain and Sharon Lapkin has told us that input and output are essential. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Opportunities to receive and understand language, but also opportunities to produce language and communicate ideas are obviously essential for the learning of any language. Moreover, the input and the output must take many forms — oral language (input and output) and written language (input and output). Plus, we know that for our students to become confident, fluent communicators, they need access to multiple types of input and output that serve a range of rhetorical purposes and force an understanding of a range of audiences. So, students need to read texts that inform, persuade, describe, narrate etc. and also create these texts. In the 21st century, this needs to occur in digital contexts too. This is because we know that the structures of online texts differ, and that the skills required to produce digital texts for a range of purposes and audiences are different than those acquired through print-based or even face-to-face exchanges. If your colleagues are worried about the digital world taking over — do assure them that traditional, print-based contexts for input and output matter a LOT. Learning to read, write and communicate in the “traditional” ways is as important as ever — and even, perhaps foundational for the development of digital literacies skills. However, it’s my view that to deny students opportunities and access to digital composition is also to deny them opportunities to use language for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts that are absolutely essential to their futures as citizens in a world that is becoming increasingly networked.

2) Human beings learn everything by interacting with, and acting on, their world. To do this, we use all of our sensory faculties — we hear, we see, we touch, we manipulate, we smell. Increasingly, we understand learning as an embodied experience — so that what our bodies do, how they are oriented in space, and how they interact with the context of our learning or activity, is now understood to matter quite a lot. The tools we use, the places in which we use them, and the feelings and senses we have as we use these tools in context are all inextricably connected to the thinking and learning we do. Scholars like Andy Clark, Arthur Glenberg, and Kevin Leander have helped us to understand the ways that learning and literacies are, in fact, embodied. This is the theoretical foundation for the gesture approach to L2 learning championed by Wendy Maxwell http://aimlanguagelearning.com

Okay — so given this, we must also acknowledge that we process and manipulate information in our brains. The extent to which we integrate the information that reaches our brains depends on a lot of factors — but to address the factors related to your colleagues’ assertions about the importance of writing with pens/pencils vs. typing — I can say that there is probably some truth in their observations because writing with pens/pencils engages multiple sensory channels. And, the more channels are engaged, the more information is coming in to our brains to be processed. So, writing involves holding a pen, moving it in certain ways to produce letters that are then seen/read. Some students might even say the words aloud as they write them — so there are two more modalities engaged — the ears and the voice.

3) Moreover, for young learners, the written page is a defined space that is clear of distraction. And, for cognitively demanding work — like learning another language — we know that distractions reduce our ability to attend to important details. The more we have going on in our environment (i.e., on the Internet) the more our attention will be divided. So, the observations that your colleagues have made may be as much about creating an optimal environment for undivided attention as anything.

4) I would say to your colleagues that they should not think of online vs. print-based literacies (L1 or L2) as being in tension or in opposition with one another. Rather, given the importance of digital literacies, we should think about providing students with a range of opportunities to develop all of the necessary literacies skills/mindsets/dispositions that will enable them to be fully engaged global citizens.It’s not a question of one context being better for learning than another. Rather, it’s about understanding the multiple contexts that our students will need to navigate and ensuring that they’re ready to do that. If anyone can help our students to do this — it’s the Modern/Foreign Language teachers. These are the colleagues who understand culture, who understand the complexities and multiplicities of meaning, who think in multiple sign systems all day, every day. In fact, I believe that the Foreign Language classroom is precisely where kids gain an understanding of the ways that meaning can be communicated that translate, actually, to the multimodal environments they meet online. Foreign language teachers have always, for instance, helped students to leverage images in ways that support meaning. Online, that’s an absolutely necessary skill because there are so many visual cues that communicate meaning.

References I shared:
Castañeda, D.A. & Cho, M-H.(2013).The role of wiki writing in learning Spanish grammar. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 26(4), 334-349. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09588221.2012.6

Kern, R. (2014). Technology as pharmakon: The promise and perils of the Internet for foreign language education. The Modern Language Journal, 98(1), 340-357. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.2014.12065.x

I also recommended that these colleagues regularly consult The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, The Modern Language Journal and Computer Assisted Language Learning for research findings to inform their work.

Photo reference: Wilke, S. (2009). Black and white icon of a question mark. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Icon-round-Question_mark.jpg. Used under author licensing to reuse the image “for any purpose without conditions”.

Tadpoles: Building school-to-home connections and (digital) literacies

Because I’m a working mom, my youngest daughter attends a pre-school child development center every day of the week. Working parents know that the feelings underlying this reality and my writing of this sentence are multifaceted and complex. These are precious years. I marvel at the incredible power and potential of my two young daughters and wish, as every parent does, that there were just more time to share in the small moments. In an ideal world, we would have infinite time to pursue our individual ambitions while also having infinite time to linger in the delights (and even the challenges) of parenting. The truth, of course, is that the choices my husband and I have made about our careers have meant making choices about the ways we manage our responsibilities to one another and most importantly, to our children. Part of our solution, then, has been to depend on the professionalism and kindnesses of the early childhood educators at our daughter’s pre-school. They’re smart, loving, caring adults who have provided for our daughter’s needs. Without them, I couldn’t do the work that I do as a teacher educator and researcher of digital literacies.

And so — imagine my delight as my two most important priorities have come together via an iPad app. A few months ago, my daughter’s teachers started to use Tadpoles to document their work, their observations of students’ learning, and to communicate with families. Every day, I now receive a detailed report of my daughter’s activities. Her teachers document what she had for lunch, for snack and how much she ate. They document her bathroom breaks, whether she napped (she never does — except for two days last week), what she did at large group time, small group time, during her work time, and outside time. They document special projects, and share anecdotes from the class that demonstrate the ways the children are engaging with one another, and the ideas that ground their lesson designs. Importantly, reports of learning activities are always connected to developmental milestones in literacies, numeracy, social and emotional development, and physical activity. Plus, there are always photos. I just love the photos.

Today, for instance, I have already received four photos, delivered straight to my inbox. The impact of this is profound. My husband and I have both remarked on how these little photo-glimpses into our daughter’s day make us feel more connected to her experiences, and deeply appreciative of the amazing things her teachers do with her and for her every day. Plus, as my daughter and I drive home from school, the photos serve as prompts for our conversations about her day. In this way, the app is supporting her emergent literacies. Often, with just a little prompting based on a photo that I saw, she will retell, in tremendous detail, what she did, with whom, and what they did next.

For the first time today, I also saw evidence of my daughter prompting her teachers to capture two moments in her day in photographs. This photo was captioned: “Ellyn had to take a photo after getting an Elsa braid.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 1.20.19 PM

The other is a photo of my daughter standing proudly beside her friend. Both girls wore huge smiles. The caption read: “Ellyn: Take a picture of me and my friend! Friend: Yeah! Because we’re best friends!”

So, my daughter and her friend have both recognized that there is value in the documenting of moments in photographic images. The first photo allowed her to capture imaginary play as she took on the personnage of Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. The second emphasized the importance of the girls’ relationship to one another.

Tadpoles is an absolute gem. Through it, my daughters’ teachers have made their practice transparent, and have communicated those practices to us in ways that influence our conversations in the car and at home. In turn, these conversations contribute to the development of my daughter’s listening, speaking and recall skills. And now, today, I see that the app has enabled my daughter to think about the affordances of technologies for documenting her lived experiences.

Because I’m a working mom, my youngest daughter attends a pre-school child development center every day of the week. These are precious years. Because of this technology, I have access to delightful small moments in every school day that I would otherwise never know about. Plus, these moments are documented in my inbox, ready to share to my daughter’s gmail account so that when she’s bigger and able to read, she will be able to relive those moments she had at preschool. To me, this is an example of a technology that has enhanced our human capacity to connect with one another in ways that ultimately enable children, families and schools to thrive.

Association of Independent School Librarians Summer Institute

Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 10.34.57 PM

It’s not even Christmas yet, but the executive committee of the Association of Independent School Librarians, as one might expect, take event planning and the organization of details to unprecedented heights. It’s November 14 and they’ve already launched their website advertising their Summer Institute. I’m pretty excited about this because (a) I’ll be joining them as their workshop leader and (b) I’m designing their two-day workshop too! #dreamjob

Check out the site — and if you’re an independent school librarian or know one, I’d love to meet you in St. Louis! True, I’m not Judy Garland [no one has ever invited me to sing any where] BUT I do  love to think with smart and committed educators about student learning, digital literacies, and teaching.

I’m just so excited about this.

Thank you AISL for the invitation!

Summer Institute on Digital Literacy

It’s just six weeks until the Summer Institute on Digital Literacy at the University of Rhode Island. Institute organizer, Renée Hobbs, Professor at the University of Rhode Island and Founder of the Media Education Lab just issued an invitation that provides additional information about the week’s activities. You can see a screen shot here — but click on the image to visit the URI page where you can also find registration info. 

Come, contribute, connect, collaborate, create and be ready to change the way you think about digital literacies.

[click the image to visit the message]

Invitation to the URI Digital Literacy Summer Institute
Invitation to the URI Digital Literacy Summer Institute

Summer Institute in Digital Literacies at URI

I’m so pleased to have been invited to facilitate workshops at the Summer Institute in Digital Literacies this July! Other speakers will include Douglas Rushkoff, Renee Hobbs, Julie Coiro, Rhys Daunic, Jonathan Friesem, Mary Moen and Hiller Spires. The institute has been designed for teachers, teacher librarians, college faculty members, graduate students, and professionals whose work generally involves teaching and digital media. Here’s a link to the registration page for more information.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 7.51.45 AM


Screencasting in College History Courses?

My husband teaches history at a small liberal arts college in Michigan. The education students receive there is, in my view, absolutely exemplary. Professors are completely dedicated to undergraduate teaching (in stark contrast to the recent critique offered by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa on the abysmal state of undergraduate learning nation-wide; NPR Story). The college offers students incredible research opportunities and a curriculum that expects both breadth and depth in the liberal arts tradition. Students live on campus and the ethos of the place is about living and learning together.  The model of instruction is suitably traditional which, of course, goes along with the traditions of academic excellence this college values so highly. And yet, it seems to me that beyond the use of Moodle coursewebs to organize content and PowerPoint presenations to display images, data and content, web-based technologies have not really been embraced as powerful learning tools by my husband and his esteemed colleagues.

Why not?

There are probably plenty of reasons, not the least of which may be a general feeling that technology may somehow compromise a good thing. If it ain’t broke…

More than anything, however, I suspect my husband and his colleagues just haven’t had much chance to explore the range of web-based technologies that could support — and dare I say, even enhance — their curricula and teaching.

In a 15-minute brainstorming conversation yesterday, my husband and I came up with several great ideas for using screencasting technology in his college history courses. These aren’t revolutionary or anything but they are ideas that he felt a) were do-able and b) would offer learning support to his students without compromising academic rigor.

Here’s a list of screencasting ideas that could support undergraduate history students:

1) A guide to the “how-to” document that my husband gives out on the first day of class. The document outlines how to write a history paper, how to cite sources, how to format a history paper, how to conduct research. Highlighting the important elements of this document alone might make it more accessible for students and ultimately increase the number of students who actually read it and use it during the semester.

2) Brief tutorials on how to cite sources. The screencasts would render transparent both the integration of cited material into a paragraph and the thought process that goes into deciding when and where to cite a reference. These tutorials could be created by capturing a short five-minute paragraph writing session during which the professor composes in a Google Doc, inserts citations and thinks aloud the whole time.

3) Showing students how history papers are graded so that they are aware of how professors think about argument, the substantiation of ideas and good writing. This could be done with a tablet PC and screencapture software like Camtasia so that students can see the professor writing comments and narrating the process along the way.

4) Students could submit screencasts of their own writing with questions related to any aspect of their work — we imagined students showing the professor a paragraph and identifying the specific issue they were struggling to overcome. For instance, “In this paragraph I am using information from work by X. I’ve summarized his ideas — do I need to insert a citation here? or here? Where should I do this?”

Of course, this back-and-forth between professors and students ideally happens face-fo-face in class but we all know that learning a complex skill like how to write a history paper takes a lot of time and a lot of practice. Screencasts posted to a CMS permit just-in-time support for students that can be revisited over and over again. And, when students create screencasts for professors, they’re thinking critically about their learning process (always a good thing) and creating a record of their learning development. To me, this application of technology is absolutely aligned with the core mission of a small liberal arts college.