Australia: Is it time to update your on-line status?

Last Updated: 12 November 2011
Article by Haroon Hassan, Kara Sheehan and James Smart

Is it time to update your on-line status?

Recently Lindsay Tanner (Vice Chancellor's fellow at Victoria University) wrote that:

The students of tomorrow will be born digital: they'll have known nothing else but the web 2.0 world. They'll want to be entertained as they learn. They'll demand instant feedback. They'll compare learning experiences with digital games and social networking sites. 1

The rise of social media as a medium for both formal and informal engagement with students and staff is an important issue confronting Australian tertiary institutions. Facebook alone claims over 800 million active users which makes it a powerful communications tool in anyone's language.2 Thanks to 'Generation Y' many institutions are embracing social media as a means of engaging with a cohort of students who expect digital technology (including social networking) to be an integral part of their learning experience.

Most institutions already actively employ social media in their marketing and communication activities. More and more are beginning to explore (perhaps tentatively) the incorporation of social media (or platforms that mirror the functionality of social media) into their formal pedagogy. Whilst the pace of change is far from 'revolutionary' it has meant that most institutions already have a published policy and/or related guidelines on social media use.

It is fair to say that social media is proving both a challenge for tertiary institutions, not just in Australia but across the globe. The transformative nature of communication through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and You Tube is changing the way in which we consume, distribute and access information. A simple google search will give rise to a multitude of hits for content dedicated towards delivery of academic programs and the myriad of extra-curricular endeavours, that make up the fabric of campus life both here and abroad.

Catering for a highly connected cohort of students who have grown accustomed to consuming information through portable and wireless devices also has important legal implications. Whether or not your institution is a new entrant into the social media space or already has a well established presence, it is wise to bear them in mind.3

Tweets can land you in hot water...

Instant messaging, status updates and tweeting may seem harmless and ephemeral. However, all these new technologies are still subject to the very analogue era laws of defamation. The ability to 'retweet' or 'cut and paste' someone else's words in a few keystrokes means republication can easily occur on an unprecedented scale. Bearing in mind that each new republication is of itself, actionable under the Uniform Defamation Laws in Australia - the risks are very real.

Late last year a newspaper editor threatened to sue a journalism lecturer from the University of Canberra after she attended a conference in Sydney and 'tweeted' what she considered to be public comments by one of the conference speakers (a contributor to the editor's newspaper). The editor of the paper took exception to the tweets, which he considered to be both false defamatory of him, and publicly stated he would take legal action against the lecturer for defamation.4

Copyright does not mean a right to copy...

The law of copyright is often misunderstood but is easily infringed, thanks to our ability to readily copy and disseminate information digitally. Whilst students may expect unfettered digital access to course materials the law requires such on-line communication and reproduction of copyright works to be appropriately licensed.

For example, earlier this year, a group of academic publishers led by Cambridge University Press took Georgia State University to trial over its practice of making course materials available to students online through an 'electronic reserve'.5 It's fair to say that the management of copyright has become an increasing headache from a risk management perspective for most tertiary institutions. Social media adds another dimension to the challenge. What is important is that staff and students have, at the very least, a basic understanding of their rights and responsibilities in dealing with copyright works and that they have adequate access to guidance when in doubt.

Blurring or crossing the line...

Delivering content or promoting engagement with students via social media is a potentially powerful tool for driving improved educational outcomes. However, the informality and speed with which those interactions can occur should give academics and students pause for thought. At their core social networks are open and collaborative tools that contain information of a personal nature that you might not necessarily want to share with others in an academic setting.

There is an inherent risk that interactions through social media can blur the professional and personal divide. Take the American case of Snyder v Millersville6 in which a student teacher undertaking a practical placement at a local school was prevented from completing her placement and thus qualifying as a teacher after sharing personal information with students at the school via her My Space page. This was despite being warned not to do so

The rise in incidents of cyber-bullying, harassment and anti-social behaviour is a growing source of concern and has seen the Federal government launch a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers associated with anti-social networking amongst young people at http://www.cybersmart.gov.au.

What can you do to maximise the upside and minimise the downside

The use of social media to engage with students and staff is only likely to grow. Publishing a policy or a set of guidelines is only a first step. It is important to ensure that users of social media in your institution are educated about their legal obligations and that social media is used appropriately in an institutional setting:

  • know and understand the terms of use of the relevant platform so you know what your rights and responsibilities are;
  • educate stakeholders with basic information about important legal considerations (like copyright);
  • be clear about how use of social media is permitted by your institution;
  • review policies and codes of conduct to make sure they cover on-line interactions whether through social media or other learning management systems;
  • give practical guidance to those using social media about how it can be used (and misused); and
  • if in doubt, seek professional advice.

Footnotes

1 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/universities-must-adapt-or-die-in-the-e-learning-world/storye6frgcjx- 1226176625274

2http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics

3 For a valuable overview of some of the legal issues associated with social networking sites see Henderson et.al 'Legal risks for students using social networking sites' Australian Educational Computing, vol 25, number 1 July 2010.

4 see: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/media/mitchell-says-posetti-defamed-him-on-twitter/story-e6frg996- 1225961470219 and the Castan Centre for Human Rights blog at: http://castancentre.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/defamation-twitter-and-free-speech/

5 http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/04/campus-copyright-publishers-sue-over-university-ereserves. ars

6 Snyder v Millersville University No. 07-1660 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 3, 2008).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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