Where are the practitioners sensibly addressing online safety?

danah boyd, US based researcher of all things social networking and youth, has put out a much needed call – looking to track down practice on-the-ground where professionals and volunteers working with young people are addressing online safety in their day-to-day work. As I’ve argued when talking about youth work and social networking it’s essential for all practitioners who work with young people to be aware of the internet as an element of young people’s lives, and then to think about how they might support young people to navigate risks and make the most of online opportunities – not by delivering scary presentations about online dangers – but by weaving in consideration of online safety to their regular practice. That might be through explicitly designed activities, or just asking the right questions at the right times.

Like danah, I’ve been talking a lot about the importance of this, but when it comes to finding good examples of it happening on the ground – I draw a blank. Not because it’s not happening – but because, as I discovered in the Action Research for the Youth Work and Social Networking Project, good innovative practitioners are often getting on with being practitioners – not creating case studies for researchers and policy makers. That said, I know a smattering of innovative practitioners do read or stumble across this blog from time-to-time, and hearing your/their stories about addressing online safety in a realistic and grounded way would make a real difference to the debate about how to best support young people on the web.

So – I’ll share with you danah’s call for input, and encourage you, whether you a are a practitioner working with young people, and including online safety in your work – however light-touch and occaisional  – or you know practitioners who address online safety in innovative ways, to drop in a comment – either on this blog post, or on danah’s original.

I need your help. One of our central conclusions in the Internet Safety Technical Task Force Report was that many of the online safety issues require the collective engagement of a whole variety of different groups, including educators, social workers, psychologists, mental health experts, law enforcement, etc. Through my work on online safety, I’ve met a lot of consultants, activists, and online safety experts. Through my work as a researcher, I’ve met a lot of practitioners who are trying to engage youth about these issues through outright fear that isn’t grounded in anything other than myth.

Unfortunately, I haven’t met a lot of people who are on the ground with youth dealing with the messiness of addressing online safety issues from a realistic point of view. I don’t know a lot of practitioners who are developing innovative ways of educating and supporting at-risk youth because they have to in their practices. I need your help to identify these people.

I know that there are a lot of people out there who are speaking about what these partitioners should do, who are advising these practitioners, or who are trying to build curricula/tools to support these practitioners, but I want to learn more about the innovative practitioners themselves.

Please… who’s incorporating sensible online safety approaches into their daily practice with youth in the classrooms, in therapy, in social work, in religious advising, etc.? Who’s out there trying to wade through the myths, get a realistic portrait, and approach youth from a grounded point of view in order to directly help them, not as a safety expert but as someone who works with youth because of their professional role? Who do I need to know?

(And if you’re a practitioner in the UK, or indeed from beyond the UK, who is exploring online safety and opportunity in your work with young people – do come and join fellow practitioners over in the Youth Work Online network…)

Saying YES to social media

Youth Engagement and Social MediaAs my return to study with a year long full-time MSc comes closer, I’ve been trying to write up and share a lot of my learning from the last 18 months of researching and working with organisations using social media in youth engagement.

What started as a small wiki with a new notes on has quickly evolved into the outline of an online guide to youth engagement through social media – and so, before any perfectionist tendencies take over, and the diminishing returns of time spent knocking off the rough edges kick in any further, here’s a link to the in-progress-but-by-now-hopefully-at-least-a-bit-useful YES – Youth Engagement and Social media Guide.

It’s got sections on the What, Why and How of planning youth engagement and participation using social media – covering issues of strategy, safety and touching upon evaluation. The toolkit of HowTo’s and Case Studies in using different social media tools has a long way to go – but if you want to know about Listening Dashboards and Search Alerts then hopefully it already provides a good overview.

Also contained in the guide you will find a copy of a document I wrote a while back, but have failed to properly share – called ‘Safe and Effective Egagement with Social Network Sites for Youth Professionals (PDF)’ and which I hope provides a useful (and relatively brief) overview of the things to think about if you’re planning to use social networking as part of your youth engagement work.


(The observant will notice that the Youth Engagement and Social Media Guide is yet another Dokuwiki install, a tool I’m becoming a big fan of since using it for a personal notepad wiki, and then the Interactive Charter/Social Strategy site. It may not have the WYSIWYG editing power of Wikispaces, but for flexibility and ease of deploying on one’s own server it’s fantastic. It’s also behind another site I recently set live for the DFID Civil Society Organisations Youth Working Group)

Questionable consultation

I don’t get the feeling Oxford City Council really value my view. At least, the consultation on local priorities they’ve just published certainly fails to inspire me with confidence that the council are aiming for a meaningful public dialogue on their corporate priorities.

Oxford City Council ConsultationI’m asked to indicate, from a list of issues plucked right out of a corporate plan, whether the issues are a ‘High Priority’, ‘Medium Priority’ or ‘Low Priority’ for me. There is no explanation of what indicating my priorities will lead to; no links to further information on what the council is already doing against a given priority; and only a minor attempt to tranlate a few into non-council-speak.

At the end of the online form I’m asked to go back and give the numbers of the priorities that are my top overall priorities – again with no explanation of how this input will be used.

Oxford City Council ConsultationInterestingly ‘Improviding dialogue and engagement with citizens’ is not amongst the priorities I’m invited to evaluate in this consultation. I would suggest to Oxford that perhaps it should be.

I’m left with the distinct feeling that this consultation could end up an exercise in statistical manipulation, with ‘high priority’ scores used to justify expenditure on services the council is already planning to resource, and lower scores used to justify cuts to other services – when, given two services side-by-side and asked to choose which they would prefer funded or cut, residents actual preferences may not match up at all with those that may be derived from this consultation exercise.

Creating good consultation

Of course, I prefer not to rant in the negative, so below are a few quick thoughts and reflections on what I’ve found makes a good consultation over the years:

  • Be clear about the scope and impact – tell respondents in plain English how their views will be used. Perhaps show an example of a previous consultation. Or include a short video clip of the person who will process the responses explaining the consultation. If you can’t explain how there is potential for a consultation to influence decision making and create change…well, stop and rethink whether you should be running a consultation until you can!
  • Provide context. When designing an online consultation think about how you can provide extra information on the different topics you are consulting on, so that citizens can read up more about what you mean by a given question, and have the chance to be deliberative in their decision making.

    Videos, photos, links and other context can all prove useful.

  • Think carefully about your questions. If you don’t know how you will use the answers to a question – don’t ask it. If you think that the question could be interpreted in many different ways – clarify it.

    Think as well about how questions answers could be ‘gamed’. If, for example, I suspect that all the responses from Oxford’s consultation will be simply totalled up in a spreadsheet, and there are certain elements of the consultation I have a strong interest in, I’m better off exaggerating my high priorities and rating everything else lower to help highlight my particular preferences. Is your consultation designed to avoid this sort of skewing?

  • Be honest about your limitations – and build the limitations into your consultation. Presumably even if I say everything in Oxford’s corporate plan is a high priority for me, some things will be allocated more resources than others. The consultation is at least in part about distributing limited resources. So instead of asking me if things are high-priority or not – why not ask me to rank the priorities between certain services? Or show some realistic sense of what rating a given service as a high priority might entail so I can think carefully about my priorities in the context of the real limitations around priority setting.

    Asking anyone ‘What do you want?’ is foolish without framing. ‘What do you want us to do with the resources we have and without significantly raising taxes?’ is a far better question.

  • Check your process. Think about how you will analyse responses before you start. Would someone who completed your consultation recognise the analysis  you have made of their input? If not – think about how you can improve the whole consultation process so that what comes out the far end at least approximately represents the input that citizens contributed in the first place.

  • Design and test your forms. Ask a number of people to test your consultation. Watch them complete your forms. Ask them what could be improved to make the process smoother. Far better to spend an extra day taking the rough edges off, than to have hundreds of responses which can’t be used.

    (For example, in the Oxford Council consultation above I was far more likely to indicate priorities from the bottom of the list as my overall top priorities (or at least as my third overall priority… I had a pretty clear idea of the first two I was asked for…) as I had read them most recently and could still see them on screen without scrolling when I came to reply to the questions which requested their numbers. If this is true for a large number of people completing the consultation then that could introduce a significant bias…)

  • Consult to start a conversation. Most important of all – think beyond consultation. How can your consultation questions provide the start of a wider discussion? How can you provide platforms for ongoing dialogue beyond the simple asking of consultation questions?

What other tips would you provide to someone designing a consultation?

Connected Generation 09

I had a great day at the Connected Geneartion 09 unConference yesterday. Thank you again to everyone who helped out, turned up, and contributed to making it happen.

I’ll try and write some reflections soon, but for now, just a quick link to let you know that notes, tweets and shared learning will be aggregated at http://www.connectedgeneration.info

Developing the Interactive Charter

Towards an Interactive CharterFrom a throw-away blog post on 50 Hurdles to Open Government comes ‘Towards an Interactive Charter‘ – a collaborative effort launched at Reboot Britain on Monday to develop an ‘Charter for Interactive Government’.

The Charter, which you can help shape by editing, rating and remixing possible drafts, will be a statement of values and intent for local authorities, national government and other organisations to sign up to – as a commitment to enabling open, participative and efficient working through social technologies.

Working with Paul Evans of the Local Democracy blog and PI Camp, and with support and insights from Pete Cranston, I’m also exploring how the Charter can be backed by an organisational change toolkit, giving practical support to organisations who want to remove the barriers to effective social media use across a wide range of settings (including Chilren’s Services).

So if you’re interested in setting high aspirations for social media aware government, and in supporting practical action to overcome the barriers that abound, then head over to the new Interactive Charter website, and dive in to help rate or reshape ideas for the Charter.

Right now the only draft is my early attempt which is in below. Would this get assent from your organisation? How would you put the aspiration differenty? Or can you just tighten this up? Using Mixed Ink you can help edit and update this before the 25th July.

THE CHARTER (Tim’s first draft)

– We will become a social media aware organisation;

– Every part of the organisation will be able to harness the potential of relevant social media to help fulfil their goals;

– Citizens and stake-holders will be able to use social media to engage with our work;

– We will particularly embrace social media approaches that enable us to be: more efficient; more participative; more collaborative; and more accountable;

– We commit to removing the barriers that currently hold back use of social media;

MixedInk Demo from MixedInk on Vimeo.

Impossibly narrow & leadership 1.0

[Summary: a critique of ‘Impossible and Necessary’ by Sir Michael Barber and some remarks on leadership]

I try, as much as possible, to engage in debates in a constructive way, and to avoid anything that might be construed as a rant. I find arguing for and working for things I believe to be right to be preferable, in most circumstances, to spending time arguing against those with whom I may share general goals, but may differ on methods and approaches. Demonstrating the positive alternative is oftentimes more powerful than trying to undermine the status-quo.

However, criticism and critiques have their place, and last week I found myself distinctly at odds with the presentation the ‘Impossible and Necessary’ pamphlet on the future of education. So – herewith follows a series of arguments against, in the hope still or making a constructive contribution to discussions.

Impossibly narrow
Sir Michael Barber’s speech ‘Impossible and Necessary’ was launched as a NESTA Pamphlet on Tuesday morning (though the only online copy I can find is a transcript of Michael’s original speech on which the Pamphlet is based here). For all the NESTA introduction of the pamphlet as a key statement of important challenges for the future, both the pamphlet itself, and the presentation of it’s key messages offered by Michael on Tuesday, turned out to be woefully narrow and lacking in progressive thought.

Whilst it contains one or two good recommendations: encouraging more team-teaching and ending the dominance of the single teacher as master of their domain in a single classroom; and calling for a greater focus on teaching quality rather than on teacher numbers; ‘Impossible and Necessary’ is otherwise unimaginative, adultist, and for a paper which highlights the importance of ethics, lacking in an appreciation that schools are, right now, far from egalitarian environments.

Michael’s essay uses an imagined ‘intergalactic audit commission’ to highlight progress and change on earth over the last 250 years, and to highlight challenges for the future.

Adultism is not a good place to start
The concept of adultism is captured well by this 1996 quote from Jenny Sazama “Young people are systemically mistreated and disrespected by society, with adults as the agents of the oppression. The basis of young people’s oppression is disrespect.”

It’s not good then to find that, in the few times young people are explicitly referenced in Impossible and Necessary it is in phrases loaded with stereotype and prejudice.

“…last year, I read that computers will soon have the learning capacity of a toddler. That’s a lot of learning capacity, as any parent knows. It’s also a lot of tantrums. I fully expect, a few years from how, to read that computers with have the learning capacity of a teenager and no doubt stay in bed until lunchtime.”

I would hope a vision for the future of education would be centred on understanding and respect for children. I would expect at least that it wouldn’t be reinforcing and playing on prejudice. But not so in Impossible and Necessary. How can we support and enable young people to learn if we don’t respect them?

Focus on education as an abdication of responsibility
It is also worth pointing out that the majority of the looming crisis and problems Sir Michael gets his intergalactic audit team to identify in the first part of the Pamphlet are ones created or increased by his generation. Thus, the claim, with words in the mouth of the intergalactic auditors that to resolve them there is just on thing “you can do – just one – really, really well. Educate every children and young person on the planet better, much better, than you’ve ever done before because they are your sustainable future” reads somewhat as an abdication of responsibility for taking tough decisions about big issues now.

Yes, younger generations do need to learn in order to be part of creating a sustainable future. But:

  1. It’s about our future. A shared future. Which includes adults and young people.
  2. Sir Michael’s generation shouldn’t be thinking that improving education, and leaving the problem solving to future generations alone is the ethical thing to do. There are things that those in positions of power should be doing to challenge crisis of climate and conflict right now. Educating for the future is part of it. But there are many other parts – and parts which might demand of adults right now that we make sacrifices to safeguard our sustainable future.

We have had ethical innovation – but schools are lagging behind
In talking about Impossible and Necessary on Tuesday, Sir Michael focussed on his ‘equation’ contained in the paper: E(K+T+L) where: K = Knowledge, T= Thought, and L = Leadership, all bracketed by ‘Ethics’. The argument being that good education involves each of K, T and L, but also requires ethical education. Sir Michael suggested that whilst the last centuries have seen massive technical innovation, ethical innovation has lagged behind. In part, this claim is defensible: we do need to rethink our models of ethics for a networked society in which authority is far more distributed.

However, we have had ethical developments over the last 50 years, not least the establishment of a global framework of Human Rights, and of Children’s Rights. Yet few schools are environments in which an culture of respect and rights is pervasive. Sir Michael’s intergalactic auditors do highlight and praise the “changing place of women in society”, but fail utterly to highlight the continued failure of schools to respect young people’s right to be listened to in decisions that affect them. This is about far more than the developments in yearly student satisfaction surveys and occasional school councils that the panel at Tuesday’s event cited as evidence that school were becoming more democratic. It is about a shift in the culture of schools.

You cannot prepare ‘innovators of tomorrow’
The culture that fails to give young people ownership of their own learning, and to see them as equal partners (or indeed, the key partner) in the learning process with teachers, is further expressed in the idea that we need to equip young people as ‘innovators of tomorrow’.

In the same way that citizen education can not be effective when we do not allow young people to be citizens now, innovation education is unlikely to thrive unless we see young people as innovators right now, not just innovators in training for the future.

It starts and ends beyond the classroom
Perhaps at the heart of the narrow vision in ‘Impossible and Necessary’ is that is never sets foot beyond the classroom. It ignores that young people live the majority of their lives outside schools, and that education is not a task that takes place 9am – 3pm weekdays. The panellists suggestion on Tuesday that the solution is to increase the amount of time spent in school (and indeed, extended schools policy is encouraging this) demonstrates a woefully limited understanding of many young people’s lives. Schools will remain important settings and catalysts of future learning – but if we’re thinking about education for the future, we need to start in communities, in workplaces, in supporting parents and in many other places – not just the classroom.

Accountability and intangibles
On the first page of Impossible and Necessary we find the sentences:

“You are aware, of course, that in England we inspect almost everyone. And in case that’s not enough we audit it too. We’re the regulatory specialists”.

But Impossible and Necessary isn’t opposed to that regulation and inspection. It want more. In talking about it Michael Barber argued that a false dichotomy underlies the implicit claim that “because you can’t measure everything, you should measure nothing”. But, whilst that is true, what you measure nearly always distorts where energies are directed – and if some of the things we value can’t be measured, we need to be careful that our measurement of other things does not take our eye off important intangibles.

Accountability can be achieved without reducing all education to numbers, and shifting ownership of educational attainment from the learner to schools and state.

More leadership 1.0
L for Leadership is a key part of Sir Michael’s equation for education E(K+T+L). Leadership is a popular topic right now, with the launch this week of the National Body for Youth Leadership (branded ‘The Youth Of Today‘). But both The Youth of Today and Sir Michael’s focus on ‘Leadership’ appear, in spite of a passing recognition that there are different models of leadership, to remain as reductive, individualistic concepts.

In fact, I think the problem is predominantly in the equation of ‘the ability to get things done’ with ‘leadership’ – and the attempt then to subsume within the concept of leadership all those things which relate to getting things done. Convening, co-ordinating and catalysing are all ways of getting things to happen. In the networked world it is ever clearer that things are achieved not only through top-down leadership, but by participation in self-organising networks and co-operative structures. Often-times getting things done in these contexts is not about gaining power, but is about giving up control and power and trusting people.

A sense, and capacity for, efficacy – and being part of creating change – is key. But if we reduce our desire for all people to have this to talk of leadership – we greatly impoverish the debate.

In closing
I realise now that one of the reasons I rarely write in critical mode, is I’m not sure how to resolve a critique. Should I offer a positive vision? That will take not just a little more writing. And this is too long already.

Your professional approach to social networking should be based on your professional context and values

“How should professionals or volunteers working with young people use Facebook?”

There is no answer to that question. Or at least, no answer that doesn’t start with a fairly long list of ‘It depends’.

I often show this slide when talking about the need for clear policies in organisations that support staff to make effective use of social media:
Slide on Safe and Sound Foundations

The slide was prepared (and I always introduce it in this context) based on work exploring how Social Network Sites can be used by Youth Workers.

Almost always I get an interjection at this point in the presentation from a teacher or other youth-sector professional criticising the way this guidance suggests that workers may be interacting directly with young people online, when surely that can never be appropriate.

To which I have to re-emphasise that this guidance is specific to a youth work setting. It’s based on youth work values and, fundamentally, on an attempt to understand how different youth work relationships between young people and adults transfer into the online environment.

It is perhaps because of the centrality of ‘relationship’ in youth work theory that drives me towards stating this, but it seems far more useful to switch from the question ‘How should [teachers/youth workers/probation workers/sports coaches] use Facebook?’ to the question ‘Given the existing professional relationships between young people and their [teachers/youth workers/probation workers/etc.] offline, what would be appropriate for their interaction through [Facebook/Bebo/MySpace/any other social network]?’

Ewan McIntosh has been exploring again recently
his belief that direct interaction by teachers with children and young people through Facebook or other social networks is not appropriate, and my intuitive sense of the teacher-pupil relationship suggests that Ewan is right. When it comes to a youth participation worker exploring social networks for engagement, then using Facebook might be appropriate, but a direct friend-relationship with young people may not be. Use of Facebook pages and groups may provide a means of engagement more analogous to offline participation relationships.

With a number of authorities and organisations development organisation-wide social media policies, emphasising the specificity of different workforces is more important than ever.

We need to always start from the specifics. From what a particular form of work involves, from the professional values involved, and from the relationships with young people (or others) before developing guidance, policy and practice. Rather than imposing top-down technology policy and strategy.