Iowa Alumni Magazine | March 2017 | In Class

Social Savvy

By Tom Snee
A UI Libraries course emphasizes online responsibility and the university's third annual theme semester.

That Facebook party photo at 2 a.m. on the white-sand beaches of Cancun? Not such a great idea for the college senior looking to land a job.

While a personal social media page may seem a safe place to let loose, what is said and shared virtually has the potential to create real- life problems.

Such is a cautionary tale told this semester during "Being Responsible Online," a class offered every spring that teaches students how to approach and assess the information they find on the internet. Originally developed to discuss plagiarism in the electronic information age, the class has evolved along with our online options and the boom of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. The course now includes topics such as trolling, filtering, censorship, freedom of speech, privacy, and security.

At first, it might seem counter-intuitive to teach electronic prowess to college students. They're savvy digital natives, after all, who have no memory of a world that isn't online. Still, many of them have a few things to learn. While the information superhighway is a great place to find new friends, a spouse, or a job, it's also a place to lose old friends, a spouse, or a job.

Or not get hired for a job.

"Being Responsible Online" can help students avoid some of these pitfalls and maximize social media to their advantage.

"Whether they're searching for information online as a researcher or creating information on a social networking site, issues of privacy, credibility, and intellectual property abound," says Kathy Magarrell, 88BA, 91MA, 99MA, director of library and research instruction, who developed and first taught the class in 2012. "We help them develop the skills to navigate online information responsibly."

This spring's course instructor, Katie Hassman, 09BA, 11MA, says students seem more aware of virtual dangers than earlier generations. While they once insisted that what they do online is private, most understand the line between their online life and actual life has become blurred. They've seen others get into trouble for saying or showing too much and know to think twice before they do the same.

"From an early age, they've heard stories about bad things that can happen to those who put inappropriate things online, so they know they have to be more responsible," says Hassman, the UI Libraries' undergraduate engagement librarian, who constantly updates the course curriculum to keep up with the latest changes.

A one-credit-hour course offered through the UI Libraries, "Being Responsible Online" also provides an introduction to information literacy and the ethical issues that often surround online information. Students learn to ask themselves questions such as, "Was this information learned without violating someone's privacy?" and "Is this material honest, or is there an agenda at play?"

Though the course has been around a few years, it fits nicely within the university's theme semester topic this spring, "Our Lives Online." Since 2015, the UI has identified a different topic every spring that can be viewed from multiple backgrounds and perspectives for further understanding. Speakers, research projects, community readings, conferences, and other events help students re-think what they know about the semester's topic.

This year's theme semester is the third, following "Food for Thought," which looked at food production and nutrition, and "Just Living," which explored social justice. The program has brought to campus such prominent speakers as journalist Mark Bittman, anti-death penalty activist Sister Mary Helen Prejean, and civil rights pioneer Angela Davis. This spring, speakers include Uber co-founder Oscar Salazar and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. The theme semester also features a partnership with ENTREfest, Iowa's largest entrepreneurial event; the Connected: The Internet of Everyday Things exhibit at Old Capitol Museum; and movie screenings of Ex Machina and Blade Runner.

Appropriately enough, "Being Responsible Online" is offered only online for the 50 students enrolled. Hassman uploads class pods every Monday with assigned readings, links to videos, and her lecture.

Along the way, students learn how to recognize authentic and reliable online information by checking whether it's been reported by multiple sources and published in reputable journals; how to legally obtain, store, and disseminate text, data, images, and sounds; how to define copyright and fair use; and how to determine the quality and accuracy of free vs. fee-based information services.

Hassman's overall goal is for students to think about how our online lives affect the way we live our actual lives—including our personal relationships, the way we think, and our habits, routines, and expectations. During an assignment that asks students to keep a daily record of their online activities, many come away surprised at how quickly the hours add up.

"So often, their response is, 'Ohmigosh, really?'" Hassman says. "They don't realize how much time they spend online." Some studies suggest college-aged students spend anywhere from eight to 10 hours on their cell phones texting, watching YouTube, and browsing Pinterest and Instagram.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, she says. The internet, after all, is a trove of information that past generations could have never accessed, information that can help students learn new things, live a better life, and maybe even make the world a better place.

"Ideally, we want them to understand that being online is awesome and it's a privilege to have that information at hand, but with that comes a certain amount of responsibility," she says. "I want them to leave with a different perspective about being online—[and make] their internet use more intentional."

For extra credit, students go on a social media sabbatical and live 24 hours without checking their newsfeeds or posting their latest selfie. Hassman says some confess to coping with their new free time through Netflix. Others simply can't finish the assignment, that "bing!" from their cell phones too great.

On sabbatical, students report feeling a great sense of loneliness, though that emotion isn't always caused by their online disconnection. "Their friends don't talk to them," Hassman says. "They'll be eating lunch and everyone else is on their phones. They have no one to talk to."

Hassman tells her students that the internet—Google and social media in particular—also provide a trove of information for marketers that can be used in sneaky ways to sell things. She says students are often surprised, and occasionally unnerved, to learn the ads that pop up in their Twitter feeds are not just random but aimed directly at them by algorithms that analyze websites they've clicked to in the past.

"They don't realize how much of their data is being collected and analyzed by these algorithms and the privacy implications of that."

"They don't realize how much of their data is being collected and analyzed by these algorithms and the privacy implications of that," Hassman says. "They don't realize that when people Google the same terms, each person is getting different results. We dig deep into how algorithms function and how they decide what information to filter out and what information to present."

Not surprisingly, many of her students— especially juniors and seniors on the job and internship market—have questions about using the internet to start their careers. A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 79 percent of respondents had used the internet in a job search, making it more often used than personal connections (66 percent) or professional connections (63 percent). Moreover, 34 percent said it was the most important tool they used.

"The more you use it, the more beneficial it is," says Sara Burden, 01BA, 03MA, senior associate director of employer development in the Pomerantz Career Center, who has been helping undergraduate students find careers for 12 years. "Students should be comfortable using the internet and take advantage of online opportunities, especially on LinkedIn, to learn more about trends in their fields and connect with potential colleagues."

Laura Bergus, 11JD, is an attorney practicing in Iowa City who has used online tools in both professional and personal capacities. She tells job seekers to think about whom they friend on Facebook or link to on LinkedIn, to not just connect with anyone and everyone, and think about what those people might see in your online footprint. Think about who might see a post, whether that might be a potential future colleague, client, or employer. The wrong photo could be incriminating, while a smart professional post on LinkedIn could impress a hiring manager.

"Be thoughtful in how you friend people, be strategic about who you connect with," she says. "Think about the things you say that might not seem egregious but might upset someone to where you get in hot water."

The flexibility and creative potential of social media in particular gives job seekers a chance to distinguish themselves. In the Pew survey, 13 percent said their social media presence helped them land a job. Both Burden and Bergus say a creative online portfolio or an intelligently considered blog post could be the clincher for a job candidate.

But remember that all of those opportunities can be killed by long-forgotten Tweet storms or inappropriate Facebook photos discovered in a simple online search.

"We encourage students as early as their first year to Google themselves, see what's out there, and clean up their digital dirt," says Burden. "Information about people is easy to find, even if they think it's private."