I have not made time the past several weeks to listen to and moderate new VoiceThread comments which others have left on digital stories my children and I have made on the site the past few years. Since we’re on Spring Break, my girls and I took some time to go through the VoiceThread comments today. We have 226 new VoiceThread comments to listen to from the past 3 weeks– most of these VoiceThreads have the default “comment moderation turned on” so we have to click “show comment” for these to show up for others. The vast majority of these were text comments. I’d estimate less than 25% are audio recorded comments. Only 1 was an attempted video comment: I have yet to see a successful video recorded comment on a VoiceThread I’ve created or my kids have made. I’ve successfully left video comments on VoiceThreads created by others, so I know the technology works. I think it is relatively rare for kids and teachers in schools today to have readily usable webcams, or to feel comfortable leaving video comments on a website.

226 new VoiceThread comments

We have now received hundreds of VoiceThread comments in all, and of these I’d say we’ve ONLY received three or four which are offensive or not appropriate. We do receive a fair number of “practice comments,” which very well could be the first comments students and others have left on a read/write website like VoiceThread. Some of these are just doodles on the slides. My practice is to delete comments like those, but leave any comment which is appropriate and reasonably on topic / addressing the VoiceThread itself in some way. I posted earlier about the issues raised here back in January 2009, on “VoiceThread Vandalism and our need to encourage constructive media creation.”

Today we came across a very mean and inappropriate comment, and I am sharing it (in a partially censored form) for several reasons.

Rude and profane VoiceThread comment

At the outset, let’s remember we have received OVER 500 comments on VoiceThreads, and about 4 of them have fallen in to this mean / inappropriate category. That’s less than 1%, about 0.8%. Too often when it comes to social media situations, people have a tendency to overgeneralize on “the outliers” and as a result reach out-of-balance conclusions which are inaccurate. I’m sharing this story not so readers will conclude, “Gosh, social media can be really scary, we shouldn’t ever do this at our school or with our own children.” Instead, I’m sharing this to discuss the realities of social media interaction and discuss how many tools today permit content moderation. Particularly in our litigious U.S. society, I think comment moderation on classroom VoiceThreads and other social media sites is an imperative. The last thing any social media educational innovator wants is for a negative comment like this to go public just as a student blogging or digital storytelling initiative is getting started, and have parents and/or the media take an isolated incident and interpret / perceive / amplify it as “the norm” for social media sharing.

That said, one of the key ideas I hope you’ll take away from this post is that COMMENT MODERATION is ESSENTIAL for publicly posted social media projects by students. VoiceThread turns on comment moderation by default, and I think this is a good policy. What VoiceThread still lacks, and I hope they’ll add sometime soon, is the ability to “flag” someone’s comment which is inappropriate so VoiceThread administrators can attempt to take appropriate action and notify the individual’s teacher, if that person’s account is registered under / as a “child account” of an educator VoiceThread account. Since there is not an option to flag offensive VoiceThread comments like this, my procedures to deal with this were:

  1. Do NOT delete the comment. Keep it hidden via comment moderation. If you delete it, the “evidence is gone” and VoiceThread admins can’t readily find it and research it to attempt some kind of communication with the author or the author’s teacher.
  2. Copy the direct URL to the VoiceThread comment. I track VoiceThread comments using the RSS feed for comments which is provided in the VoiceThread user account area. I track this RSS feed as one of several I monitor in my desktop Safari web browser. Each comment has a direct URL which can be copied to readily alert VoiceThread admins of exactly which comment needs attention.
  3. Since there is not an option within VoiceThread to flag a comment like this and notify the site admins, I sent a FlickrMail to Steve Muth, who is one of the VoiceThread co-founders. (Karen Montgomery and I interviewed Steve and Ben Papell back in January 2008 about VoiceThread on the Technology Shopping Cart.) I sent Steve the URL to the offending VoiceThread with an explanatory note.

In the past when this has happened, Steve initially coached me to NOT delete the original VT comment, so it could be tracked. In at least one past case he’s been able to contact the teacher who the student user leaving the VoiceThread was registered “under,” so that teacher could address this with the student. In this situation today, Steve reported that the account from which this comment originated was a freely registered one, so there is no way to tell who it belongs to. He banned the user from VoiceThread, which automatically deletes all comments they’ve left on the entire website, but that same person could (of course) simply create a new account and again leave offensive comments for others.

This situation is inevitable and unavoidable, in my view, on a website which permits open and unmoderated registration. It is very important to note that in addition to addressing this by MODERATING submitted comments to VoiceThread and other social media sites, this can also be addressed by having your students (and even parents) participate in a social media environment where membership is moderated. Ed.VoiceThread is an example of a commercial site which provides this. Everyone in the Ed.VoiceThread community is a KNOWN entity: There are NO anonymous accounts. Our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices learning community, which we’ve created on the website Ning, is another example, since our project administrators MODERATE new members. In both of these cases, there are NOT any “anonymous” members of the learning community / social network. Anonymity and the perception of anonymity is often a basic problem which can lead to issues like these with inappropriate social media comments. By maintaining an accountable learning community, perceptions of anonymity can be more effectively addressed and hopefully curtailed.

I want to conclude this post by providing some examples of how WONDERFUL it has been and continues to be, on balance, for my children to receive feedback for their ideas and media creations on VoiceThread as well as our family learning blog from a social media audience. This is one of the new comments which we read and listened to today which was submitted to Rachel’s “Getting a New Haircut” VoiceThread by a student at the Kamehameha School in Hawaii.

A student from Hawaii leaves a VoiceThread comment

How wonderful to receive positive feedback like this! My daughter Rachel, who is now 5 and created this VoiceThread two years ago when she was 3, really enjoys listening to many of the comments which people have submitted to this digital story and hearing us read the text comments to her.

There are now almost 300 approved comments on the “New Haircut” VoiceThread, and it would take a LONG time to listen to or read them all. For this reason, tonight I used Audio Hijack Pro to create this short, 1 minute and 47 second sampling of comments from visitors on Sarah’s “Who Was Helen Keller?” VoiceThread and Rachel’s “Getting a New Haircut” VoiceThread. I uploaded this audio file (for free, of course) to my account on edublogs.tv. I amplified several of the recordings in Audacity, which I used to piece these recorded mp3s together. Note the last comment I included is shared first in Spanish, then in English. Several of the commenters on these VoiceThreads are people living in foreign countries. This may not seem like a big deal to our students in twenty years, but at this point having international feedback on a project or on your ideas really IS a big deal because it is so unusual. (At least it is for kids in our Oklahoma schools where my kids attend.)

At the COSN conference last week, I met Jim Klein, Director of Information Services and Technology for the Saugus Union School District in southern California. He continues to be a key leader in the Student Writing Achievement Through Technology Enhanced Collaboration (SWATTEC) project. Jim and other developers in his district have created a customized “fork” of the open source Elgg learning community software platform to provide classroom teachers with customized moderation rights for posted student work and comments. Besides Elgg, Ning and Drupal are the other two software platforms I’m aware of presently which are well suited to creating moderated learning communities / social networks for students. While Moodle is certainly a great option for a learning management system, I don’t think Moodle can qualify as a “social networking platform” in the same way Elgg, Ning and Drupal can. If you’re considering setting up a school site with Drupal, get involved with the Drupal in Education group. I encourage anyone interested in getting students more involved with social media projects to follow (via Twitter) and learn from the Youth Voices Project. According to the project’s about page:

Youth Voices is a meeting place where students and their teachers share, distribute, and discuss their inquiries and digital work online. It’s a space where teachers nurture student-to-student conversations, collaborations, and civic actions that result from publishing and commenting on each others texts, images, audio and video.

The Youth Voices project website has been created using Drupal. You can also learn more about the Youth Voices project by listening to and subscribing to the “Teachers Teaching Teachers” podcast on EdTechTalk.

Our kids need social networking sandboxes to publish content and learn together in, alongside teachers, librarians, administrators and parents. This was a key recommendation of the 2008 “CREATING & CONNECTING / Research and Guidelines on Online Social — and Educational — Networking” report by the National School Boards Association. If students in your classroom already have a school-connected social networking sandbox website to utilize and publish within, kudos to the classroom and/or community leaders who have supported that web environment. If you don’t, this is an important conversation to get started and continue in your school community.

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  • http://allanahk.edublogs.org/ AllanahK

    I think that we MUST have comment moderation on all our social apps and it worries me when I see class blogs etc with a free-for-all attitude to commenting.

    Following a Skype conversation with a school in British Columbia last week they made a Voicethread to show us how cold it was. As a class we added a few comments. One of my ten year old boys decided he wanted to leave a comment of his own so registered for himself and left his own video comment from home.

    http://moturoa.blogspot.com/2009/03/how-cold-is-it-in-british-columbia.html

    Although it wasn’t a VT made by us I had added it to my VT home page so got notification of the new comment.

    Fortunately he has had quite a bit of education in respectful cyber-safety etiquette so it was great that he had the confidence and skills to leave a video comment from home.

    As teachers we can moderate the links onto our web2.0 tools but can’t be in control of the places that children go after school so need to teach them safe and respectful ways to act on line when out of the classroom.

  • http://www.studystack.com John Weidner

    I run a website that allows anyone to create flashcards. Currently, the cards are text only. I’ve thought about allowing images, but have resisted out of concerns of needing to moderate all the images. (I had implemented a real time chat feature, but removed it quickly after so many people were being offensive.) One solution I’m considering is to make adding images and chatting an advanced feature restricted to people that have paid a small fee in order to use these features. That way people would be less likely to abuse the feature.

    Maybe instead of having many websites come up with different solutions for restricting user content there could be a single “Identity Provider” web site that works like “OpenID” or “Facebook Connect”. However, this site would only give out IDs to people that completed a “civil treatment” class. If people get reported for abuse too many times, they could have their account revoked.

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