Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Social media disaster? A Québec teacher is suspended for a controversial YouTube video

Michaël Pratte, a Québec Grade 9 "univers social" (social studies) teacher, was recently handed a controversial 20 day suspension for his participation in a student film.

The Journal de Montréal reports the story (in French) as follows:

The troubles of this 7th year teacher began when he agreed to participate in a student film in which he agreed to pretend to lose his temper, to the point of being about to hit a student. The students' idea was to parody other similar clips which have been circulating on the internet, unbeknownst to the teachers who are the unwitting stars.
The student film was posted to YouTube, where school board officials later discovered it.
Note that Pratte never actually hits the student in the film--the film stops before the climactic moment.

Pratte's students, who had already apologized to the administration for making the film, were extremely upset by this decision. A group of current and former students have created a Facebook group to support their teacher, which now has more than 1500 members. There's an abundance of student testimonials (in French) on the site in support of Pratte, like this one:

A high school teacher that is capable of making us love his subject gives us an interest that will last throughout our entire lives. The impact of a good teacher, especially at the high school level, is incalculable.

For its part, the Commission Scolaire des Trois-Lacs (Three Lakes School Board) commented that Pratte bore "a responsibility" for the affair. Collette Frappier, a school board spokesperson, remarked, "Perhaps if the video was accompanied by a message of non-violence, we wouldn't have gotten to this point."

The interesting thing about this case is that Pratte doesn't seem to have done anything that was particularly harmful to student learning. He is clearly well-liked by many of his students, who enjoyed making the film. Certainly, one can understand why the school board would prefer that the film not be on YouTube. On the other hand, a formal suspension seems a high price to pay for a relatively small mistake by an apparently dedicated and popular teacher.

Clearly, there is clearly a question here of teacher freedom of expression. If Pratte was operating within the bounds of the "univers social" curriculum by making this film with the students, does he deserve to be censured for how this student activity turned out? In a 2002 court decision, Richard Morin, a PEI teacher, was found to have had his freedom of expression violated when the school administration prevented him from showing a film that was critical of Christian fundamentalism.

In addition, this story raises the issue of how schools are going to deal with new media technologies. Obviously, technologies like Facebook and YouTube bring with them the potential for PR disasters, but young people are avid users of these tools and will continue to upload interesting and sometimes controversial content.

No comments: