By Johanna Riddle


June 18, 2009

It’s the first day of English class. You’re sitting in the third row, near the middle, minding your own business. Your teacher hands out a contract and announces that each student, and their parent or guardian, must sign and return it. The agreement reads something like this:
“I understand that my access to pencils is dependent upon my commitment to use pencils appropriately. I understand that the purpose of pencils is educational. Specifically, I will not use pencils for any commercial purposes, to infringe on any intellectual property rights, to distribute chain letters, or to libel or defame any person. I will not attach any peripheral equipment to my pencil without school permission. I understand that should I break this agreement, my access to pencils will be revoked and disciplinary action taken.”
You immediately realize that you are already in violation and surreptitiously remove the Hello Kitty eraser head from the top of your pencil, praying that no one has noticed, and trying your best to look innocent.
Sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? But substitute the word “computer” for “pencil” and you have a reasonable facsimile of the acceptable use contracts routinely distributed in classrooms from coast to coast.
Responsible use documents began appearing back in the mid-90’s, when it became apparent that the World Wide Web was becoming a permanent fixture in the classroom. It seemed prudent to administrators, school attorneys, and educators to set some perimeters for this learning tool. Then they installed filters on school networks to contain the information available on school sites (Although resourceful students quickly learn how to navigate around them—Last month, I witnessed a fourth grader circumvent a district filter by deftly redirecting his search through instead of google. us.) Inadvertently, those perimeters fueled the fear for many classroom teachers. They proceeded with caution. A couple of years ago, the National School Board Association released a report proposing that, perhaps, fears of the Internet use in school were overblown.
Even though it’s decidedly uncool to admit it, there still lingers a fear factor when it comes to computer use in schools, generated in part by the long list of don’ts, administrative cautions about inappropriate sites, lurking strangers, our litigious society, and other calamities astir when students access the Internet in school. Those cautionary tales are often compounded by the teacher’s self perceived lack of “tech savvy.” The fears simply outweigh the benefits for some educators. I encountered this recently, while working with faculty members and students in a large middle school. “I’m still afraid of the Internet,” confided one teacher. “I don’t want to be responsible for all of the things that can go wrong when students are unleashed. I know I can’t watch them all every minute.” I pointed out that students are using the Internet anyway. A recent study in the UK indicates that students are averaging a whopping 31 hours a week on the Internet, mostly for socialization and entertainment. The MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Youth Project details how students learn and interact through the World Wide Web. Other teachers pass the buck. “If my kids need to use the Internet, I send them to the media center and let the media specialist deal with it,” another teacher told me.” That’s part of her job.”
That fear is certainly not confined to the United States. A quick Google search reveals that teachers in the UK are struggling with the same issues “afraid of technology, while underestimating the impact of students’ experience in technology outside school” while the Director of Education in Saudi Arabia is implementing teacher training programs designed to “break the technological fear barrier.” There’s even a guy on the Internet who promises to eliminate fear of computers by rerouting your bioenergy system—at a thousand dollars a pop.
There is a less expensive solution available.
It’s occurred to a number of folks that, if our students are spending massive amounts of time on the Internet anyway, perhaps we are all better off embracing the truth of that, and teaching them how to become responsible digital citizens. Mike Ribble and Gerald Bailey quantified and elaborated on the concept of digital citizenship by developing and describing nine themes of effective digital citizenship. These educators from Kansas State University’s College of Education spell it out plainly: Kids are not simply not going to become responsible and thoughtful users of technology unless we teach them how to be. ISTE supports this with a student NET standard cultivating responsible digital citizenship. And the new NAEP standards coming down the pike for 2012 remind educators that the time to take that leap is now.
There are a number of excellent sites that provide balanced information and training for educators and administrators to pass on to students. One of my favorites comes out of the UK. Digizen points out that digital citizenship “isn’t just about recognizing and dealing with online hazards. It’s about building safe spaces and communities, understanding how to manage personal information, and about being internet savvy – using your online presence to grow and shape your world in a safe, creative way, and inspiring others to do the same.” The site provides a range of information, ideas, and resources on just how to develop that in your home and classroom. Another excellent resource, Digital Citizenship, builds on Ribble and Bailey’s nine themes of digital citizenship education and pairs them with helpful links. The United State government developed a kid friendly site on cyberethics. Netsmartz provides games, activities, and videos that promote cybersafety. Students themselves are getting in on the act: Minor Elementary School in Lilburn, Georgia has developed a webquest on “safe surfing”.
Like any true change, digital citizenship is a learned and gradual process. It begins with awareness, follows with education, application, and lots of practice, and culminates in fluent use, evidenced by the choices that students make about the ways they access and use technology.
Are Internet safety issues real? Of course. Responsible teachers and parents must work together to find the delicate balance between censorship and information, common sense and fear. Surprisingly, the “what ifs” we fear most—online predators, stalking strangers, explicit sites—take a backseat to the single greatest Internet threat facing students today. Art Wolinsky, of Wired Kids, (who, by the way, originally came up with the clever substitute-pencil-for-computer illustration at the top of this blog) talked to me recently about Internet safety. “The greatest threat to students on the Internet is cyberbullying, “he said. He went on to tell me that a whopping 85 percent of students reported either participating or being the victim of online bullying. “It is need for education on all fronts. It is education, and intervention, that is most needed, and will do the most good.”