Saturday, January 9, 2016

What are the responsibilities of schools in teaching citizenship?

In my last post, "Let's think before we block", I discussed how there are many different strategies and approaches to content filtering and blocking sites and apps in our schools.  They range from being so restrictive that only a few approved sites are available, to the minimal approach of CIPA compliance only.

If you are involved in CIPA compliance or formulating the required internet safety policy for your district, I highly recommend that you follow the CIPA link to see exactly what the Children's Internet Protection Act says that schools must do.  The act is often misunderstood by administrators and the answers may surprise them.

As I said in my previous post, for the lack of a clear strategy of what to do regarding our educational mission, let's at least have some conversations, preferably including students, teachers and parents in addition to the administrative team.  These questions come from a presentation I shared at the NETA Fall Ed Tech conference in October of 2015.

The first question I would ask is, "What are the responsibilities of schools in teaching digital citizenship?"

Initially, most people using the term "digital citizenship" were referring to simply being safe, polite and responsible in online communication.  However, as the importance of social media to our culture has exploded in recent years, most now agree that good digital citizenship involves more than just avoiding negative actions and consequences.  In the adult world, creating a positive digital presence is arguably as important as avoiding a negative one.

If our sole responsibility is to protect our children from exposure to inappropriate content, we may, through the use of imperfect technology, attempt to shield our students from the negative side of the online world.  We may even feel that we are doing a good job of this, investing in expensive, sophisticated filters, monitoring systems, white and blacklist subscriptions, etc.  You can find all sorts of data about the effectiveness of content filters with a simple Google search, some positive and some negative.  But for the sake of our question, let's assume that content filters do a pretty good job at blocking most inappropriate content.  Then let us ask, "What have we accomplished?"

We may have spared our students from exposure to most (but if you think all, you are being naive) of the darker aspects of the internet... at least when using school equipment... on the school network... as long as they don't have smartphones... or an unsupervised home computer/tablet/cable box.  Still, we've done our job, right?  We know there are other avenues, but that's not OUR responsibility, right?

This rationalization reminds me of how bullying was handled when I was in junior high:  "Hey, you kids go fight somewhere else, as long it is NOT on school grounds!"

Students may not consciously think about it, but they are certainly aware of the hypocrisy of this stance.  At some point, they understand there are many ways to "beat the filter", and what is worse, they know that WE know that.  Think of the implied message we send with this approach.

"We don't care about what happens to you, we care about what is done with our equipment."

This is probably not a great approach if we want to teach values like respect, integrity, and accountability.

This strategy also severely restricts our ability to help students to explore and function in the digital world in a positive way.  Content filters have become very good at finding naughty words and it's easy to remove access to whole sections of the web.  But no filter is effective at determining intellectual value, social meaning, or the value of thoughts and ideas.  Sharing this type of information is at the very heart of why people use social media.  The only way to prevent the negative aspects of these very human behaviors is to remove access to the social media tools themselves.

Again, it's possible to do this as long the school controls both the device and the network.  But this is akin to banning books because some of the thoughts and ideas contained in them are negative or harmful.  And now that most schools have found social media to be an indispensable tool in community relations and even business operations, we're back to that ugly, hypocritical message we are sending to our students.

If we're not responsible for preparing students to function in the this world, then who is?  They need our guidance, they need positive models to follow, they need to learn how to determine value (both positive and negative).  Sending our young graduates into the world without providing instruction on how to positively function in it is not only contrary to our mission, it is morally indefensible.  Consider this case of a life-altering nightmare that can happen to anyone who doesn't think hard before they post.  And consider that Justine Sacco was a 30 year-old adult at the time.

For more on this topic, I recommend:

The Principal of Change - Protecting or Ignoring

Ditch That Textbook - Our responsibility to humanity:  Teach less content

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Let's Think Before We Block

A Voxer group that I follow has a lively discussion going about how schools should handle site/content blocking and restriction requests from parents and/or teachers and administrators.  Those involved in this discussion are primarily professionals who work to integrate technology into teaching and learning for individual districts.

This topic of discussion is not new.  Generally those who are comfortable and familiar with communication and social media tools (I include myself in this group) hold the view that excessive restrictions placed on student access to these forms of communication are misguided at best.  Further, they often point out that restrictive policies and practices may actually cause real harm by avoiding the responsibility we all share in providing education to our students in the areas of personal responsibility and citizenship.

Those who are less comfortable with these relatively new forms of communication and media distribution usually cite the need to protect our children from objectionable content.  Filtering and restrictive policies are justified on the basis that we need to provide a safe and secure learning environment for our students.

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Regardless of which camp you belong to or even if you can see it both ways, the fact remains that there is a wide range of strategies and policies in place across districts.  Surely if there was a common sense, easily arrived at answer to how districts should handle this, most of us would be doing the same or similar things.

The problem is that like the debate itself, what is "best" for students in this arena is primarily a matter of personal opinion and intuition.  I have strong personal feelings about this issue, but as an officer of a public institution, I should not be allowed to create policy affecting an entire community based strictly on my own personal views.  The existence of social media and the explosion of access to all sorts of information streams is a relatively recent phenomenon, and there has not been time nor experience enough to base such policies on solid, research-based evidence.

Unfortunately, almost every district's approach to this issue has defaulted to the personal feelings of one or a few individuals, in most cases those administrators or technology managers who were around at the time such decisions were first necessary.  Once set, the practices have been "baked in" to the leadership culture of the district.  And we all know that once we've set a precedent, it is very difficult for educational organizations to change.  "We do it that way because that's how we've always done it..."

If we can admit that we really don't know the right answer, at least we can try to make the best, most informed decisions possible.  In that spirit, I implore school leaders to re-examine this issue and fight the urge to fall back to the default, least controversial path.  There is too much at stake, and every year we are sending another group of students out into a world in which they must personally and professionally deal with the very subjects on which this debate is centered.

My next post will begin a series of questions that I think we need to ask ourselves BEFORE we decide what is best for students.  While I will provide my own views and opinions, I certainly don't expect everyone to agree with me.  What I hope you will do is to begin asking these questions in your district, and to start some conversations.

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