As we wrap up our second full year of one laptop per student (1:1) at the high school, I find myself reflecting on the journey we have been on and thinking toward the future. A big reflection point is social media.
Our kids are in a different world than we grew up in. This world gives them constant always-on communication with the world, and any information they could possibly desire is only a Google search away. Along with that comes new challenges – how do we make sure our kids are doing the right thing online? How can we protect them from dangers that may exist?
When we started out the journey nearly two years ago, we had the policy of block everything that is and will be a distraction to kids. We spent hours a day just watching kids’ computer screens and locking down every thing that we felt didn’t fit with what they should be doing. It evolved into being almost a full-time job for someone to do this. At that time, it was considered best practice in the education world to block anything and everything.
As time progressed, we continually received complaints, not just from students – but from teachers about this policy. Teachers were finding sites they needed for lessons continually blocked. Students were finding legitimate resources continually blocked. It was a constant battle to try and find resources that would work with the constraints of the web filter. It was clear that our approach was fundamentally flawed – technology is a resource we provide for kids to aid in the educational experience. If we are constantly stopping them, how is that aiding in learning?
This year we are adopted a new mindset and approach. We will teach students effective use of the Internet. We will teach them how to properly determine what is a good resource and one that isn’t. We will teach them the skills to be responsible for what they do online. This all boils down to a concept called ‘digital citizenship.’ We currently teach these lessons primarily at the middle school, but are looking at drastically increasing them at all levels next year. We found, along with thousands of other educators across the country, that we need to teach these skills to kids for them to use technology responsibly, not just as a student but as an adult in the workforce.
A very noticeable change for students that returned this fall was social media – it was now unblocked. The reality was that kids were going to use social media whether or not we blocked it. Large portions of students have smart phones with Facebook and Twitter. Another group was constantly finding new ways to get around the web filter. By teaching digital citizenship, we are able to teach students safe use of those tools and when it is appropriate to use them. When people ask me why we unblock them I ask: does your employer block Facebook? Almost always, the answer is no. If we teach kids about responsibility with those tools now, we can better prepare them for the future. Facebook has also become a great tool for teachers to use. Teachers can set up a page for their classes and distribute notes, provide help, etc. in a venue that kids are already immersed in. We are able to reach students at a level that they are naturally comfortable in, and even able to reach kids who may feel shy asking in class. Parents can follow their school or teachers on Twitter and get class updates and pictures on what’s going on in their classrooms. Communication between school and home has grown exponentially by opening up these resources.
Another change was allowing kids access to YouTube and Netflix. There are millions of great educational videos on YouTube. I will not be the first or last to admit that there is also a lot of garbage. We are teaching the kids how to determine that for themselves and use the resource effectively. Teachers can now share videos with their students to enhance the lessons in the classroom. It has become an invaluable resource – and when it doesn’t work, boy, do we find out fast! Kids can use these resources to enhance their work – or in their study hall they can watch an appropriate show or listen to music when their homework is complete. Once again, by teaching digital citizenship, we are teaching kids how to be responsible for their own work and keep on task. If they are not, we kindly guide them back on task or limit access to those resources if it becomes too much of a distraction.
Parents – please take note. You are in ultimate control of your students at home. Is your son or daughter spending too much time online at home at odd hours? Take the computer away from them. Limit the time they are allowed on the computer at home. Monitor them to make sure they are on task. Aid what we are doing at school and promote positive and productive use of the computer at home. Don’t know where to start? Check out netsmartz.org/Parents for some really useful information about digital citizenship at home.
We still monitor kids’ computers – looking for violations of our policies. Teachers still keep an eye on what kids are doing and making sure they are on task. We still fulfill our legal requirement and block certain things. But now, we teach our students to use resources responsibly. We encourage use of the tools and resources we have. We promote use of proper research and gleaning the good from the bad online. As the singer/songwriter Bob Dylan once sang, "The times, they are a-changin’" – and to this guy, it’s not a bad thing.
(Joe Wakeman is director of technology for the Nevada Community School District.)