Friday, October 9, 2009

Internet Safety: Compliance or Education?

Clearly, one of the most significant issues facing educators today is internet safety for our children. States, through the federal government, are now requiring that cybersafety be taught to all children from grades 3-12. As a result, districts throughout the country are scrambling to devise a cybersafety curriculum. Software programs and sites, both open source and fee-based are popping up on the web like mushrooms, and some forward-thinking districts, like Collinsville in Illinois, who already had a robust system in place are constantly barraged by the rest of us who need to catch up. Doing a Youtube on “cybersafety” can produce more instructional videos on the topic than you could ever use in a lifetime. Some are quite powerful. State governments are producing teen tip sheets, agreement “contracts” and a multitude of text to help protect our children.

The role of developing a curriculum for my district is, in part, my responsibility. I have attended conferences, read countless articles, talked to many experts, and reviewed many, many, software applications. In my research I am encouraged with the depth of information on the topic. However, I am concerned that three elements seem to be missing, or at best, an afterthought in the process.

1. Student-centered activities I have seen many ”lists” of do’s and don’ts, video presentations ranging from cute, to creepy, to downright disturbing, depending on the intended audience, Powerpoints, handouts, and brochures. I even saw one program that billed itself as a content “delivery” system (“delivery”? is this mail?). While these are good starting points, My question is this: What are kids doing? Activities need to be designed that require students to make, create, discuss, write, or speak about something. One idea we had is for older students to make the powerful PSA’s instead of merely watching them.

2. PARENTS Much of the curriculum in these programs is geared toward students. While this is essential, parent education needs to be as important, if not more important than the teaching of children. During school hours, the majority of internet time for students is supervised, many social networking sites are blocked in schools, (for better or worse), and for the most part, teachers possess an awareness of potentially dangerous situations. When students go home, however, the same is not always true. Perhaps the parents work while kids are home, or are not savvy enough to know what to look for. While a tip sheet for parents is helpful, it is not enough. At parent night last month, my role was to speak with parents on cybersafety, and to encourage them to come back in late October. During parent-teacher conferences, we are offering personal cybersafety conferences. Parents can sign up for them just as they would with a teacher. While this is not comprehensive, I believe we are on the right path.

3. How NOT to be the “bad guy” Much of the emphasis on cybersafety seems to be on protection from potentially dangerous situations including predators and cyberbullying. The problem is, we are not addressing the predators or bullies; they come from somewhere, right? Instead, emphasis needs to be placed on teaching students ethical, considerate behavior, in other words “Make sure YOU are not the ‘bad guy.’” I am reminded of what Roger Johnson (As in “Cooperative Learning” Roger Johnson) said about trust: “In order to build trust, you must be first be trustworthy.”

I guess what it all comes down to is what your learning target is. If your goal is to stay in compliance with state and federal mandates, feel free to have an “Internet Safety Day,” (Shouldn’t EVERY day be internet safety day?), hand out the pamphlets, and watch the videos. If your target is to keep your kids safe, do all of the above, plus have kids make something, include the parents, and teach them to be responsible, ethical users of technology.