Thoughts on teaching Digital Citizenship and Online Safety

I’ve been carrying this article called Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth around on my iTouch for a few days and finally had a chance to read it while riding a BC Ferry today.  It’s well worth a read in it’s entirety but the gyst of the article (as I understand it) is that we need to re-think our approach to online safety and move towards an approach that focuses less on negative consequences and more on media literacy and digital citizenship.  In the article, Online Safety 1.0 is characterized as the ‘predator’ danger approach and Online Safety 2.0 as being mostly about the harrasment and cyberbullying that has become prevalent due to the peer-to-peer nature of today’s internet.  Both of these approaches, it claims, are negative, lack context and are largely irrelevant to youth.  Online Safety 3.0 on the other hand they describe as being about enabling …

youth enrichment and empowerment. Its main components – new media literacy and digital citizenship – are both protective and enabling.

They share some interesting findings from the Internet Safety Technical Taskforce which wrapped up in January 2009, including that:

cyberbullying and harassment are the most salient risks youth face, all children aren’t equally at risk, and children’s psychosocial makeup and environment are better predictors of risk than the technology they use.

This may seem obvious to many, but to me it was an eye opener.  Our tendency to focus on the technology (Facebook, MySpace, IM etc) that allows peer-to-peer interactions online has a tendency to make us look at the problem as a ‘one size fits all’ one (students are misusing Facebook, so lets block it in school), when in fact problematic online behaviours are really just problematic behaviours that happen to take place online.  Instead of talking about the technology we should be talking about the behaviours, and the underlying reasons for them; just as we do with real world behaviours.

This gets me thinking about how to get my students to critically think about their online lives and behaviours in a meaningful way.  Often I feel like our conversations are about 2-d solutions to 3-d problems.  My students already know about the 2-d solutions, so much so that they have become buzzwords.  The word “cyberbullying” has become a buzzword and I don’t feel I done a very good job unpacking it with my students.  When I used to be an outdoor educator we had other buzzwords that were equally frustrating, words like “team work” and “communication”.  My students all knew that these words were important and what we were trying to teach them, so they were quick to use them during debriefs.  The really powerful learning came when they were forced to unpack what these words meant in a specific context, or even better when they were put into a situation that really challenged their ability to work as a team and communicate and forced them to re-examine their preconceived notions of what these concepts really meant.  I can’t help feeling like I’m dealing with the same dynamic when it comes to the words “internet safety” and “cyberbullying”.  These have become buzzwords in my students lives and they know enough about them to feel like there is nothing else to really discuss, when in fact there is lots.

This is the second year that my Grade 9 students have participated in the Digiteen Project.  As part of this project they spend some time researching the 9 Elements of Digital Citizenship before deciding on an Action Project to undertake at our school.  This has been a challenging project for me and I am still struggling to figure out why it hasn’t had the impact on my students that I thought it would.  What I am coming to realise is that quite a few of them come into my class feeling like they already know about Internet Safety and they don’t really see how Digital Citizenship is relevant to them.  I wonder if this is because they have spent years having adults talk down to them about these issues, instead of involving them in the discussion.  They say this really well in the article:

And young people themselves need to be part of the discussion, not just to listen and parrot what adults tell them to say, but to help think through the issues, help adults understand the difference between real and imagined dangers, how youth themselves are dealing with the real ones (research shows a good deal of intelligence on their part), and help adults come up with messages that will resonate with their peers.

So the question then is how do I get my students to take this conversation seriously enough to think critically about it and not just fall back on the buzzwords.  One of the models in this article gives me hope, it’s called the ‘Net Effect” and it’s based on a group of characteristics packaged by social media researcher danah boyd that really capture why what we do online is different than what we do face to face:

* Persistence & searchability: the Net as a permanent, searchable archive
* Replicability: the ability to copy and paste from anywhere on the Net, to anywhere online
* Scalability: high potential visibility well beyond the audience you had in mind
* Invisible audiences: never really knowing who’s seeing, reading or watching what you post
* Blurring of public and private: an extension of invisible audiences because boundaries aren’t clear – private from whom?

These seem like very tangible, personal topics to me and possibly just the framework for exploring issues of Digital Citizenship with my students in a way that will get them more involved.

I also keep coming back to this blog post by ben blumsmith on teaching Mathematics.  In it he talks about giving students a problem with an superficial pattern that seems to explain things, but actually doesn’t.  The argument being that the cognitive dissonance that arises when they realise their pre-conceived notions don’t work is enough to get them to delve deeper.  This has got me thinking whether I can come up with some good scenarios (maybe videos, maybe stories) that will challenge my students pre-concieved notions regarding Digital Citizenship and get them to delve deeper?

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