Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Anonymity: The Power and Peril

“There is a powerful tension in our relationship to technology. We are excited by egalitarianism and anonymity, but we constantly fight for our identity.” ~David Owens (American painter/artist)

The ability to be anonymous on the web is one of the things that concerns us as parents the most. We all know by now that people (especially teenagers) are willing to say things online, hiding behind an anonymous user id, that they would not say to a person's face. This is an inherent risk in an environment where anonymity is easy. Some websites, in response to the "trolls" that ruin an otherwise pleasant online experience, have either shut down their commenting features altogether, or ask that people register with their actual names so commenting cannot be anonymous (of course there are ways around this, but it's a start).

Two recent articles in the New York Times address this very topic. The first, Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt, written by a product design manager at Facebook, advocates for accountability, something we discuss with our students every day. "Instead of waiting around for human nature to change, let’s start to rein in bad behavior by promoting accountability. Content providers, stop allowing anonymous comments. Moderate your comments and forums. Look into using comment services to improve the quality of engagement on your site. Ask your users to report trolls and call them out for polluting the conversation." Absolutely!

In the educational technology realm, there is considerable talk about what is appropriate for our students, when we should introduce certain concepts, how we promote safety online, how much freedom we give our kids, how we prepare them for the world in which they are growing up, etc. Safety is always a major concern, and we are careful to guard the identities of young students. There is a difference, however, between protection of privacy and anonymity. "Digital Citizenship," or being a respectful and productive contributor to the digital world, is a skill we teach as soon as a child touches a computer. Can 9-year-olds understand the difference between appropriate comments and hurtful, inflammatory ones? Yes. Does an 8-year-old really know when they encounter questionable content online. Of course. Is it appropriate to teach them what to do in those circumstances? Unquestionably! And it is certainly our job to teach them how to be good digital citizens. We recently completed a project in 4th grade where our students published podcasts of their realistic fiction stories online. I gave the children an overview of "leaving appropriate comments:" first names only, but no anonymity allowed; leave helpful, specific and encouraging comments for each other; be proud enough of what you write to put your own name on it; anything posted anonymously gets deleted, as will questionable comments; follow-up conversations will be had. It's a small start, but it's a concrete (and moderated) experience in thoughtfulness, which hopefully paves the way for more positive behavior online. How did they do? They were brilliant, and I haven't had to delete or edit a single comment. Parents have contributed as well, modeling for the children appropriate content. Success!

The second article, As Bullies Go Digital, Parents Play Catch-Up, speaks to the fears of many parents, and tackles the problem of cyberbullying. "It is difficult enough to support one’s child through a siege of schoolyard bullying. But the lawlessness of the Internet, its potential for casual, breathtaking cruelty, and its capacity to cloak a bully’s identity all present slippery new challenges to this transitional generation of analog parents." How do we protect our kids from such cruelty? Can we? What if our kids are the perpetrators? First of all, we cannot afford to be ignorant of the world in which our kids spend considerable time. Most likely they will always be at least one step ahead of us, but that is why it is critical that we focus on the behaviors and not the technology. New things are going to pop up all the time, but our core values are not going to change along with the technology. Kindness, respect, and honesty will always rule the day, which is why my second piece of advice might be met with, "Well, duh!"


Do you want to know what they're doing online? Ask them. Do you want to understand how Facebook works? Have them teach you (or read this Parents' Guide to Facebook). Let them know that you expect them to be positive digital citizens, and that you want to talk to them about what that means. Ask them what they do when they come across questionable content. Has your child ever seen anything that truly made him uncomfortable? How did she handle it? Talk to your kids about how you feel when you read hurtful things published by anonymous lurkers on websites. Talk about everything! Engage in their world. Just about everything online is interactive in some way these days. The Internet invites you to participate. Though there may be great peril in that possibility, there is great power as well.

What will you do with it?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Experts and Crazy People on the Internet: How to teach kids to tell the difference

The coelacanth is a prehistoric fish. It's cool because it was thought to be extinct, only to be re-discovered in 1938 and apparently just really good at hiding. In fourth grade I chose it for my animal report. I think I actually wanted to do my report on the zebra but I either lost out during the animal-choosing lottery or, more likely, I forgot to do the report and found an article on the coelacanth in a readily available encyclopedia. I probably chose it because it was short. Either way, my research consisted of an encyclopedia purchased by my family some number of years before I wrote the report. I might have had access to a National Geographic article as well. The research was easy. The greatest effort came in the form of physically writing (in cursive) my final report, using a pen, and trying to avoid errors that needed to be fixed with white-out.

Boy, have times changed. Googling coelacanth today results in 289,000 possible sites. The sites listed on the first page include: Wikipedia,, National Geographic, The Australian Museum, The Museum of Unnatural Mystery,, Sea and Sky, YouTube, The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and PBS in that order. Less than half of the results could be considered "expert" sources. The rest are questionable, either due to their lack of documentation, non-academic purpose and/or less-than-expert authorship. Most adults can quickly glance at the results and choose reliable sources. But what if the researcher is a fourth grader? What assumptions does he make? What does she look for when deciding what to click on? Does he even think about it?

Students who aren't thinking about where or who information is coming from, or don't have the skills to do so, are more likely to blindly land in the Internet equivalent of rotten milk. The pool of potential information gets even murkier if the topic is in any way controversial. So, to help young people navigate research projects and build good habits and skills, we need to give them concrete methods of making decisions, guide them toward good choices and, above all, keep them accountable for using the very best information they can find. We've discovered, through trial and error, that the best way to do this is to keep the guidelines simple and repeat them often. For major research projects at the Charles Wright Academy Middle School, I partner with teachers to plan, teach and evaluate. Students see the same person for multiple projects over three years and the result is that consistent strategies and accountability can be reinforced. The basic strategies include:
  1. Point students in the right direction to begin with.
    • Provide lists of recommended sources and explain why they are recommended.
    • Explain what is expected when it comes to choosing resources. If there are "no-go" sources, list them, but also give reasons why and alternatives. Teach the guidelines and then hold students accountable.
    • Set the bar high. Remind students that there is a difference between academic research and research for fun or personal interest. The sites they choose will and should be different depending on the situation.
  2. Check in frequently.
    • Meet with students daily to check progress and ask to view notes and sources. This is the best way to catch students who might be heading down the wrong research path before they get too far along and are discouraged by having to re-do lots of work.
    • Ask questions. Require students to explain how they have determined the reliability of a source and show them how to check if they aren't sure. At a minimum, students should be able to identify the author or sponsor of a web site. If they know that much, they can usually make an educated choice about whether to trust the information or not. If they are in doubt, they should "throw it out."
    • Expect students to take notes efficiently, without resorting to cut and paste methods. Cutting and pasting is a proven path to plagiarism, accidental or not. Read this post on plagiarism for more information.
  3. Hold students accountable for the choices they make.
    • Evaluate and grade the research process, including notes taken, sources chosen and effort. This keeps students accountable, but it also provides information about the process each student went through to create the final product and is very helpful in evaluating how well skills were taught and learned.
These strategies focus on what should be happening in school. If you are a parent, find out how your school is teaching these skills and reinforce them at home. If your child comes to you for help, ask him or her about expectations, requirements and recommended research sources.

Finding information is no longer the problem. Evaluating what we find for relevance, accuracy and bias is. Today's student researchers must use sophisticated skills to navigate the information available to them and we, parents and teachers, must show them how.

Last year we read a couple of articles published by the online magazine, The Edge. Every year it chooses a "Question of the Year." People from many countries, backgrounds and expertise take a stab at the question. nicely summarized one of the themes that developed in response to last year's question, "How is the Internet changing the way you think?" in an article published in the London Times in January:
"The fundamental way we think has not changed, but the way we access information, and the sheer volume of that information, be it scintillating or spam, has altered in ways that are both inspiring and daunting. Chipping away the rotten wood is, perhaps, the most fundamental skill for the online brain: the discipline of allocating attention, filtering, questioning."
It's fantastic that anyone, anywhere can publish their thoughts, introduce ideas and report news. We can all contribute to the communal table of human knowledge. However, with this most excellent opportunity comes a responsibility to think before clicking, to question before assuming expertise and to double-check before forwarding that email warning of a new threat in our midst. We must explicitly teach these skills to young people and hold them accountable. Then, we can help them develop their own supremely tasty dish for the communal table of knowledge: a positive digital footprint (more on this soon!)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Low Fences; Clear, High Expectations

It occurred to us that when discussing technology/media, and our kids' exposure and time spent in the digital world, it might help to understand where we are coming from as educators with several years of experience in the field. You may disagree with our opinions, or have experiences that shape your current inclinations toward cell phones, texting, social media, etc., that differ from ours, but we'd still like to share with you the things that have shaped our attitude toward technology use in general.
Holly: My first year of teaching (1994) was in a school that was considered to be the cutting edge "technology school" for a local school district. It was a new building, with state of the art wiring (at the time), email was still in its infancy, and the world wide web was a fascinating place to explore. Public school districts had (and still have) Acceptable Use Policies that all students and parents were required to read and sign, sort of a legal contract outlining what the school was providing, expectations for use, and potential consequences of network abuse. In the first few years, educators endlessly discussed and debated how to effectively communicate the expectations and what steps we would take if/when a student crossed the line. We discussed firewalls and filters, what to allow, what to restrict, how we were going to keep kids safe, and how we were going to guide them in using the Internet effectively. I remember a colleague at the time who expressed a concern that no matter what technical protections we had in place, kids would always be able to find their way around them. He was a much bigger advocate of the "low fences, high expectations" school of thought, not only because he believed it would be better for kids in the long run, equipping them with the knowledge, confidence and skills to navigate the digital world, but also because the more content/access we tried to block in the interest of safety, the more we inadvertently blocked for education. After working with students and building my classroom management strategies, I quickly came to appreciate this perspective and have used and promoted it ever since.
Sam: Like Holly, I started teaching in 1995. Technology access (or the lack thereof) wasn't really an issue until I moved to the Puget Sound area in 1999 and began teaching at an organization that formed a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In short order I became the technology specialist/librarian and we got some technology. Without much preparation, we became beneficiaries of a wireless network, state-of-the-art desktops and laptops and a connection to the Internet. We played a lot of catch-up and found that our students, super excited about access to technology they didn't have at home, needed some guidelines and we needed some training. A few years later I found myself at my current school with colleagues that consider technology, and its implications to curriculum and student learning, very seriously and cautiously. An important part of this conversation was the idea of low fences. We focused on strategies we used to address expectations of students during the rest of their school experience and applied it to technology: communicate clear guidelines, have high expectations and place boundaries with low fences. Students almost always rise to the occasion and those that don't face natural consequences based on individual situations. The faculty consensus is that the benefits of allowing students to explore, with adult guidance, technology related choices (and consequences) in real-world situations far outweigh the benefits of high walls and strict boundaries.
First and foremost, we are teachers. It is our job to TEACH our kids how to use technology appropriately, and guide them with some strategies for handling situations that may make them (or us) uncomfortable. Communicating expectations is a huge part of what we do every day as educators. But in addition to laying the groundwork with clear expectations for acceptable use, we must also be there to supervise, explore with kids, have conversations when questionable or uncomfortable things happen, perhaps enforce consequences when boundaries are crossed, and simply be present in the digital environments our kids inhabit. There are so many learning opportunities when we engage with our kids, for us and for them. Though in some cases it may be the only realistic solution, building walls around things to "protect" our children doesn't always work the way we intend it to. We believe that open and ongoing conversations, clear expectations, and helpful guidance benefit our kids more in the long run, because they are equipped with the skills and knowledge that help them make good choices. Even when they reach the age where no one is looking over their shoulder any more.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Does Technology Help or Hinder our Relationships?

Facebook is stunting real-life social interactions! Technology is creating a generation of kids who can't have face-to-face conversations! Texting is ruining my child's life!

I'm sure you've heard similar statements from the media, parents and teachers. Perhaps you believe it as well. Is it true? Is the use of media technologies such as social networking sites and communication technologies like texting causing us to lose the skills of human interaction? We both came across some articles and news reports this week that relate to this topic.

The first, from NPR's Morning Edition, "And iPhone Makes Three: Marriage in the Digital Age," presents examples of couples and families attempting to re-establish family time amidst nearly constant communication from work and friends via mobile devices. It brings up some ideas to consider. Do we expect young people to put away devices at dinner, during family activities, bed time? Are we modeling the same behavior or does communication from work trump our interactions with family members? When is it appropriate to interrupt a face-to-face conversation to text or answer a call? An article in Slate last spring attempted to come up with one "golden" rule to address just this question. They called it the "bathroom rule" and it goes like this: if you are in a social situation in which you would pardon yourself to use the bathroom (versus simply slipping away to take care of your need) then you should do the same if you need to take a call or answer a text, carefully considering whether it is actually necessary to do so. It is a good guideline to follow. It also allows us to differentiate for ourselves and for young people the difference between texting while hanging out with a big group of friends and doing so during family dinners, or during a math class.

The second article vaguely addresses whether or not social media is actually doing harm to the social and emotional development of young people. Does social media, in fact, make people less social? Do they spend all their time on Facebook, while letting their real-life, interpersonal relationships languish? This short, little blog post tried to summarize the key findings in a study done by ExactTarget. "It is proven," the author says, "there is a correlation between increased social media usage and increased offline interaction – as users increase their Facebook and Twitter usage, they also tend to increase their social, in-person interactions." Intriguing. Let's dig deeper.

The study cited is sort of Mythbusters-meets-digital-age; how many of the things we've heard about social media are actually true? ExactTarget, the author of the study, has a vested interest in the outcome, as it is their job to help companies market themselves in this new digital age. However, like all things online, there are links to other resources here, clearly cited in their own study, to help give us the bigger picture while they attempt to dispel the myth of social isolation among Facebook and Twitter users.
"The Verdict: In short, individuals who are becoming more active on Facebook and Twitter are also interacting with friends in "real" (not virtual) settings more often, thereby busting the commonly-held myth that social media is making people less social. And while we agree that the seriousness of social media addiction--and how it can impact human interaction skill--is in fact a real concern, our data merely suggests that social media doesn't typically produce a decrease in in-person, human interactions."
So, how do we apply this information to real-life experiences with our students, colleagues, children and loved ones? If you're like the Dunphys from ABC's "Modern Family," you attempt to enforce a break from technology, and hilarity ensues. In reality, we must strive to find a balance that is right for us and the people we care about. Common sense tells us that too much of a good thing, no matter how amazing, miraculous and revolutionary it may be, is probably a bad idea. Learning to make good choices about when and how we interact with others is an important life skill and applying these life skills to the digital age is essential. Regardless of our individual expectations for our homes and our classrooms, we can all be good role models in the use of communication technology and social media for the young people (and, perhaps the older people) in our lives.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Preventing Plagiarism...It's a Whole New World

One of my favorite lessons each year is the opportunity to talk to students about preventing plagiarism. The world of plagiarism is very different than what it looked like when I was a young student. Plagiarism used to take effort; actual scissors and paste were involved in cutting and pasting. Handwritten reports copied from the family encyclopedia set sometimes took longer than writing the words myself. I don't even remember hearing the word plagiarism until I was a senior in high school completing my research project on Utopia by Sir Thomas Moore. I still have the book, complete with my notes and it's definitely true that painful memories are the clearest. But that's another story.

Today, plagiarizing is much easier and can even happen unintentionally when students use technology to take short cuts during the research and writing process. As the first post of this blog states, just because you can doesn't mean you should. In the 6th grade, I share plagiarism scenarios with students who act as lawyers and a jury to determine whether or not the student in question has plagiarized. Many of the scenarios contain gray areas without clear or easy answers. The scenario we talk about extensively is the one I see most frequently in the middle school. It always starts with note taking. It is very common for students to want to copy and paste digital information to a word document as a note taking method. We strongly discourage this method. Yes, it is time saving, but it creates problems in the long run. Students who don't clearly delineate which notes are direct quotes and which are their own interpretations or lists of facts, inevitably end up including chunks of text in their final documents that they did not write themselves. They typically do this unintentionally, but there are consequences anyway. Cutting and pasting, rather than reading and interpreting, limits the brain's ability to process and analyze text. Students are short-cutting themselves and their learning by skipping this essential step.

To prevent this common type of plagiarism, we encourage students to work through research in chunks. Chunks can be different sizes for different people. Whether it is a paragraph, a section or a page, students read a "chunk" and then set aside or turn away from the source material to jot down the most important facts, information or ideas they gathered from their initial reading of the material. They can glance back and check for dates, spelling and other particulars. Notes should look like lists of facts, information and ideas rather than complete sentences or paragraphs. This also saves time and creates notes that are much more useful when working on a final project.

We discuss many plagiarism related scenarios that students might run into during their academic careers: recycling old projects for a new class, being asked to share answers with a friend, or whether or not to purchase a paper from an online essay "shop." We also keep talking about it every year and during most major research and writing projects to ensure that students have the tools to make better choices.

This year, when I spoke with the 8th graders, I used some real life examples to demonstrate that plagiarism issues never really go away, even as adults and that, in some cases we're all still trying to figure out what's acceptable and what isn't. The three examples I showed them are linked below. Interestingly, when I happened upon the Bob Dylan example, I found an image on a blog that reminded me of the types of charts I usually see in major newspapers, like The New York Times. The blog author did not attribute the chart to any source, causing readers like me to assume the chart was created by the author. I was skeptical and went straight to The New York Times. Sure enough, I was able to locate the original article including the chart image created by the Times. The students thought this was pretty amazing, since they would most certainly have been in trouble if they had done the same thing for an assignment. Of course, I never saw a single comment on the blog page noting the problem.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What do YOU want to talk about?

Sam and I mentioned, during a recent middle school parent meeting, that we would be hosting our annual "Parenting in the Digital World" workshop in January. Because technology is changing so rapidly, and we engage with students primarily in the academic setting of school, we'd like to know more about the issues that concern you as a parent. To that end, you can either submit comments here, on the blog, or you can visit our "bulletin board" of comments, hosted by lino. Go check it out, post a little sticky note of your own, and let us know your thoughts. We'd like to address the topics that most interest you. Thanks!

Ethics 4 A Digital World on lino.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bullying and Cyberbullying Part 2: Local Resources

Holly's post discussing the rash of suicides related to bullying and cyberbullying, especially those involving teens that identify as gay, or are perceived by their peers to be gay, included some excellent resources. It also got us talking about the resources available locally. The three organizations listed below are local to Tacoma and the Puget Sound region. We encourage you to pass this information on to anyone who may benefit from it. I have worked with all three organizations as a volunteer and have seen first hand the benefits they provide to young people as well as the families and teachers who work with them.

Oasis Youth Center is a confidential drop-in center and resource for Pierce County youth ages 14 to 24 who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning. You can contact the center for more information. Volunteer opportunities are available and the center is always looking for support from adult allies.

The Rainbow Center is located in downtown Tacoma. It is a community resource for Tacoma and Pierce County lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people as well as their allies. The Rainbow Center provides meeting space, referrals, resources and information.

The Safe Schools Coalition started as a Washington State resource for students and teachers who needed help fighting back against bullies and intimidation in school. Today the organization has gone national. It works with state educational agencies to create safer environments in school for all students and its website contains a wealth of information for parents, teachers and students. You can sign up for a number of different email alerts that will keep you up-to-date with current events and issues related to safe schools.

Links to more local resources can be found in a list on the right side of our blog. If you are aware of other great resources out there, let us know by replying to this post.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

But All My Friends Have It!

It could be a cell phone, a Facebook account or access to YouTube. How do we know when to give permission for young people to use the technology they desperately want? I was reminded of this dilemma a few weeks ago when I received a Facebook friend request from my eleven year old nephew and again yesterday when I read an article in the New York Times discussing the fascination toddlers have with iPhones. Just like our parents decided when we would get a second phone line, that cool new Atari game station or even a driver's license, we have to make decisions that match the values and guidelines we've established as a family or even as a school.

So, how do we decide? What can we do to make sure the decision is right for us? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Talk to the young person in question. Find out why he or she wants what is being asked for. Discuss concerns and don't feel like you need to make an immediate decision.
2. Talk to other adults. What are other parents or teachers doing? Is there a consensus among the friends of your children or your colleagues? Although a kid may feel that he or she is the only one without a Facebook page, the reality is probably different.
3. Try the technology yourself. If you've never used Facebook, sign up for an account. You don't text? Give it a try. If you've never understood what the big deal is with YouTube, have your child show you their favorite video.
4. Participate together with your children or students. Perhaps starting with a family web site or weekly game night that includes the Xbox will help you better understand why technology is important to the young people you care about.
5. Don't be afraid to say no. You can always revisit the decision in the future.

There is no magic rule or easy answer, but reflecting on family values, school goals or weighing pros and cons may make the decision clearer. It is also likely that your decisions may change or evolve as young people grow older, technology changes or your understanding of its impact is deepened.

We'd love to hear your feedback. Have you discovered a method that works for you? Did you stumble into a decision that backfired? Share your successes, do-overs and other experiences with the rest of us by commenting to this post.

Bullying & Cyberbullying

Unfortunately, bullying is making big headlines again, with several recent suicides calling our attention to the sometimes tragic consequences of cruel behavior. Personally, my heart is breaking over these stories. As a parent and teacher, I am looking at everything I can for help in how to handle bullying behavior when I see it and/or hear about it, particularly as it pertains to technology and the realm of cyberbullying. There are so many resources out there...please peruse the links in the sidebar and take a look at what's available. I would also encourage you to look at information about helping the bullies themselves, not just their victims. They need support and guidance, too.

Check out this page from the "What Adults Can Do" section of Stop Bullying Now! It may seem to apply to our younger kids more specifically, but our high school students are dealing with these issues all the time. They need a safe place to talk about it, and though they might think they can handle it on their own, that just might not be the case. Resources are out there for people of all ages.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Thin Line

Though I can't say I love MTV, I'm fairly impressed with A Thin Line. This is an excellent resource for teenagers in need of help as a result of digital abuse. An excerpt from the site:

The Web and cell phones help us communicate, connect and learn in ways we never could before, but they've also forever changed how we interact with others. Things we used to share in person – and in private – can now be broadcast to thousands, instantly. Sometimes we type things we would never say to someone's face. As a result, new issues like forced sexting, textual harassment and cyberbullying have emerged, which now affect a majority of young people in the U.S.

MTV's A Thin Line campaign was developed to empower you to identify, respond to, and stop the spread of digital abuse in your life and amongst your peers. The campaign is built on the understanding that there's a "thin line" between what may begin as a harmless joke and something that could end up having a serious impact on you or someone else. We know no generation has ever had to deal with this, so we want to partner with you to help figure it out. On-air, online and on your cell, we hope to spark a conversation and deliver information that helps you draw your own digital line.

Take the Quiz

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

Frequently, when we talk with students, we invoke this mantra. "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should." Granted, it doesn't always have to do with online safety or ethical behavior. We bandy it about when kids get overexcited and go crazy with special effects in a video project, actions and filters in Photoshop, or animations in Power Point. More isn't always better, if you know what I mean. In matters of digital citizenship, however, can vs. should is an essential thought we'd like our kids to consider before they make a decision that could have lasting consequences, to themselves and others.

We hope you will find our blog a helpful resource as you navigate the digital world yourself, but especially as you guide your young people through this ever-growing realm of social media and interactivity. We invite you to join us, explore the resources on the right, ask questions, add comments, or send suggestions for topics.