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

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.