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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Digital Citizenship in Practice

Follow up to the previous post:

Several weeks ago, I wrote about introducing Digital Citizenship to my 3rd graders. We were off to a great start, kids were "getting it," and they had a lot to say about what NOT to do when using technology. Fast forward just two weeks and it became ABUNDANTLY CLEAR that talking about good behavior online wasn't nearly enough...

We use Google Apps for Education at our school, and our youngest students have access to Docs only. Well, last year my most tech-savvy little darlings took all of .4 seconds to figure out how to use Google Docs to "chat" with each other, and they quickly strayed into an off-task environment that was very appealing and enticing, even when they knew their teachers could see everything they were saying! This became ground-zero, if you will, for a whole pile of learning about making good choices and appropriate behavior online. As teachers, we could establish expectations for behavior, discuss the benefits/drawbacks (distractions) of technological tools, and point our kids toward using the chat feature in a helpful, productive way. It doesn't mean that they always made good choices, but when they didn't, we were right there to engage them in a conversation about it.

This year, although we have been using Docs since the start of the school year, we hadn't yet done a big collaborative project where multiple users were trying to edit the same document simultaneously, always an adventure! This year's students hadn't discovered the chat feature yet, and in fact, they didn't discover it until the very end of a class period gone completely awry. Interestingly, in completing an assignment about digital citizenship, they forgot all about what it was...

In class, we have defined Digital Citizenship as using technology safely, responsibly, critically, and proactively.  The assignment associated with this unit is to design posters in Comic Life that teach some of the "rules" in a visual fashion, so before we could get started, we needed to spend some time coming up with those rules, and we had already discovered how hard it is to write rules that start with something other than "don't." I processed about 5 different ways we could build class information and decided to use two methods that would help us brainstorm, while simultaneously showcasing two very different technologies. First, with laptop lids closed, we did a follow up on the previous week's assignment using Inspiration (mind mapping software). Soliciting the kids' ideas out loud, I quickly built a mind map, or diagram, that had some suggestions for rules about using technology proactively.
When we finished, I asked them something to the effect of, "Did anything bother you about doing it this way?" I was hoping someone would point out that I was the only one actually using a computer for the assignment. It is technology class, after all. They got there eventually, and we decided to try an activity where everyone was engaged and using technology. (I should note that we have a rather old version of Inspiration. The kids could have each made their own mind map, but without a subscription to the online collaborative version, called Webspiration, this would have been a solo activity.) So, I introduced the second method of brainstorming, which was to use Google Docs to collaboratively brainstorm a list of ideas all at the same time. We started with a very simple 4-column document:
Knowing this was their first time working on a document shared with more than just one other person, I gave them a small warning about all the colors and user names that would pop-up as people clicked into a box to begin adding content. Our goal was to simply add as many rules as we could think of, starting perhaps with the ones we had written on notecards a few weeks earlier. Deciding which column they fit in was no easy task, but I figured we'd get the ideas down, and then edit for duplicates and wrong categories later. A few students decided right away that they would scroll to the bottom of the page to avoid conflicts with other users, but for the most part, we opened the document and let 'er rip.

I did this with two different classes of students (16 kids in each class...I know how lucky I am), and each handled it a little differently, but in general, they watched all the colored usernames pop up as people joined the document, they spent a couple minutes trying to type things in the table's cells, and then things started to dissolve rapidly....

I watched my sweet, caring, cherubic, brilliant 3rd graders completely lose it, and a very rare few even cackled with glee as they repeatedly interfered with other kids' work and spent their time just clicking all over the screen because they thought it was funny. They were inadvertently highlighting and deleting things right and left. Kids were yelling across the room things like, "YOU SPELLED THAT WRONG!!" and "STOP DOING THAT!" and "WHAT COLOR AM I?" 

Note: as the teacher, you would think I would have put a stop to this immediately. But, this was actually an essential part of the assignment, seeing how they would manage in an online environment where they could do a lot of things, but should they? It was all I could do to let it go on for a while, hoping that they would find a way to turn their behavior around on their own. Self-manage. Peer coach. ANYTHING! 

In one class I had a student near tears because others were vocally criticizing her choice of font size. In the other class someone actually managed to delete the ENTIRE CONTENTS of the document, sending the whole class into a complete tailspin. (I did have a moment of pride when one girl yelled, "WAIT! EVERYBODY COMMAND-Z! UNDO!" The document magically reappeared and a cheer went up. However, there wasn't much useful content there to begin with.)

I hit my limit at about 10 minutes, and then I turned off document sharing and asked the kids to close their lids (our code word for this is "meatball," btw). To be honest, in the first class, I was quite flustered by the time we rolled out the meatballs. I realize how fortunate I am to be in a class where the harshest thing that happened between the kids was criticism of each other's spelling. But to them, it still felt like someone saying, "you're stupid," and feelings were hurt. Every rule we had previously brainstormed about leaving good comments and being nice went flying out the window! "Just because you can doesn't mean you should" was nowhere to be found, even though we say this every single week. Clearly, talking about it wasn't enough. The kids needed to experience an environment where they could put it to the test. And this was an assignment shared just within our classroom, not the world wide web. Students could be identified by their real usernames, not some anonymous ID.

To be fair, I think the majority of kids were actually trying very hard to redirect behavior and get their work done. But we discovered a few "trolls" among us who just didn't listen and could not be swayed from their gleeful interference with other people's work. I could not have scripted this day better if I'd tried.


Now, I'm fully aware that there were plenty of things that made this a challenge, chief among them the fact that it was the kids' very first time doing something like this. All new technologies take time to get used to, and I know that in the future, now that they know what to expect, it will run more smoothly. I'm also aware that sharing one document with too large a group is hard to manage, even for adults. We had a debriefing session about what had happened, what went wrong, what we could improve...and we determined that in our second attempt we would be split into groups, and each group would be assigned a column of the document, so no more than four students were editing in the same general area. Upon opening our laptops again (code word "spicy meatballs") things went much smoother in the next 15 minutes. We had already learned something from our experience, and working together over the next couple of weeks, our document started to take shape:
with a healthy dose of editing from the teacher to remove repeats and help get things in the right category

The kids have since been working on their posters, a few of which I hope to share when they are finished. There were two really great conversations that came out of this experience, though, that I'd like to address.

First, I very honestly asked the question on a lot of adults' minds..."did you learn more (or better) using technology?" When I asked the kids to compare the learning environment in our classroom during the group brainstorm with me creating a mind map versus them editing a shared doc, they could clearly see that things were calmer and at least more orderly during the former. We were able to get quite a few ideas on paper in a relatively short period of time, and because I called on a variety of students to contribute, it felt like just about everyone was engaged in the process. In scenario two, did technology work to our benefit? Or was it just a distraction? The kids definitely thought that it had the tendency to distract, but we also thought that, given practice, we would get better at managing our behavior and we would find more ways to use such powerful tools efficiently. This very idea runs parallel to our definition of digital citizenship in that we start by talking about the do's and don'ts (being safe and responsible), but then we move into the more complicated realm of figuring out how to use technology critically and proactively for our benefit and the benefit of others. Is this the best tool for the job? Can we see other ways to use it that might be helpful? Could this be done better without technology?

Second, when I first uttered "meatballs" in one class, there was total silence as the kids suddenly came out of their haze and took a look around the room. As their eyes found mine, and they read my face, one said, "Oh man, we're in trouble." I assured them I was not angry, but that I had certainly learned quite a bit about and from them by simply watching the spectacle. What happened to everything we thought we knew about being a good digital citizen? How could we have talked about all these rules, but then act like we'd never heard of them? What the heck just happened? We had just experienced an event clearly demonstrating that talking about these ideas is a whole lot easier than practicing them ourselves. I honestly believe they didn't even think we were engaged in an activity that required digital citizenship. This was completely new territory.

In this group, though quite a few kids said "we learned more/better the first way," one brave child raised his hand and spoke very honestly to his classmates. To paraphrase:
Well actually, I DID learn something from this...I was one of the ones doing bad things, and clicking all over the place because I thought it was funny. Now that I can see the effect that had on everyone, I don't think it's funny any more. I'm sorry.
Wow. I couldn't have scripted THAT if I tried, either! Real learning did take place, if not in the traditional fashion. Call it a teachable moment. Call it authentic learning. Call it whatever you want. We need more of it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Beyond "The Conversation" About Ethics

Sam and I read this article by David McMillan last week and found we had a lot to say about it (to each other, at least). Mr. McMillan's article calls for a clear, broad, open "conversation" about the role of ethics in social media. Obviously, we couldn't agree more! We have been having that conversation with our students and parents for a couple of years now, but there is always more to do, more to say, more to teach, and more to experience as social media evolves. McMillan offers the following 5 points we need to address:
1) In social media, there is no difference between public and private.
2) Just because you can post something doesn't mean you should. [that rings a bell!!]
3) Your online and offline selves might not be identical, but they're joined at the hip.
4) Will what I post cause harm to others?
5) Finally, call it the Social Media Golden Rule: post about others as you would have them post about you.  (McMillan, How to Ruin Your Life in 14 Minutes: Or Why We Need a Serious Conversation About the Ethics of Social Media)
Great points, all, and I would strongly encourage you to read the entire article for more details on each of the five. While Mr. McMillan wrote this in the wake of a particularly offensive, racist video rant posted online by two teenage girls, it saddens us to think that people might only pay attention to these things when horrid things happen. There are now plenty of "examples" of poor judgment and negative behavior online that we can point to and say, "See? This is what can happen if you don't think before you post." However, a review of these points, as McMillan advocates, needs to happen in an ongoing fashion, before things get out of control. Parents need to talk about it, teachers need to talk about it, EVERYONE needs to talk about it. We need to be far more PROactive in our approach, rather than REactive.

But talking about it isn't enough.

Kids need practice and real-life experience in situations where they have an opportunity to make good choices (or bad ones) and we can then talk more about it from a place of deeper understanding and personal knowledge. As with many things in life, these are more skills where "we learn by doing." Sometimes that means making mistakes, but if we can structure learning opportunities in a relatively safe environment (such as school, in a controlled/internal network), the consequences are likely to be far less severe.  Is that possible? We believe so, and Sam and I will each be sharing examples of how we have modeled the practice of ethical decision-making in some of our lessons.

It is important for us to recognize, in addition, that there is a fair amount of decision-making for which our kids are just not developmentally ready.  Long-term consequences? Our brains aren't truly wired to connect our feelings, actions and consequences until we are late into our teens or even our early-twenties. So how does one prepare an 8 year old for the types of ethical decisions they will be expected to make in the digital world? How does a parent respect their teens' privacy, when what they see their child doing online doesn't seem all that private? How do we stop reacting and start being proactive? The questions and challenges seem endless, but they are the very things that shape good teaching and parenting.

Talking about ethics and social media is a good start, and using resources like David McMillan's article to open "the conversation" is a fantastic idea. But this is not just a one-time, "thanks, I got it!" type of discussion. This is every day, real world, what-kind-of-person-do-you-want-to-be? kind of stuff.  It's HARD.

But we need to keep talking about it. And beyond talking about it, we need to help our kids practice and live it.