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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.

IT. WAS. FASCINATING.

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.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree in the importance of giving students a safe environment to practice digital citizenship. Holly, love how you used the off-task behaviour as a teachable moment. Thanks for directing me here from Edmodo!

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