It is time to have an informed conversation about social networking and education. To do otherwise is to ensure our schools produce unprepared students - students who can't complete with others in the fully connected world of the future.
Stephen Abraham - The Pipeline 2007
This quote from Stephen Abraham, a school library advocate, regarding the current filtering and Internet access policies in a large majority of schools today. At the elementary and high school in Chase, sites such as YouTube, Facebook and many other social networking sites are restricted - although students gain access to these sites at school regardless. Why not teach them the ethical and safe way to access and use these spaces if they will be exploring them at home, at their friends' homes, or almost anywhere on their personal digital devices?
I can't help but connect this situation to that of the high school graduation celebrations that take place in June in our District. Dry Grad or Wet Grad. It is our District's policy now, and has been for a few years, that the celebration portion of graduation after the commencement, be a supervised, alcoholic free event. Obviously, they are not of age, it's illegal for them to be drinking anyways and certainly not at a "school" event. Great in theory. In reality, most underage youth will consume alcohol at a different graduation party, and these parties are not always chaperoned. We have seen tragic results of these decisions in our community and so concerned parents of last year's graduating class helped the students to organize a well-supervised, safe "wet" grad. Students arrived and left on buses, nobody was allowed to drive to the party. Yes, I know students 'party' throughout the school year, as well, but why not collaborate with them to organize a safe, memorable event for the all the right reasons.
Now, back to my point - the connection I instantly made between online practices and the wet/dry grad. As educators, and parents have a responsibility here too, if we don't teach our kids safe and ethical Internet practices at school because access is restricted or we're scared of the dangers lurking 'out there,' we still are not preventing them from getting onto these sites. It's irresponsible to pretend they won't try - why not educate them on accessing these spaces instead of banning them? Ludditism. "The normal progression in the adopting of new ways." Abraham writes about this concept, born out of the Industrial Revolution, after people tried to ban rock 'n roll, or allowing women to wear pants, and even the creation of the novel, "Fear and misinformation should not triumph over logic and an agenda for learning."
In my position in the Fall as a new Teacher-Librarian and in talking with my husband who is a Vice-Principal at the high school level, I believe one of the first initiatives I must take is to teach Internet Safety Skills and ethical, responsible use of information. As Ito and her colleagues point out in their collaborative research book, Hanging Out, Messing Around, & Geeking Out, youth are accessing social networking sites more out-of-school than during school time. Dale McDonald, NCEA Director of Public Policy and Education Research, also reports that 90% of students have access to computers outside of the school day and yet she writes, "A 2006 Harris poll conducted on behalf of Cable in the Classroom found that 71% of parents believe the responsibility of ensuring children's safety online belongs to the school." I would take an educated guess that in the community of Chase the percentage of parents that would assume the same thing would be very similar.
But . . . how do the teachers and T-L's educate students about online safety when they cannot access the very sites they need to do so? Therein lies the problem. It's clear that most parents expect the schools to be teaching their children new technologies, but also how to use these digital tools appropriately. YALSA (Young Adult Library Services) part of the ALA maintains a blog (http://blogs.ala.org/yalsa.php) and for the month of October back in 2006, they asked for examples of "Positive Uses of Social Networking Software." The resulting document, Social Networking and DOPA (Deleting Online Predators Act), lists 30 different sites, ideas, and reasons that social networking can be useful, from the social bookmarking site Delicious, to collaborating at school and communicating with parents and other stakeholders. Other Web 2.0 tools that were also mentioned were: LibraryThing, MySpace, YouTube, and Second Life. Abraham also shares the highlights of the conlusion of the document outlining the positive reasons to let youth access these sites:
- Empower teens
- Give teens the chance to meaningfully serve the community
- Support teen reading and writing and text-based literacy needs and skills
- Give teens opportunities to create and collaborate
- Make sure teens are able to plan and manage projects
- Communicate with community members
- Provide teens with opportunities to choose how to be smart and safe when using technology
We definitely need to educate our youth about the risks of being online, but we should also be responsible for teaching them about the collaborative and engaging learning that takes place online as well. McDonald describes the situation well, "Concern about potential cyberspace risks to students should be tempered with the benefits of its use as an educational tool through which students can learn about myriad topics, virtually visit museums, take college courses and work collaboratively with others in any part of the world."