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One of my greatest challenges as a technology integrator is helping teachers overcome their fears of letting students engage with the digital world around them. Students want to use the technology of their choice to learn and grow, but teachers are obligated to keep them safe.
How can we meet in the middle?
The first step is acknowledging the myths surrounding online student privacy. Often, teachers’ fears — which are usually sparked by news reports warning about identity theft, cyber-bullying or online predators — only exacerbate the problem. In the words of Marie Curie, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Facing fear allows teachers to embrace the possibilities of online student learning safely and meaningfully so that they can help their students become responsible digital citizens.
Ready to face your fears? Here are five common myths about student online privacy that cause more harm than good.
Myth #1: Criminals will find and kidnap my students.
Fact: The chance that an unmarked white van will pull up to your school and whisk away a student because he wrote a blog post is so minimal, it’s nearly nonexistent. If you are worried about students sharing their personal information online, don’t ban them from the internet. Teach them the parameters and monitor for correct use.
With upper elementary students, I face fear head-on by allowing students to enter their addresses into Google Maps, then discussing how easily they can see their home and retrieve directions to get there. This leads to a natural discussion about why it’s unwise to post your address with your name online: because it’s very easy for someone to make a connection between who you are and where you live. We also discuss the importance of using screen names and avatars when creating online accounts for work or play.
Myth #2: My students will never get a job if they post something negative online.
Fact: The world is filled with opinions, debates, and debacles. Preventing teens from practicing online communication sends the message that their voice doesn’t matter. Instead, teach your students digital etiquette. While they’re still learning, you can use safe platforms like Seesaw, Flipgrid, or G Suite where students can post in a variety of formats including video, text, and photographs and settings can be adjusted from private to public.
It’s true that students can get burned by the fire of negative and rude postings, especially if a comment goes viral, or a screenshot meant for one is shared with millions. Students need to know the lasting impact of their words both on and off the digital grid. However, one negative post over time will not have the same impact as it did in the moment. The ability to communicate respectfully is a vital skill for children and adults and essential to our instruction. By teaching students how to share their thoughts in a respectful manner, then giving them the opportunity to practice, we empower students to use their voice for positivity.
Myth #3: Online class chats are dangerous and an invasion of privacy.
Fact: Communicating and collaborating with other classes online — whether they’re in the next town or across the globe — gives students the opportunity to learn more about the world around them and delve into the Global Collaborator standard within the ISTE Standard for Students. Just make sure you know which students have parental permission to show their faces/images to others before engaging in a class chat.
If you want to protect student identities, keep the webcam at a distance to capture the class as a whole rather than individual students. Ask those who don’t have permission to be on camera to sit just outside its view, so they can still participate or have one student as the class spokesperson so the rest of the class remains anonymous. Prior to the chat, review proper etiquette and follow through on consequences for students who misbehave.
Learning experiences such as Mystery Skype allow students to connect with others while also strengthening critical-thinking skills as classes give clues and try to guess each other’s location or a mystery letter/number. Gridpals is an engaging way to take traditional pen pal connections and transform them into virtual spaces for communication and collaboration. Many authors will connect with classrooms using Skype or Google Hangouts, too!
Myth #4: Social media creates cyber-bullies.
Fact: Social media is not evil. It’s a communication tool that connects millions of people around the world. Cyber-bullies are not a unique species spawned by the internet. They are everyday bullies who choose to use technology to express their aggression instead of keeping it face to face. While tracking down and punishing cyber-bullies is more difficult than breaking up a fight in the hallway, the heart of the problem is bullying itself, not the manner in which it’s conveyed.
That said, social media can create a false shield of security that lets students feel more comfortable expressing themselves to others — even if that expression is less than positive. The best defense against cyber-bullying is education. Teach students how to recognize negative, and potentially harmful, communication and give them the resources they need to report and counteract cyber-bullying. Don’t let online anonymity become a virtual permission slip to act inappropriately.
The bottom line is, if we block social media in schools, we’ll miss the opportunity to teach students the proper way to update their status, post a comment, share appropriate pictures, create a photo caption, tweet a hashtag and so many other skills they’ll need out in the world. Students have a story to share and are using these platforms outside of school in their daily lives. Give them the chance to practice digital etiquette and teach them how to report bullying in any form, whether online or in person.
Myth #5: Your students already know how to be safe online.
Fact: Just because today’s students were born in an era of technological ease does not mean that they know intuitively how to manage their online privacy. Children are children, and they can be immature and impulsive.
As educators, it is our duty to teach online safety rules to our students, much like we teach them to look both ways when crossing the street. They need to know the difference between private and personal information. They should also know how to customize the privacy settings of the networks they use.
Instead of assuming they mastered these skills through osmosis, plan a dedicated lesson to teach your students the rules and skills involved in protecting themselves online, and open the door to discussions about what should and should not be shared.
We also need to acknowledge the fears students may themselves have about online student privacy. To delve into their concerns and misunderstandings, conduct a class meeting where you allow them to share their stories and ideas about online privacy, both good and bad.
We must embrace our students’ use of technology in and out of the classroom, which includes teaching them how to use it respectfully and productively. Instead of banning online interactions, promote a culture of safe learning experiences in your classroom as you work together online. By allowing — and guiding — their practice, we can help shape them into productive digital citizens who can positively impact the world with their presence.
This is an updated version of a post that originally published on Aug. 26, 2014.
Tamara Letter has been an elementary teacher, differentiation specialist and is currently a technology integrator and instructional coach. She holds a master’s degree in educational leadership and is licensed as a PK-12 administrator. She received the 2018 R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence and was named 2019 Mechanicsville Elementary Teacher of the Year. Her book, A Passion for Kindness: Making the World a Better Place to Lead, Love, and Learn will be published by Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. in February 2019. Connect with her on Twitter at @tamaraletter or visit her website at www.tamaraletter.com.