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 and hacked accounts — 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 following 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. Rather than preventing students from blogging or using online accounts, 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 use Street View to travel virtually down their streets, noticing cars and houses along the way. 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. One solution I offer them is to use pseudonyms for usernames so they can still participate, but safely.
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 a safe platform like Edmodo or a blog with private settings.
It’s true that students can get burned by the fire of negative and rude postings, but those types of posts can be deleted and over time will not have the same impact they did in the moment. The ability to communicate respectfully is a vital skill for children and adults. By teaching students how to share their thoughts in a respectful manner, then giving them the opportunity to practice, we reduce the number of hotheads who negatively impact the world now and in the future.
Myth #3: Class Skype 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. 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. Prior to the chat, review proper etiquette and follow through on consequences for students who misbehave.
You can also turn the event into a “mystery Skype,” where classes give clues and try to guess each other’s location. The teacher or one student can act as the spokesperson, so the rest of the class remains anonymous.
Myth #4: Social media creates cyberbullies.
Fact: Social media is not evil. It’s a communication tool that connects millions of people around the world. And cyberbullies are not a unique species spawned by the internet. They are everyday bullies that choose to use technology to express their aggression instead of keeping it face to face. While tracking down and punishing cyberbullies 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 cyberbullying is education. Teach students how to recognize negative, and potentially harmful, communication and give them the resources they need to report cyberbullying. 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, create a photo caption, tweet a hashtag and so many other skills they’ll need out in the world. 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: Digital natives 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. And they need to learn how to customize the privacy settings of the networks they use.
Instead of assuming they pick these skills up 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 have themselves about online student privacy. To get at 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 impact the world with their presence.
Tamara Letter has been an elementary teacher, differentiation specialist and technology integrator. She holds a master’s degree in educational leadership and is licensed as a PK-12 administrator. She is also a SMART Certified Lesson Developer and Exemplary Educator, Graphite Certified Educator, and Edmodo Support Ambassador. And she is a mom of three who enjoys blogging about Random Acts of Kindness and creating recipe guides for Snapguide. Connect with her on Twitter at @HCPSTinyTech.
Want to learn more about how to help students become responsible digital citizens? Check out ISTE’s self-paced online Digital Citizenship Academy.