Ethical uses of technology: Unblocking and empowering

Blocked social networking sites

This is the first of a series of three posts on Internet safety and ethical uses of technology in schools in the 21st century.

I’m completing a M.Ed. program through Iowa State University and I have been creating a portfolio based on five competencies.  These competencies really sum up all the work we’ve done over the last three years and has given me time to think about some of the work I’ve done, both as part of the program and during my tenure as a technology director for a K12 school.  However, one of the competencies is based around ethical use of technology and it was this standard that challenged me to think of an artifact that would meet this truly important standard.  I have done a number of things over the last few years related to Internet Safety and ethical uses of technology in education, but nothing really stood out to me as being the best I could put forward to represent my thoughts on the topic.  Where I struggled was that most of what I’ve done hasn’t had much of a 21st century perspective.  As I searched the Internet looking for some guidance, I still came up short, therefore, I’ve decided to come up with my own ethical guidelines for technology use in schools for the 21st century.  These are purely my beliefs, but I think they are important enough to share with the rest of the world.

Before going into how I think we should address Internet safety and ethical uses of technology, I think it’s pertinent to define the context that all this is taking place.  We live in a hyper-connected, hyper-media world, which will likely remain for the rest of our lifetime, not to mention the number of ways it will change during that time.  As we look at the consequences of living in an always connected, media filled world, we need to realize the way we have operated in the past no longer will suffice any longer.  Using filters and blocking the potentially harmful ways technology can be used is no longer the best way to protect our students.  Rather, we need to use our knowledge to empower our students so they can make the best possible choices.  It is from this viewpoint that I propose my thoughts on ethical uses of technology in the 21st Century.  What you won’t find here will be a strict set of rules schools and educators need to do to protect students, but rather, this will be a series of blog posts on more abstract ideas for educators to consider that get to the heart of what I consider to be one of the biggest challenges as education moves forward in the 21st century.

Unblocking and Empowering

When I think of Internet safety, I immediately think of my high school years and more recently my first few years as an educator in Cherokee.  It was during these times that I saw Internet safety as preventing students from accessing sites otherwise considered bad or undesirable.  Find a site you don’t like, block it.  No questions asked.  Essentially, we had rules or Acceptable Use Policies (AUP) that students had to follow when using the computers, the Internet, or other technology.  I still think we need to have some rules to protect our students and our investments, but they need to change a little bit to be more open and conducive to learning in the 21st century.

I understand the need to block some sites to truly protect our students, such as sites advocating for violence, hate, pornography, etc., but I think we have gone a bit too far in the name of protecting our students.  The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) states we need to ensure: “the safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms, and other forms of direct electronic communications.”  To put this in a 21st century context, one of the most controversial Web sites that schools struggle with whether or not they should block access to is Facebook.  The arguments for blocking Facebook, as well as other similar sites, are that they are a waste of time when students could be doing homework, are a breading ground for bullying, and that it is difficult to monitor what students are doing on those sites.  While these are valid arguments, I have difficulty accepting zero tolerance blocking as the best solution.  Yes a solution, but far from the best, since many of these sites have useful tools students will need to take advantage of in their careers that lie ahead.  While it may not be Facebook, it will likely have many of the same tools and require many of the same skills.

Instead of blocking sites like Facebook, why don’t we find ways to teach our students about these sites so they make the right decisions when they use them outside the four walls of the school?  In my experiences ignoring an issue is where the problems really exist.  Students have the platform to speak their mind without the filter of synchronous communication.  Asynchronous communication empowers us to say and do whatever we wish without immediate consequence.  With the rise of this type of communication, where are we teaching our students the proper way to communicate in this new environment?  The answer is simple, we aren’t, and if we continue to block communication sites like Facebook in schools the problem will continue to worsen, because teachers don’t have the right tools, or the proper training, to prepare our students to communicate this type of platform.  We are experiencing a paradigm shift in the way we communicate and educators need to make sure we shift with that change.

This is a major hurdle for many schools and will take the entire school community to solve the bullying and other inappropriate things many students are currently doing on these sites.  I have had some experience with unblocking social networking sites and here are some suggestions for moving forward so you can be better prepared:

  • Don’t go in this alone: find others in your school or district that feel the same way you do about teaching your students how to use social networking sites.  There are going to be a number of people not happy with unblocking Facebook so make sure you have a support system.
  • Have a plan: You will likely need administrator support if you are going to change policy so make sure you have a plan for how you are going to prepare your students and more importantly, how you are going to prepare your fellow faculty members as they will be expected to participate.  Teaching students how to use technology in a responsible way takes the entire school community, not just a class student’s take and pass.  It has to be reinforced by all teachers.

Check back later this week for the rest of my thoughts on ethical uses of technology in the 21st century.

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