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Reflection on filters, social media & school

School filtering works better when less restrictive and blended with teaching students how to “take responsibility themselves for using new technologies safely,” said a study by British education watchdog Ofsted I blogged about in February). Educator Tom Whitby and the amazing comments to his blog post, “Deal or No Deal” got me thinking about this all over again this weekend.

User-produced media literacy. To me, the Ofsted study says clearly that it’s a new media literacy that teaches critical thinking about what’s posted, produced, and uploaded as much as what’s read, consumed, and downloaded – the new media literacy that’s a lot more protective than filters when using today’s Internet. Schools’ online-safety measures are still stuck back in the days of Web 1.0, when people interacted with content, not each other, and “interactive” meant clicking on hyperlinked words that took users, who were still very much consumers, to other content. They weren’t posting, producing, and uploading content the way they are on today’s Internet, the Net that’s so user-driven and -produced. The Internet and media are social/participatory/behavioral now. We need to understand that in order to start implementing the real solution: helping students develop their own cognitive filters.

Filtering blocks incoming content. It’s like deciding what books to allow in school. It works fine to the extent that it blocks incoming hate, violence, and porn, but how much “online safety” does that deliver for users of a participatory Web that’s on students’ phones as much as school computers?

Behavior, not tech, is the problem. We have a much better picture now of the flipside of “online safety” – youth risk online – thanks to, for example, the lit review of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which found that cyberbullying is by far the online risk that affects young people the most and that those who engage in aggressive behavior online are more than twice as likely to be victimized. So – in addition to the critical thinking of new media literacy – civility, respect for self, others, and community (online and offline) are protective too. It doesn’t make sense to teach these as stand-alone subjects in a vacuum separate from everyday classwork and school life. We don’t teach selective citizenship.

Online/offline stakeholders in learning. Risk practitioners and researchers rightly talk about the need for a “whole school” and social-norming approach to bullying and cyberbullying. Absolutely (see this and this). But why do online/offline risk prevention only around the academic part of school? We’ve long had “Citizenship” on report cards – might that not include the digital kind? Ideally, we’re modeling, teaching, and experiencing civility and respect in the “community” called a classroom as well as in class wikis, Google Docs, QuestAtlantis.org, and other collaborative-learning “spaces” in the classroom. During everyday academic work as well as at “teachable moments.” Stuff comes up in communities, online and offline, so we need reminders to be good citizens and critical thinkers (adults and kids). I call it the guild effect because strong communities are self-supporting and self-policing – if the infrastructure around them allows.

Promoting whole-school civility and making that the norm might take some of the burden off acceptable-use policies and discipline, because students become stakeholders in their own well-being and the success of their collaborative learning environments, online and offline.

Guide, don’t block. There has been too much fear and angst around new media on the part of adults in our society – a very destructive predator panic, even. I try not to get discouraged about all the damage-reversal needed. If we hadn’t turned “online safety” into a big, complicated “solution” to a “problem” called technology and instead 1) focused on behavior & child development and 2) put constructive tech use in the context of full, healthy participation in participatory media, we would not be looking for special “online safety” curricula addressing problems that students don’t really get and that the research shows have been misrepresented. We wouldn’t be blocking participatory, or social, media, and we would have core subjects being taught with those media and students (and educators) learning (digital) citizenship and (new) media literacy in the process. We talk about this in “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth” at ConnectSafely.org. If helpful to anyone, here’s a talk I gave in Second Life about “Online Safety 3.0″ (as my avatar, Anny Khandr).

Hats off to all educators who model and teach 1) mindful use of media and 2) civil treatment of fellow human beings. This is essential, baseline online safety. Now just do the same in digital learning environments – and get those into more and more classrooms – and I predict, based on the research, that students will be safer, more engaged learners. That “ounce of prevention” gets a lot more than Ben Franklin’s “pound of cure.” It gets the focus back on education and brings it into the 21st century, where it can support students’ healthy, enriching participation in participatory media, culture, commerce, and democracy. That’s something students can relate to!

Related links

  • There are so many interesting comments under Tom Whitby’s “Deal or No Deal” blog post, but don’t miss author and education researcher Ira Socol’s fascinating comment under Tom Whitby’s post (just do a page search for “socol” to find it on the page).

  • Ofsted’s “online safety audit” of 35 UK schools teaching students in the British equivalent of grades K-12, released 2/10/10
  • Text version of “Online Safety 3.0″
  • Video version of OS3 (actually a machinima talk shot in the virtual world Second Life)
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