Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Living and Learning Responsibly in the Digital World

Well, here it is, September 2010.  We knew this was coming… We are addressing a couple of pretty serious needs related to the digital world in our School District.  We need to reduce online activities that don’t have an obvious use for learning, teaching, or administration and provide guidance to teachers, students, administrators, and parents for using digital tools and spaces appropriately.  Additionally, our online capacity (bandwidth) has become unusable at times, students are increasingly using online tools for social and inappropriate purposes, and more teachers are taking their students out into the public Internet space.  I think I will focus this particular post on students responsible use and other issues such as bandwidth and privacy in future posts.  Let’s start with a recent example that has been in the news. 

At a rave party in Maple Ridge, BC a teenage (underage) girl was, according to police reports, gang raped.  Bystanders took pictures with their cell phones and posted them to online sites like Facebook or emailed / sexted them to their friends.  The photos spread online and via cell phones like wildfire.  This is an illegal activity (as reported by police) involving the spread of child pornography.  What’s wrong with this picture?  How could people participating in the spread of this material be so desensitized to the obvious (to a thinking person) impact of these online actions?

At our District’s Digital Responsibility working group meeting this week, we had the pleasure of having Dr. Shaheen Shariff from McGill University’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education speak with us.  A little bit about Dr. Shariff from her website:
“My research and teaching are grounded in the study of legal considerations that impact educational policy and practice. I am currently principal investigator on three SSHRC funded projects: 1) to study school policy and legal boundaries involving cyber-bullying and internet harassment… I am an associate of the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill’s Law Faculty”

Dr. Shariff poses some probing questions and comments:
  • what represents “joking” and “true threats”? (Real versus perceived harm – subjective or objective privacy harm)
  • at what point do “joking” or “white lies” become libelous (cyber-libel)?
  • what are the limits of supervision and responsibility to intervene when cyber-bullying occurs outside school hours among school-mates?
  • young people beginning to perceive and conceive of public and private very differently
  • what can educators do with support from stakeholders – parents, law-makers?
  • on-line expression allows for perceived anonymity, permanence, infinite audience and participants

Other cases referred to by Dr. Shariff related to how some students have used social networking sites (eg, Facebook and others) inappropriately:
  • teachers have been falsely described as engaging in sexual acts in class
  • principals have been described as pedophiles
  • sexual orientation, hygiene, teaching styles are discussed
  • unflattering photographs are posted with insults and defamatory statements

She then provides some proactive objectives for us to consider:
  • develop capacity (among adult stakeholders and kids) to understand the impact of their expressions
  • involve students, teachers, librarians and parents directly in developing and delivering (as well as receiving) information, skills and approaches on rules of technology use, conduct and respect for privacy (QUESBA Task Force Report)
  • empower young people to become active agents in raising awareness among peers and stand up to bullying
  • help children and teens think through moral situations and assess their impact to an infinite audience on-line, as well as short and long term impact on their lives (criminal record, reputations, grades, health)
  • dialogue with kids and raise awareness of impact of their words

Our working group focus is to review our current policies and procedures that relate to student conduct and work to update them where necessary to reflect the current modern digital world context.  We will strive to weave this subject matter into existing courses, curriculum, etc. wherever appropriate.  We really see this as filling out the Social Responsibility area – it’s the same behaviour issues but expanded beyond the face to face realm.  Our objective is to start with K and try to weave it in up to grade 12.  We also want to engage parents appropriately so that we have all the bases covered: students, teachers, principals, and parents.  Living digitally can be unhealthy or healthy.  It would appear that from case law Schools and Boards would be well advised to address these issues proactively and fully.  I like Dr. Shariff’s advice to include students and parents in developing our codes and guidelines – I would like to see how we might do that in our District.

A few websites that you may find helpful as you explore these topics include (there are many more):

So, policy, procedure, protocol, and guidelines for online behaviour and privacy - two huge topics that our District is taking on this year.  I’d love to hear from others who have recently traveled this road.  Do you have advice, resources, etc. to share?  I leave you with this thought-provoking video…