So, here’s something I never did as a teacher. Today the school’s technology specialist and I joined an audio conference about how to update our school’s acceptable use policy regarding cell phones, Facebook and iPods. In other words, she and I sat around a speakerphone and listened to a 45-minute talk about technology ethics, following along on downloaded powerpoint slides.
Notwithstanding the semi-low-tech delivery on a high-tech topic, and also the possibility that we who write it may be the only ones who actually read our acceptable use policy top to bottom, this was a meaty presentation. Presenter Anthony Luscre, Director of Technology at Mogadore Local Schools, is well-versed in both practice and theory as far as using technology safely and well in public schools. (He also cites another expert, Doug Johnson.)
Some of the content was less relevant to me in an independent school (part of the reason I’m here), including the implications of federal regulations like CIPA and how to create a lawsuit-proof “chain of custody” for a confiscated cellphone using Ziploc baggies and timestamps. Much, however, was applicable to situations that I deal with on a daily basis. He summed it up under three big categories: privacy, property, and appropriate use. He also listed several areas of internet safety that are on every school’s radar these days, including “objectionable materials” and cyber-bullying.
Without dishing his intellectual property, I think I can safely share a few thoughts that stuck. One has to do with the great divide. You know, that yawning chasm between “digital natives” (our kids) and “non-natives” (us old farts). Anthony offered a way of looking at it that cut through a lot of the clutter: if something is wrong in the pre-digital world, it’s wrong in the digital world, too. Copying somebody else’s homework, saying mean things, using bad words… you can do any of these the old-fashioned way, or you can do ‘em in cyberspace. He gave us permission to apply timeless thinking to a rapidly changing world.
Another big idea was convergence. In a world where kids have iPod buds organically melded to their heads, some schools still have the word “walk man” in their handbooks (on a personal note, please ignore the vinyl collection in milk crates in my basement). These days more and more functionality is going into ever smaller boxes. A phone is also a music player and an internet surfer and a grilled cheese maker. So from now on when updating our handbooks or considering digital ethics, let’s agree to use Anthony’s all purpose term, “ECD,” or electronic communication device. And let’s also understand that our approach to technology has to be informed by solid ethical principles but at the same time fluid and adaptable to the newest trends and gizmos.
An area Anthony didn’t get to in this conference but was covered in the supporting materials is plagiarism. In the electronic age, it’s become easier than ever to cut and paste. Again, Anthony offered common sense responses that jibed with my own experience. Plagiarism, he suggests, is often the result of poor teaching. To “plagiarism-proof” assignments, teachers need to challenge students and themselves not just to collect and regurgitate facts, but instead to be creative, hands-on, and “answer real questions.” Student writing should tend to narrative more than exposition, be written for a real audience, and generated via a process that allows them to reflect on and revise products based on ongoing feedback. (My writing project sense is tingling.)
One caller asked during the q and a at the end if restricting technology was an appropriate consequence for abuse, also begging a larger question: Is access to technology in school a privilege or a right? We who mete out justice often claim that it’s a privilege, hence revocable when abused. But as online work is increasingly woven into the fabric of classroom instruction, at what point is technology no longer a privilege but a fundamental necessity, like pencil and paper? In pre-digital terms, would we yank a kid’s text book if he doodled in the margins?
Other questions were more situation-specific, raising just a few of the gajillion new problems schools face today: If a teacher gets filmed by a kid with a phone and ends up on Youtube, what can be done? If there’s a fight in school that was the result of cyberbullying, can the investigation include Facebook? I was left with the feeling that there are so many possibilities it is impossible to anticipate them all. In fashioning our AUP’s, we really do need to boldly go where no schools have gone before.