Friday, December 12, 2008

Rules of the Information Superhighway

The thing about goofy analogies and sayings is that they are all too often frighteningly accurate. The Internet today is an information super highway and while there might not be any stop signs or traffic lights there are plenty of pot holes, construction zones, and nowhere near enough state troopers to regulate the flow of traffic. The Internet is the modern day wild wild west and anyone who has watched a John Wayne movie knows the wild wild west was no place for a classroom. So the question is, "How do we safely take a classroom to the proverbial 'OK Corral?'"

Since I became a "techie" (four years now and counting) through trial and error (and the look of sheer terror on my chairperson's face when I toss out some of my more outlandish ideas), I've created a set of guidelines for myself when it comes to incorporating the Internet and creating Web 2.0 tools for my classes.

#1 Create worthwhile projects: Back in the day you could close the door to your classroom and no one would know what you were saying or doing; this is not so on the Internet. By creating Web 2.0 projects your students will be creating a lasting record of your classroom activities. Make sure that they are worthwhile! You do not want parents, administrators, and colleagues chuckling at the work created by your students. Check grammar and spelling before they post (even if it's a Math class). If your students are posting podcasts, review them before you post them. Look for inappropriate images, mispronunciations, and copyright violations. Once posted to the Internet they will live forever in cyberspace. In an age where corporations are reviewing Facebook pages along with resumes for potential hires, you only want to post content that puts you and your students in the best possible light.

#2 Limit your student's Internet footprint: In the post Lori Drew world, parents and administrators are increasingly wary of what their children do on the Internet. As teachers we have a responsibility to protect our student’s identity online. There are simple things we can do to this end. Create private blogs and wikis. Do not post student’s last names. Do not post images of your students unless you get written parental consent (most districts have publicity policies, but unless you're posting directly to the district's Website you are not protected by the district policy -or their lawyers!). Of course 99.99% of the things you want to post are completely benign and actually beneficial for your students, but then again who ever thought a Mom would create a fake Facebook page to tease a thirteen year old girl who would eventually kill herself! We live in a strange world. Take the necessary steps to protect yourself and your students.

#3 Check your sources: The instant nature of the Internet is great; you can have a running dialogue with a guy in Bangladesh about the effects of global warming in real time, but do you really know that he's a guy in Bangladesh? There is plenty of stuff on the Internet that is at best factually dubious. (Did you know Jamie Lee Curtis is man? Oh yeah, and I read that the next President of the United States is a secret Muslim, etc. etc.) Luckily, there are plenty of ways to check the veracity of information posted on the Internet. Do not blindly send your students on Webquests without knowing what they are going to find and who put it there. The twenty first century is quickly becoming an age where "truth and facts" are quickly being replaced by "believable fiction". Teach your students to find the former and to be skeptical of the latter.

#4 Moderate Comments: Question: What do you do if little Timmy raises his hand in class and announces that Janie Higgenbothom who sits in the front row is a fat smelly frog kisser (Timmy may in fact use different words, but this is a family-friendly Website). For anyone with more than six minutes of experience in a classroom this is a no-brainer. You reprimand Timmy, call the dean, call Timmy's parents and have Timmy apologize to Janie. Now what do you do when the same thing occurs on your class blog at 2:30 in the morning? Hopefully you've set up a private blog so that only your students have access, you've given your students unique password protected accounts so you know who is posting, and you've set the site to moderate comments. Now when Timmy makes his electronic pronouncement of Janie's amphibious odor, you are the only one that knows. You can pull Timmy aside the next day, show him the post, and explain that it is unacceptable. When Timmy protests that "it wasn't me, one of my friends must have stolen my password!" you can reset Timmy's password and advise Timmy to protect his personal information better. No matter who actually sent the offending message a lesson has been learned and we've spared the feeling of a little girl who may or may not live too close to the swamp. (This rule applies to wikis as well. Although on a wiki you can't always moderate comments you can use the history feature to see who has posted appropriate and inappropriate materials).

#5 Don't use technology for the sake of using technology: Make sure that there is a reason to use Web 2.0. Don't just use it cause it is "cool." I was one of the first teachers in my building to use the SMART board when it arrived two years ago. I spent about a week setting up the lesson and the kids were amazed and astounded and I could not wait to use the board again. The next day I used the board for no reason other than the fact that I could. At first the kids were once again amazed, but they began to see through the fact that I wasn't really doing anything with the board. A few minutes later the school reset their clocks (for daylight savings time) and the minute hand went backwards on the clock and my entire class of 10th graders was amazed that the clock was going backwards. Lesson learned! Do not use technology to "wow" the kids. Use technology because it fits into your lesson. Teachers all across Long Island are going "Web 2.0" while the schools are still preparing for Y2K. There just aren’t enough resources for everyone that wants to do Web 2.0 projects. Make sure you're doing something because it is good, not just because the "kids like computers."

#6 Be wary of copyright laws: Right now it is an absolute copyright free for all on the Internet. You can take what you want, post what you want practically at will, but just because you can does not mean it is right. America's copyright laws and their exceptions for classroom use are almost as poorly worded and conceived as the Second Amendment. Basically you cannot post the copy written work of others without their permission. This includes music, photos, video and words (in other words all the things you'd want to post). This is true even if you are not deriving any income from the posting or if the posting will benefit society. Even if Abraham Lincoln wanted to use an Aerosmith song to help free the slaves, he couldn't post it on the Internet without first getting permission from the band or the rights holders (that is assuming the Internet existed in Lincoln's day and that he would've been an Aerosmith fan). Making life more complicated, the copyright exceptions for the classroom are not the same as the exceptions for educational use on the Web. Right now it is true that the technology does not exist to catch copyright scofflaws, but it won't always be this way. We can now catch crooks with a stray hair and a lipstick smudge on a coffee cup. Big brother is catching up and everyday technology is being developed to catch copyright violations. Do you really want to pay the price for borrowing a video clip or for your students posting a video with a soundtrack written by Miley Cyrus? Will you feel guilty when one of your former students is fined $10,000 for using the skills he learned doing your podcasting project to create a music video with stolen images and music that he posts to YouTube? Copyright laws are Byzantine, decades behind the times, and they desperately need to be amended to keep pace with the changes in technology, but until they do it is incumbent on us to know the rules and to make sure we enforce them with our students.

#7 Use your district provided tools as much as possible: As a general rule the technology tools provided by the district are a few years behind the times and they are never a efficient as some of the tools available on the open market, however they do come with one very useful feature... protection. Use your district provided e-mail. If you are using district maintained tools there is an electronic trail that you can use to demonstrate that your intentions and actions have been pure. School districts have legal advisors that worry constantly about liability and lawsuits, you do not. Do you really want to have to explain to investigators why a student was sending e-mails to your private account? You might have the simplest, purest benign explanation; still it is not a conversation that you want to be having.


Remember the Internet today is the wild wild west. It is up to you to protect yourself and your students on the World Wide Web. You may just be their "classroom" teacher, but if you put your classroom up on the Internet your responsibility toward your students does not end when the bell rings.

No comments: