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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A closeup of a young woman's hands holding an iPhone. She's wearing a grey, full zip sweatshirt, and the autumn-colored background is blurred out.

For as long as there has been social media, kids have been getting punished for its "misuse" (in the eyes of adults). Because of this perceived inappropriate behavior in social media, many schools have blocked Facebook, Twitter, and other frequently-used social media sites from their students. Smart phones are also commonly banned. It's not unusual for teachers and school administrators to dole out punishment for students who don't adhere to these social media restrictions. Consequently, we are holding kids responsible for something that, in most cases, we never taught them to use, but have only forbidden them to use. Where's the adult responsibility here?

A Persistent Double Standard

Many kids began leaving digital footprints when their parents introduced them to the social media world. Facebook and Pinterest are rife with naked baby pictures that parents will some day have to answer for. Some parents couldn't even wait for their child's birth before creating that digital footprint, so the digital sonogram photo album was invented, which means that many of our kids became digital citizens by force rather than consent -- before they were even born.

I often wonder how many of these same proud parents who post their kids' pictures on various sites are the same parents who complain to school districts about using students' pictures in printed or digital newsletters to identify their positive contributions.

Another parent and teacher concern that astounds me is about children's early access to social media in school. It's as if the only exposure kids will have to social media will come from the school environment. Are these adults unaware that two of the largest worldwide social media sites are Club Penguin (with over 200 million accounts) and WebKinz World (with a similar toddler membership)? Yes, many of these kids have been interacting, socializing, and learning while using social media even before entering school. How could they not when they are surrounded by it daily? How can we forget that we live in a technology-driven society? How can we, as adults, hold these kids responsible for their actions without ever teaching them about the technology they're tinkering with?

Building on Existing Skills

Digital citizenship starts early. Teaching kids about responsible digital literacy should also start early and not wait for some elusive time to be determined by a vague school policy.

Schools need to look at all personal mobile devices with a new eye. Mobile devices have had a significant effect on how we as a society communicate, interact, collaborate, and create. We now approach all of these skills differently than we did before mobile devices. Just as we accepted the changes that desktop publishing made in how we created and published printed and digital content, it's time to examine, understand, and accept the changes that this new generation of learning tools is bringing to education. Instead of viewing personal mobile devices as adversaries, educators should recognize them as tools for learning. In an academic setting, smartphones are actually computers with phone capabilities. How can personally-owned computers not be welcomed in a school as tools for learning?

Students have taught themselves the skills that they use the most, such as downloading music, videos, and games. They are also well versed in texting (and stealthy strategies for doing it, too). As educators, we should be developing methodologies for utilizing these skills responsibly. Additionally, we should be enhancing what students are already doing, giving them even more critical, responsible, and comprehensive curation, communication, collaboration, and creation skills.

Following are four possible approaches:

1. Create Tech-Positive Zones

We can’t go to a Broadway show without being expected to turn off our phones. So we understand that phones are restricted in certain places, but not all day and everywhere. Adults navigate a world with restrictions on tech, so that should be a model for school, the world where our kids live. Schools need to create zones where kids may use their devices to communicate. The cafeteria is an obvious place, as are study halls. In the library, a mobile personal computer could be used as a search engine. Obviously, there will be teachers open to having students using these computers within their classes.

2. Create No-Tech Zones

Creating zones for tech use makes it easier for educators to create zones where devices can be used sparingly, with permission, or not at all. Students are more likely to see the logic of no-tech zones when their devices aren't categorically banned within school.

3. Allow for Teacher Discretion

Instead of having to enforce schoolwide zero tolerance rules, teachers should be allowed to determine when their students may use personal devices. Teachers should also feel comfortable modeling appropriate use of technology for their students within the school environment.

4. Keep Policies Flexible

Educators need to be open to reconsidering whatever policies are in place concerning mobile devices. These policies should be revisited regularly to adjust for the inevitable and rapid change of emerging and evolving technology.

Understanding Before Accountability

If we're going to hold kids responsible for their actions online, we must first give them models of what is appropriate and acceptable. Banning technology use only makes them more curious about this forbidden fruit while we hide our heads in the sand about the consequences of that curiosity.

Of course, it's still our responsibility to regulate technology use. However, we need to apply commonsense guidelines for technology use and digital literacy. The tech guidelines of the 21st century can’t be based in 19th- or 20th-century methodology. Schools that established acceptable use policies at the millennium should make sure that these policies are still relevant.

Let's begin teaching digital literacy to the youngest students to prepare them for handling the technology to which they've already been exposed. Once we teach them to be responsible, thoughtful, respectful digital citizens, then we can hold them accountable for their actions. And it should be obvious that if we're to better educate our kids, we must first better educate their educators.

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