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Doug Johnson's Tech Proof

Keeping Kids
Internet Safe


In December’s TechProof column, we examined Internet filters and learned why relying on filters alone to keep students safe is not a smart move. This month, we’ll look at a more effective, proactive approach to ensuring good Internet use by students.

Responsible educators recognize that schools must give students the understandings and skills they need to stay safe outside of school, which is where studies show most Internet use by young people occurs. Over-filtered school networks set up a false sense of security; the real world of the Internet is quite different from the Internet at school. As professor and author Carol Simpson writes:

”Trying to teach students to use the Internet through a filtered computer is like teaching a child to cross the street in the basement. They’ll be run down the first time they try to cross a real street because they’ve had no guided experience.”
The question is, how do we provide that “guided experience?”

In schools that address safe and ethical Internet use proactively, I see media specialists and classroom teachers use the following strategies:

  • Articulate personal values when using technology. We encourage talking to students about ethical online conduct and setting clear limits about what is allowed and what is not allowed. We ask all staff members to be knowledgeable about the school’s Acceptable Use Policy and work to help their students understand it.
  • Build student trust. If an inappropriate site is accidentally accessed, we encourage using the incident to teach some strategies about using clues in search result findings to discriminate between relevant and non-relevant sites. (“Jimmy, when the search results say ‘hot chicks xxx,’ that probably won’t be a source for your report on chickens.”)
  • Accept the fact students will make mistakes. Coach John Wooden famously said, “If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything.” Learning is about making errors and figuring out how not to repeat them. A middle school student who shares her password with a friend who then destroys files is a recoverable mistake -- one that she might remember before sharing personal data as an adult.
  • Allow students personal use of the Internet. If Internet computers are not being used for curricular purposes, students can research topics of personal interest (that are not inherently dangerous or pornographic). The best reason for allowing that is that students are far less likely to risk loss of Internet privileges if that means losing access to sites they enjoy.
  • Reinforce ethical behaviors and react to the misuse of technology. Technology use behaviors are treated no differently than other behaviors -- good or bad -- and the consequences of such behaviors are equal. We try not to overreact to incidents of technological misuse. If a student were caught reading Playboy in paper form, it’s doubtful we’d suspend all his reading privileges.
  • Model ethical behaviors. All of us learn more from what others do than what they say. Verbalization of how we personally make decisions is a very powerful teaching tool, but it’s useless to lecture about safe and appropriate use when we ourselves might not follow our own rules.
  • Create environments that help students avoid temptations. Computer screens that are easily monitored and the requirement that users log in and out of network systems help remove the opportunities for technology misuse. An adult presence is a far more effective means of assuring good behavior than filtering software.
  • Assess children’s understanding of ethical concepts. We do not give technology-use privileges until a student has demonstrated that he or she knows and can apply school policies. We test appropriate use prior to students gaining online access.
  • Educate staff and parents about ethical technology use. Through school newsletters, talks at parent organization meetings, and through school orientation programs, our media specialists inform and enlist the aid of teachers and parents in teaching and enforcing good technology practices.

Want More?

Want to read more about Doug and his thoughts on library media and technology? Visit his Web site or browse his new blog. Got a compliment, a complaint, or just a comment to share? E-mail Doug at [email protected]

Will doing those things guarantee that a student will never get in trouble or danger online? Of course not. But schools never have been able to guarantee students’ physical safety either. What schools must be able to demonstrate is that they have shown due diligence -- that they have taken serious steps to prevent harm from occurring. That, to me, suggests that a formal plan -- one that includes the above actions and documentation of the plan -- is necessary. And installing Internet filters alone does not constitute due diligence.

Maintaining the concept of intellectual freedom, providing a healthy and educational online environment, and teaching students to be self-regulating Internet users might seem to be a difficult and sometimes even conflict-laden challenge. But so far, our district seems to have been able to meet the requirements of CIPA, give staff and students access to the greatest possible range of online resources, and teach students safety strategies that will serve them outside of school and into the future.

As responsible educators, we can do nothing less.

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