How to teach Net safety, ethics & security? Blend them in!

By Anne Collier

US K-12 students aren’t getting adequate instruction in “cyberethics, cybersafety, and cybersecurity,” according to a just-released study sponsored by the National Cybersecurity Alliance and Microsoft released today. The survey, of more than 1,000 teachers, 400 administrators, and 200 tech coordinators, found that – although over 90% of administrators, teachers, and tech coordinators support teaching these topics in school – only 35% of teachers and just over half of school administrators say the topics are required in their curriculum. A bit of pass-the-buck thinking turned up in the results too – 72% of teachers said parents bear most of the responsibility for teaching these topics (51% of administrators say teachers do). They’re both partly right; it’s everybody’s responsibility, the experts say (see this). But the thing is, most teachers are already teaching online safety (which includes ethics) and may not even know it. More on that in a moment….

The filtering hurdle

The biggest hurdle to Net-safety instruction may actually be school filters! Note this statement in the study’s press release: “The survey also found a high reliance on shielding students instead of teaching behaviors for safe and secure Internet use. More than 90% of schools have built up digital defenses, such as filtering and blocking social network sites….” Then note UK education watchdog Ofsted’s finding just last month – that schools using extensive or “locked down” filtering “were less effective in helping [students] to learn how to use new technologies safely.” If schools could just teach a lot of what they’ve always taught, folding digital media in with traditional media (aka books, pencils, etc.), the academic ethics and citizenship they’ve always “taught” (hopefully modeled and encouraged) will naturally include “cyberethics,” for example.

Citizenship is a verb!

A classroom is a community, as is a blog, a team, or the group of people working together on a Google Doc. How do participants/”citizens” treat one another in those various communities as well as in the classroom one? You can’t *be* a citizen without a chance to practice citizenship in the community where you’re supposed to be a citizen. The same goes for the digital sort; today’s social media give us a whole array of opportunities to practice citizenship in online communities.

“Student leadership becomes an engine of citizenship,” Sylvia Martinez of GenYes told me in a phone interview recently. I asked her what she meant by student leadership: “It’s putting students in charge of something that matters [such as enlisting students to help integrate technology and digital media into the classroom, as GenYes programs do for schools] – giving them responsibility, then watching them, expecting them to do things that show they’ve accepted the responsibility, and then challenging them to do more,” Martinez adds. “It’s a cycle. Students are engaged [citizenship as civic engagement – or, in this case, classroom, task, or project engagement] because they’re doing something important.” So let students help with or run the incorporating of blogs, wikis, Google docs, and nings into class work!

Citizenship is protective

As for “cybersafety,” that too is practiced naturally when people are thinking about citizenship (and ethics!) online and offline. How can I say that? Because the research shows that peer harassment and cyberbullying represent the most common risk to students, and aggressive behavior more than doubles the aggressor’s risk of being victimized; so civility, respect for others, and citizenship represent the lion’s share of safety online for students. [As for the predation risk, which is extremely low for students who are not already deemed “at risk youth,” the research shows (see this), the don’t-talk-to-strangers-online message and associated fears have gotten through to kids during several years of technopanic; a teacher in New Jersey recently told me that her middle school students are just as afraid of predators as their parents are.]

Media literacy – critical thinking about behavior as well as information in a blog, wiki, Ning, or virtual world – supports citizenship and safety, as students learn to think critically about the motives behind and accuracy of info, comments, photos, text messages, etc. they download and upload, whether the source is a friend, advertiser, or stranger. This is not rocket science!

Students involved in tech integration can also model and help teach good computer and network security practices – that third C in the study mentioned above, Cybersecurity. This, too, is an aspect of good citizenship: protecting our passwords, not being tricked by phishers and other manipulators, and knowing what’s needed to protect our computers and networks. Critical thinking is key here, too, because social engineering, or manipulation, is a basic component of phishing and malicious hacking.

Basic ingredients, with or without a recipe

This kind of “online safety” education – learning to behave civilly and ethically online and offline and to respect one’s own and others’ passwords, identities, and intellectual and physical property at home and school – is not only protective, it’s *relevant* to students because they enable all of us to function effectively in a 21st-century media environment.

Martinez told me that half the schools GenYes works with say they don’t want a cybercurriculum, and about half very definitely do. So, hey, if any schools do want formal curricula or lesson plans for “cybersafety, cybersecurity, and cybercitizenship,” there is no better material than Cybersmart’s. Just don’t let those big words make you think that this is all about new technology, some sort of add-on to students’ life or education, or anything that we haven’t all been thinking about and working on together for a very long time!

Related link

* You only need one: educator Anne Bubnic’s 2.5 pages of “digital citizenship” links, starting here.

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