As teachers, we are often scared to relinquish control to the learners. It’s not that we see ourselves as founts of all knowledge; rather, we worry about the effect on classroom relationships and climate should we radically change the dynamic of our learning environment. The trepidation is amplified for many when it comes to digital learning. When we as teachers feel less than confident dealing with this area of the curriculum, it’s harder still to hand over the reins to the children, even when we acknowledge the fact that they are often more skilled than us in some aspects. In addition, there is a fear of the online world – how do we keep the learners safe? How do we manage poor online conduct?
The answer is to treat the digital world in the same way as the physical world in which we teach or ‘guide’ our pupils as best as we can. We teach children how to stay safe around busy roads, how to eat healthily, how to avoid stranger danger. It’s no different for online safety – we teach them how to avoid the dangers present online, and if we don’t feel sure how to do that, we use the wealth of resources available from CEOP and similar organisations.
As for misbehaviour, the same rules again apply. If you have a policy or protocol for managing poor behaviour offline, you apply it to poor online behaviour. Bullying, viewing inappropriate material, misusing resources – all of these ‘offences’ occur offline as well as online, so we apply the same rules and sanctions. As Aileen Monaghan from HMIe said at the Scottish Learning Festival in 2015, we don’t restrict access to pencils, yet a child determined to cause harm could easily stab another through the eye with a nice sharp Staedtler HB. We don’t restrict access to the tools for learning; we teach children how to use them and follow through with consequences when they don’t use them responsibly.
Internet safety is an excellent starting point for any schools wanting to develop good digital literacy in their pupils. Schools already ask pupils and/or their guardians to sign a form recognising the need for appropriate use of the internet during school time. There are firewalls in place which block any site deemed to have inappropriate content, and as part of their Health and Wellbeing and PSE programmes, most primary and secondary schools cover internet safety and rules such as not giving out personal information to strangers. For teachers trying to develop this further, online safety resources are a good place to start such as ThinkUKnow from CEOP and Kidsmart.
A couple of weeks ago we had Safer Internet Day (#SID2016) and many schools worldwide shared their experiences. It is straightforward to link Internet Safety to Literacy and Health and Wellbeing priorities but this doesn’t always need to take the form of lessons specifically focused on the issue. Instead, any teacher, where appropriate, can be building in discussions and guidance as and when issues appear. Are pupils emailing you homework? Do they know what is and isn’t acceptable to write in that email? Are they doing research? Can they identify reliable sources? Are they aware of the potential consequences of what they put out on the internet in terms of cyberbullying, slander, trolling, and even how their eminently Google-able online self may come across to future partners, employers etc.?
Those teachers looking to foray a bit deeper into the digital environment could begin to look at how learners evaluate the tools available to them, and how they project and portray themselves online. As English teachers, we are used to talking about tone and register with pupils – where and when it is appropriate to use certain types of language, both written and verbal. We see that most pupils learn to move between the register they would adopt while speaking to teachers, and the language style they use with their friends; in many cases there are differences again in how they communicate at home with their families. The ability to move between different registers appropriate to different settings is an important life skill to have, but we also need to actively teach pupils to do this online. They need to consider the way they communicate in different online environments, learn to use a tone and register appropriate to these environments and, crucially, to consider how this will reflect on them in the future.
Social media is an excellent forum for practicing these skills. Different social media platforms are suited to different communication forms, and this can be explored in lessons. For example, a class could be asked to consider how best to share their classwork with a wider audience online. Which tool would be the right one for the job? Depending on the nature of the work, the answer may be a blog, a Glow site, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other outlet, but the answer doesn’t really matter – the learning comes through the discussion and consideration of why one tool is better than the other. To do this they must have experience of a range of platforms. The ability to transition seamlessly doesn’t happen instinctively. It requires reflection, observation, practice.
This might seem frivolous – after all, kids learn how to use these tools on their own, just like we do, right? Well, yes, but why not guide them along the way. After all, social media is becoming more and more mainstream, replacing traditional websites in many ways and being used as a tool for promotion by a vast array of workplaces. Jobs in social media are becoming more and more common, and the ability to use these platforms to promote, sell, persuade and convince is a marketable skill. It’s probably more important to teach the softer skills needed to operate effectively online (such as safety, register and tone, picking the right tool and assessing reliability of a source) than it is to teach how to use presentation software or video editing tools, at least in the way we teach these things now.
There is very little educational value to anyone, teachers and learners alike, in following a user guide and learning how to use a computer programme in a formulaic manner. Where’s the creativity? The personalisation and choice? Instead, give the class a challenge, provide access to a range of tools (apps, social media, video creation and editing tools, image manipulation tools and, yes, PowerPoint) and let them pick their right tools for the job and learn how to use them by experimenting. You can be there to guide and support, but so can their classmates. If you don’t know how to do something, and no-one in the class can help, then find out how to do it together. It’s the very embodiment of a growth mindset – it’s not that we can’t do it, it’s that we don’t know how to do it yet. Make digital education into digital exploration and blur the boundaries between teacher and learner. If we can overcome our fear of the digital unknown we can embrace the limitless learning possibilities of digital technologies and become the Digital Guides our learners need.