With the weather dictating an indoor recess, 30 grade-seven students are passing the time in their Mississauga, Ont., Catholic school classroom. Eager for a much-deserved break, the teacher slips down to the staff room for a cup of coffee - and as soon as he's safely out of sight, the students lunge for the four classroom computers in a ritual reminiscent of musical chairs.
Within seconds, hyperfast fingers crawl keyboards in search of "hot" social-networking websites.
"Are you supposed to be on that site?" I ask anyone who will listen.
"Yeah," the ringleader replies. "They've blocked a bunch of them, but not this one."
"This one" is a personal website called tdotwire.com. The anxious faces of those congregated at the computers tell me all I need to know. Navigating any online social network is strictly off-limits - but only if you're caught.
Enter the domain of generation 2.0. Found in classrooms across the country, these resourceful and digitally "gifted" students have grown up wired and connected. As a media literacy instructor and an online safety expert for Microsoft, I've spent the past seven years hanging with many of these students, discussing, debating and tracking their love affair with technology.
But with that passion have come problems: cyber-bullying, accessing inappropriate content on school or home computers, password theft, text messaging in the classroom, snapping questionable pictures with camera phones - the list goes on. And schools are charged with managing it all.
"The Internet has no borders and it's often up to us, as educators, to deal with technology issues that have nothing to do with curriculum and the classroom," says Ana Epitropou, vice-principal of Westwood Middle School in Toronto. "Our teachers and librarian talk to their students and try to pay attention to where kids are going online, but it's tough. They're so much further ahead!"
Teachers, administrators and school board IT departments all agree you have to be at the top of your game to ride herd on this generation of digitally savvy kids.
"Students are using these recreational media tools earlier and earlier. We see kids going on MSN and building personal websites when they're in grade four and five," says Westwood librarian Carol Cooke. "We need to teach them Internet safety and to use recreational media responsibly, but we don't allow them to go on their [personal] websites or use instant messaging at school because it's not curriculum related."
Indeed, many teachers I meet are charged with supervising students' technology use, but have no clue what to look for. When the teacher comes around, "most kids just minimize the screens they're not supposed to be on," says one student. "Even when they ban MSN, we can still use eBuddy," says another. "I don't understand why we can't have a private [online] conversation about our teachers. It's called MySpace, isn't it?"
MySpace, Facebook, Piczo — the names may not mean a lot to you, but these social-networking sites represent the single largest challenge for schools in Canada. You may recall the many struggles among students, educators and online culture that played out last year in front-page newspaper stories of cyberbullying and inappropriate postings on Facebook. The schools' response in most cases was to block or "filter" sites on school computers.
But preventing kids from visiting Facebook at school does nothing to teach them how to navigate these sites respectfully. Besides, web-savvy high school kids have discovered they can use online services called proxies to get around web filters and block their identities at the same time.
And, certainly, being denied instant messaging or access to social-networking sites at school wouldn't deter a cyberbully from intimidating a classmate from his home computer.
During the 2006/07 school year, "we had about a dozen technology issues we had to deal with in the school and all of them came into the school from the outside," says Epitropou. And such incidents are the schools' responsibility, according to the Ontario Ministry of Education's Safe Schools Act. As Epitropou says, "If it happens in the home but affects the 'moral' tone of the school, we have to deal with it."
Also last school year, Parkview Elementary Junior High in Edmonton, which teaches 700 kids from kindergarten to grade nine, had to deal with a nasty communication that developed between students on an online social network called Nexopia, which resulted in one student talking about suicide. That's despite the fact that, in compliance with the board's policy, Nexopia was blocked.
It's clear that simply blocking online social networks and other troublesome websites is not the solution to these kinds of problems. "This is not just a school-based issue," says Wendy Craig, an expert in bullying at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who is often parachuted into schools. "These tools are evolving incredibly quickly. We've allowed kids to become the experts and wield this power over adults."
Craig says kids don't get the devastating consequences of cyberbullying, while many parents and educators tend to make the mistake of reacting only when things go awry. She believes schools need to start much earlier, by teaching media literacy and online character development, and by engaging fellow students as role models. For Craig, online character development means helping kids reflect on the emotional consequences of their actions: If I steal Ashley's MSN password and pretend to be her online, then she may be embarrassed by the things I say and I'll end up in serious trouble. "Eighty percent of kids use these tools in responsible ways," says Craig, pointing to the success of the recent "sea of pink" campaign at a Nova Scotia high school. Two students used email to help a grade-nine boy who was bullied for wearing a pink polo shirt to school. The result: Hundreds showed up for class on the appointed day wearing pink clothes as a symbol of support.
Some educators are beginning to do just that, by regularly incorporating technology use into the curriculum. For example, the Halton District School Board in Ontario has made technology a focus and includes an information technology curriculum for students in grades one through eight. "We focus on education, appropriate use of technology, Internet safety and how to do safe searching using tools other than Google, like World Book and Searchasaurus," says Mary Taylor, the board's coordinator of instructional technologies. Unlike Google, which frequently offers up links to porn and other adult sites in response to the most innocent search terms, these kid-friendly search engines steer students to age-appropriate encyclopedia entries and information. "There is no doubt it's still a work-in-progress," Taylor says, "but isn't that our job as educators, to be giving kids the tools to deal with technology and the Internet in a responsible way?"
Cathy Faber would agree. She's the Calgary Board of Education visionary responsible for educational technology and curriculum. Faber admits it's vision and money that allow the board's schools to move beyond the heavy-handed approach of controlling, blocking and filtering that dominate so many other boards. "The government of Alberta has made technology a huge focus starting in kindergarten and, by grades three and four, we see tremendous integration of technology in the classroom," she says. "Teachers must integrate new technology into science, history, social studies and other courses. It's not just an add-on, one more thing for busy teachers to cope with; it is integral to the way the subject is taught." Faber points to "the many faces of poverty and homelessness" website where students have researched and written stories about safe drinking wells in India, recorded podcast interviews on homelessness in Calgary, created multimedia videos with puppets, murals and song on poverty in Africa, all as part of their English, science, social studies, art and music lesson plans.
Yes, Calgary schools still block some websites. And sure, Faber says, there are still students who push boundaries and misuse the privileges that a wired school brings. But the consequences for unacceptable use are well laid out and include suspensions. On the prevention side, schools take students through a comprehensive series of lessons that include cyberethics, rules and responsibilities in cyberspace, and the real trouble you can get into for hacking. "We've made the moral and ethical use of technology and online citizenship the bedrock for our web awareness programs," says Faber.
But recall Craig's assertion that healthy web awareness needs to be practised at school and at home. Where does that leave parents?
The Calgary board has that area covered too. "We also provide web awareness training for all staff. Parents have access to their school's web awareness plan and acceptable use guidelines; they're invited to school and city-level workshops during Calgary's web awareness week. And each school, with its parent advisory team, chooses from three different levels of filtering and writes its own web awareness plan," Faber says.
Unfortunately, that sort of co-operation among parents and schools hasn't yet reached most parts of the country. Susan Campbell of Pitt Meadows, BC, has witnessed first-hand the need for enhanced communication between home and school on Internet-related issues. Her foster daughter recently took part in a pilot project with her grade-eight class that allowed students to have their own wireless laptops during the school year. The school set up basic rules and provided some cursory Internet safety tips (don't put personal information into profiles, be aware of online predators, and so on), then let students loose.
"What they failed to appreciate is that at 12 and 13, kids have different levels of self-control and, for our daughter and many of her friends, it was technology gone wild. She'd sneak the computer into her room and we'd catch her reading Fanfiction in the middle of the night. In class, when she was supposed to be taking notes, she'd be using the computer to ichat with her friends or do stuff on Quizilla. There was way more tension in our home," Campbell says. "It affected our whole family dynamic. The goals of the program were admirable, but the implementation was a disaster." Worse, she adds, "it was 'curriculum based' so it's not like we could take it away."
Aware of the potential problems, Toronto mom Melanie Zerafa has taken the initiative of being more proactive than most parents when it comes to preaching responsible technology use. "We spend a lot of time in our home talking about the media, the Internet, and the moral and ethical choices we make every time we log on. In our home we have firm policies: You never put your picture anywhere on the Internet. You never, ever fill out a form that asks for personal information. It's the responsibility of everyone to teach kids cybersense - not just teachers."
Social networks Social media sites that allow people to socialize and expand their networks of friends online. Most social networks allow kids to customize how private or public they'd like to go with their personal information. Too often, kids don't study these options carefully and just go with the default, which may allow their personal information to go public. Examples of social networks include Piczo (targets young children), MySpace, Facebook, Nexopia, Hi5, Xanga, Bebo, Cyworld, Windows Live Spaces, Friendpages, Tagged, tdotwire and Sconex.
Blocking/Filtering The terms are interchangeable. Most school boards decide what content and websites students can visit using school resources. Boards generally work with the company manufacturing the filtering software to determine appropriate and inappropriate sites. Blocked sites are updated on a regular basis.
Ebuddy A web-based and mobile phone service that allows kids to use MSN, AOL and Yahoo instant messaging (IM) services without downloading the program.
Proxy A web-based service that circumvents a school's filter and allows students to access IM. A favourite tool in high schools.
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