The UK has a new eSafety drive for school children, with the “Zip it, Block it, Flag it” mantra, which is to be incorporated into Personal, Social and Health Education. This is a good thing, but there is a danger that as children grow up, they are left with a mistrust of social media. There is already anecdotal evidence of university students staying away from interactions online, because they have been taught of the dangers but not educated about the rich possibilities.
Meanwhile, in social spaces such as Twitter, there are a number of social-media savvy educators engaging in wide ranging debates about how to progress education forward to take advantage of the new affordances provided by the rapidly changing technological landscape. There is a lot of talk about maintaining one’s Personal Learning Network (which does not require use of technology or the internet, of course, but benefits from it greatly), and of the increasing need to remain a Life-Long Learner in order to be able to remain up-to-date in a world of fast-paced change. Educators owe it to their learners to be in touch with the latest and best information out there. That is not to say that ‘latest’ means ‘best’, of course. The nature of rapid communications links means that it is easy for positive feedback loops to get set up, and because very few people are well versed in establishing how much authority a voice on the internet carries, it is easy for whole groups to be misled. This, though, is exactly why educators need to be on the ball – they need to be able to help their learners get to grips with deciding what they should believe, and what they need to be more sceptical about.
One of the problems, to my mind, of over-protecting children from interactions on the Web, is that it is hard to learn what information to trust. If we learn how to assess the veracity and authority of a static page, or of some information presented via a content management system, that is certainly useful. But with the current trend towards social-media enabled sites, our children (and our educators) need to learn how to evaluate the information they are getting from other people. Even ignoring those who deliberately tell falsehoods, either for a laugh, or to mislead for other nefarious purposes, there are plenty of “wrong views” available on social media sites. Engaging in dialogue allows people to use rhetoric to great effect, whereas information on a ‘page’ tends to rely more on appealing to the rationality of the reader. The skills required for sorting the sheep from the lambs in the two scenarios are different.
It seems likely that the ‘net is here to stay, and that people will increasingly expect to be able to find out something about you on it. There are already great examples of people using the internet to promote their skills, interests and abilities. At the moment, however, these are in a tiny minority. If we want to give our learners the best advantages in the job markets of the future, we need to make sure that they can build a portfolio of their achievements so that future employers and customers can find them easily. The This Is Me project has been running a number of sessions on using your Digital Identity to promote your career prospects. This includes using the Web to good effect to support learning – not just as a source of information, but as a place where you can find people who know about the subject you are learning or researching through first hand experience, across a range of cultural and social arenas you may never get to encounter in the ‘offline’ world.
Given that it is already becoming important to engage with other people online, and the indications seem to suggest it will become more important over time, it seems sensible to me that we should be looking at having a coherent ‘curriculum’ to help learners both be safe, and make good use of the tools available to them. This is hard, of course, as various clever people are constantly making new tools but we can at least have a stab at working out a sensible framework.
“Zip it” – don’t give out any personal identifying information. This makes sense, but at some point, you will probably want people to know that the really cool or clever story, piece of art, poem, idea, etc. that you created was yours. So keep track of the pseudonym (false name) you are using – later you may well want to link to it.
Make stuff – get out there, and contribute your ideas and thoughts (bearing in mind the “Zip it” rule). Find out what people think of what you do, what you know, and learn from their responses. If they are mean about it, by all means use the “Block it” rule – but if they offer reasonable criticism, try to learn from it, and thank them for taking the time to help. Offer other people your opinion on what they are saying online, but keep it polite and helpful. Focus on presenting other people with content, and keep any socialising to people you know in ‘real life’. Keep track of the discussions you have been involved in – this can be a valuable part of the collection of work you are creating, but will also help sort out any problems which might occur. Mixing with other people online can come later. If there is anyone who makes you uncomfortable, “Flag it” by telling an adult, and getting them to look into it.
Expanding your horizons – eventually, it is likely that you will want to be able to have more in depth discussions with people you have met online. If you stick to the “Zip it” rule, and use a pseudonym, you can have quite sociable interactions with people online quite safely. Unfortunately, quite often people are mean-spirited. If you find people are being nasty, again it is worth using both the “Block it” and the “Flag it” rules, but don’t let it put you off – there are also lots of people who use the internet who are helpful and constructive. Do your best to be one of them – help other people out, and keep track of how and where you have helped them. Again, this is a useful part of your Digital Identity, and helps show people later on that you are someone they can trust and might want to employ.
Eventually, you might want to associate yourself with the material you have created, the discussions you have been in, and the help you have given people. It is not necessary to use your real name to do this, although it can make things simpler. Whether you use your real name or a pseudonym, there is always a risk that someone else might use your online identity for themselves. They might, for instance, claim that they posted the things that you have posted online. As long as you are careful not to reveal your passwords, and avoid having your accounts ‘hacked’, you can fairly easily show that you own the pseudonym used to post materials by posting something new under the same name. You can never really avoid the bad guys deciding to do something stupid, but you can show that you are the one who created the good stuff.
How quickly you progress along this route depends largely on you – I think this step by step process makes sense for anybody starting to use the internet, whether they are children or adults. Don’t give information away, until you are completely sure that it isn’t going to cause a problem. If you aren’t sure, ask a responsible adult – and that applies to the grown ups as much as the children!