Digital Citizenship Lesson Buffet for Middle School – Course 2 Project

Our school is looking to develop the character education component of our homeroom time. One slice of the pie I’d like to sink my teeth into is digital citizenship. To be sure the message gets out to all students, I would be very pleased to see explicit teaching about rights & responsibility, security & safety, communication & etiquette become part of our homeroom advisory instruction.

Working with Alli and Becky, we sought to kickstart the process with a Digital Citizenship Lesson Buffet for the middle school – a list of links, lessons, and activities, organized into broad categories, that could be shared with the IT Department and MS Administration for future planning of character education delivery.

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We began by defining specific realms – digital citizenship traits. It didn’t take long for these divisions to prove themselves quite arbitrary as the online materials out there are myriad and, of course, do not necessarily follow our idea of compartmentalization!

Nevertheless, we came across many, many good online resources, initially with some assistance from a small taskforce of Grade 6 and 7 students in an after-school IT-interest club, sponsored by Becky and our MS IT Coordinator (who played an important advisory role in this project also).

The more we gathered, categorized, and annotated, the more we all got the feeling that we were barely scratching the surface of the awesome resources available. Even when we restricted ourselves to those freely available, without charge. Fully developed all-in-one programs do exist, of course, but our school is perhaps looking to use a more personalized, student/teacher-interest driven methodology, so this was another reason for our smorgasbord approach to the project.

We see the future of our project requiring the direction of coordinators and principals. However, we suggest that next steps would involve (hopefully student-directed) defining of the traits of digital citizenship. The materials also need to be transposed to some sort of articulated framework, i.e. which grade levels do what.

Long story short (project steps and further info are available below in the project document itself): Regardless of next steps at the next level of administration at our school, I am personally looking forward to using some of these ready-to-go, highly-interactive online resources at content-related intervals through the rest of this year, and hopefully next year as well, when our advisory program will take more concrete shape.

Here is our final Course 2 Project GoogleDoc template:

The Costs of Constant Connection

A Newsweek article from August this year – “Lost in Electronica, The costs of ‘the chaos of constant connection’” – gave me pause. It asks us to re-think boredom – usually considered a bad thing – as a special privilege of the complex brain, and thus an aspect that distinguishes us from our animal friends. George Will posits that our capacity for boredom is essential to our humanity because it means we have the mental ability, and the space, to reflect and plan, space for empathetic thinking and community-action. A vital ingredient of global citizenship. And one that is increasingly absent in our constantly connected, constantly stimulated society.

Taking a cue from the evolutionist argument, Will suggests that our efforts to skirt boredom can be explained as the response of a brain formed in dangerous prehistoric times and wired to be constantly alert and vigilant. Our modern lifestyle has brought with it an unprecedented climate of safety and, thus, sedentary brain function, but our minds still seek stimulation and find respite from boredom in audio-visual entertainments. New technologies now allow young people’s brains to remain in an almost constant state of being “switched on” so that boredom can be utterly assuaged.

Will is actually reflecting on an article, “The case for boredom,” by clinical psychologist, Adam J. Cox, author of Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect (Guilford, 2006) and No Mind Left Behind (Perigee, 2007). Cox describes the minds of today’s teenagers as obese with the sudden abundance of electronic stimuli. Just as human beings have gorged on the far greater quantities of salt, sugar, and fat that the modern diet allows in contrast to our genome’s formative times, our modern minds now crave “junk nourishment” in the “ubiquitous barrage of battery-powered stimuli delivered by phones, computers, and games” which together form an “addictive electronic narcotic.”

As with all things electronic, the last half century has seen an exponential increase of this phenomenon. Previously boredom might have troubled the brain after an hour or two of nothing much to do. But these days, kids feel bored far faster. As constant stimulation and amusement becomes the “new normal” boredom is disappearing, and with it, by definition, the “available resources for thought, reflection, and civil behavior.” With “excess amusement” young boys (for they were the focus of Cox’s clinical work) are induced into a “pleasant trance from which they do not care to be awakened” and from which they “fail to launch” from self-centered adolescence into the adult world. Cox reminds us that being a responsible and contributing citizen is rarely fun – “it requires patience, forethought, and some willingness to tolerate tedium.” Thus, less boredom is less opportunity to practice civility and civic-mindedness.

The ominous corollary is that our constantly connected young people are stuck in an “electronic playground” of hyperstimulation. In fact, with the diagnoses of learning and attention deficit disorders going through the roof, Cox argues that at some point we just have to drop the label “disorder” and call it, simply, the way we really are right now. And the way we are is amused into a sort of self-absorbed oblivion.

Concerns about how our society is “dumbing down” are not new. Bradbury, of course, was on to it in the 1950s. Neil Postman was still on about it in the 1980s (in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death), arguing that politics, religion – rational argument and the quality of information – had all been diluted and made subservient to entertainment. He writes that consumers have basically, and voluntarily, surrendered their rights in exchange for entertainment.

While Postman pointed the finger at television, Cox points out that the available electronic stimuli have multiplied, with dire consequences for the next generation: “Unlike reading and listening to stories, the blitz of electronica doesn’t build deeper listening skills or a greater range of emotional expression.” He says, “Not only does withdrawal into electronica enable them to bypass the confusion and pain of trying to give their emotions some coherence, it also helps them avoid the realities of being a flawed, vulnerable, ordinary human being.”

Will adds further concern to this social phenomenon of stunted maturity with findings from the field of neuroscience. Brain scientists have shown that the “mature” brain is not a finished product and can, in fact, be rewired by intense and prolonged experiences. “Some research suggests that the constant short-term stimulation of flitting to and fro among digital promptings can impede long-term memory on which important forms of intelligence depend.”

Thus, Will expands Cox’s concerns to embrace us all. He argues that it is not just young boys and not even just the next generation who have all too successfully beaten away boredom. “Adults of both sexes, too, seem insatiably hungry for handheld devices that deliver limitless distractions.”

“We are in the midst of a sudden and vast social experiment involving myriad new means of keeping boredom at bay. And we may yet rue the day we surrendered to the insistent urge to do so.”

So, what do we make of Cox and Will, Postman and Bradbury? Are these just old guys on the un-cool side of the generation gap? Or have they got a (frightfully) good handle on the nature of the next generation?

Perhaps we could simply put it all down to that digital divide between natives and immigrants (to use Mark Prensky’s terminology to distinguish between people born before and after the advent of the computer). Digital immigrants stand out for their predigital dispositions; Prensky calls these digital “accents” in a blog for Edutopia (“Adopt and Adapt: Shaping Tech for the Classroom”). Having come to technology later in life, they tend to downplay the importance of new tools, concepts, and practices made possible in the new digital world, such as the importance of online relationships as compared to face-to-face ones. He states unequivocally, “Such outmoded perspectives are serious barriers to our students’ 21st-century progress.” Prensky positions himself squarely on the side of the natives in his 2006 book, Don’t Bother Me Mom–I’m Learning!, which champions the educational benefits of video game play. He argues that children “are almost certainly learning more positive, useful things for their future from their video and computer games than they learn in school!”

Educationally speaking, therefore, should I be glitz-ing up my teaching with technology? Should I be seeking to engage my students through entertainment? Video games and social networking sites – are these really my best allies in teaching and learning? Should I be making such efforts to go to where the kids are – “hanging out, messing around, geeking out” online – that education looks a whole lot like what kids are already doing with technology? So students don’t even notice when I am slipping in a bit of teaching on the side?
Or is it okay if learning is a bit boring sometimes?

“To be able to delay immediate satisfaction for the sake of future consequences has long been considered an essential achievement of human development.” So sayeth Shoda, Mischel, and Peake in reporting their famous (1990) experiment on delayed gratification in the American Psychological Associations journal, Development Psychology (Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies From Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions). So, should I put that marshmallow (or Oreo cookie in some replications of this experiment) on the desk in front of them? Or is a little bit of delayed gratification (and hard slog) a good thing for my students?

Certainly there seem to be some serious differences of opinion on either side of the digital divide when it comes to information obtained over the internet and concepts of originality – intellectual property and copyright. Some say that many digital age students simply do not understand that using words they did not write is a serious offense. If these digital natives have an “accent” then it is decidedly colloquial. Lazy, even.

On the one side, there is the perspective that the vast buffet of online information is open to the global community and therefore counts, basically, as common knowledge. Cutting and pasting has canceled out the concept of authorship. Digital natives – who have grown up with file-sharing, web-linking, and Wikipedia – assume that the information “out there” is available for anyone to take. This puts them profoundly at odds with educators and older adults who bluntly call this plagiarism.

A New York Times article (“Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age” August 2010) claims that the number of university students who believe that copying from the Web constitutes “serious cheating” is declining. The Western concept of intellectual property rights and singular authorship seems to be on the way out. It’s been with us for a while, anyway – since the Enlightenment, one could argue. So is this simply a natural waxing and waning of an ideal? Or is it the typical lack of discipline we tend to find in younger generations? Inevitable paradigm shift? Or “Generation Plagiarism” impatient for a fast-food, corner-cutting solution to the problem that writing is difficult and good writing takes time and practice? One university official in the article reported that a majority of plagiarism cases at his university involved students who knew perfectly well that they need to credit the writing of others. They copied intentionally, he said, knowing it was wrong. They were just unwilling to apply themselves to the writing process.

Or did they just recognize that it was wrong in the eyes of the old dudes in charge? In the same article, it was argued that notions of originality and authenticity have changed with the popularity of the “mash-up.” Student writing now tends to mimic the sampling, combining, and synthesizing that is more and more evident in music, TV shows, and YouTube videos.

Students themselves are less interested in creating a unique identity as young people were in the 1960s. Instead, they try on different personas like they try on different outfits, enabled by social networking and file-sharing technology. Borrowing freely from whatever’s out there, this might just be a new model young person: “If you are not so worried about presenting yourself as absolutely unique, then it’s O.K. if you say other people’s words, it’s O.K. if you say things you don’t believe, it’s O.K. if you write papers you couldn’t care less about because they accomplish the task, which is turning something in and getting a grade. And it’s O.K. if you put words out there without getting any credit.”

Of course, this kind of “us and them, either/or” talk is dramatic and thought-provoking, but it doesn’t really reflect what I’m thinking. Indeed, when it comes to technology in education, the polarized perspective is neither reasonable nor practical. The genie is already out of the bottle – the laptops are already in their hands at TAS. Indeed, the students in my classroom do not know a pre-MySpace/Napster era.

Now, for me, it’s about tapping into the potential of electronica to enhance education through its powers of motivation and customization and collaboration. AND balancing this with some old-fashioned discipline of the mental, social, and physical variety. Why? Because the gatekeepers are still the old dudes. The college admissions officers still care (somewhat) about school grades and SAT scores. But the revolution is coming and the students will be leading it. So, as Jeff Utecht commented during his TEDxTalk, I need to be socially networked, personal-learning-network-connected, or just frequenting Facebook, to see it coming!