I am sometimes consulted on issues relating to students developing digital citizenship, and this has only increased since our one-to-one program has begun in Goochland. Sometimes these discussions with teachers or administrators focus on undesired behaviors from students, such as playing games, forgetting to bring the iPad to school, or having it charged.
Students have been playing games on computers since I’ve been a teacher, so that’s nothing new. Forgetting an iPad is not terribly different than forgetting to tie a shoe or bring a pencil to class. It happens.
I know it’s frustrating to deal with these behaviors as a teacher when you’ve spent time and energy designing a great lesson that will make use of the iPad or computer. It’s like encountering a slow truck ahead when driving to work, if you could only get around the impediment, life would be sweeter. We don’t want to slow down on the road, we don’t want extra steps to take, and having to deal with Johnny’s (I chose ‘Johnny’ as that was my nickname as a five year-old) 15% charged iPad with a home screen littered with all the best as-of-yet not unfiltered web games requires–a really deep breath!
It’s not that I believe game playing, or behavior within Schoology, or remembering to charge an iPad are trivial things that we should ignore. I think they all are addressable as developing digital citizenship. Let me elaborate!
B. F. Skinner is probably the most-recognized authority on behaviorism. His experiments showed us that we could induce certain behaviors, or curb others, through conditioning. These ideas have been translated into instructional design. Learning to drive a car is a very behavior-centric pursuit: we get guidance from an instructor about how to operate a car on the road based upon common rules everyone will follow. It might be boring, but it works. Once you’ve met the standard, you get a license, and you’re ready to roll.
Johnny knows the speed limit. It’s 35 here. And he knows what a speed limit is. Yet, his behavior is to go 40-45 in the car, and each time, the driving instructor taps the brake to slow Johnny down. Before Johnny takes his test, he may need reminding about driving the speed limit (or below) multiple times. Hopefully when he’s a licensed driver, he remembers to mind the limit and slow down.
Imagine another way to learn to drive: every sixteen year-old gets issued a bumper car. There are no rules, per se, anymore. Eventually, a system of rules will establish itself, and once everyone stops bumping into one another, we can remove the bumper.
In the first scenario, we are introduced into a prescribed system and the outcome has to be compliance with the system. In the second, the system is formed from experimentation, trial and error. I like the system we have for learning to drive a car, but learning to ride a bike is closer to the second example. We put on training wheels and you learn how to make adjustments so that eventually you can remove the trainers. It’s only through that experience of self-discovery does the habit stick.
Constructing Understanding from Experience
Who said “once you learn to ride a bike, you’ll never forget”?
When it comes to learning digital citizenship, we have to decide whether we’ll take a behaviorist or constructivist approach to learning about citizenship. The problem is, one is not very impactful, and the other would be way too chaotic! I think more than likely we need a dual approach. Society at large, and our schools specifically, already have rules about how we behave in general and how we behave when armed with technology. We have an acceptable use policy, and the government has laws and expectations about things like copyright and libel. And universities especially have rules around things like academic honor. So, part of the discussion should include what rules exist and why we have them. Teaching “what” the rules are and not “why” would be silly, right? Driving on the wrong side of the road seems obvious, but with how we behave in online spaces, it’s less obvious to some.
Johnny knows he can’t drive on the left side of the road because oncoming traffic would hit him. But when Johnny shares disparaging comments to his peers in an online discussion, he doesn’t feel the emotions his peers feel when they’re hurt. It’s through that experience that Johnny may come to understand the impact his actions have on others.
The constructivist way of learning about citizenship takes longer and is messier than looking at rules. But it has the highest potential of sticking with us. When we experience hurt feelings by another student in an online forum, it’s emotional and we’ll remember it. When we write an email to an adult and get support for funding for a project we want to take on, it’ll mean something when we took the time to perfect our letter-writing skills. And when we get in trouble for playing a game in class, it’s an opportunity for us to not simply remind Johnny he shouldn’t have been playing a game, but to figure out why Johnny made the choice in the first place. We might just learn that the lesson is boring to Johnny and he’s coping with that boredom. We might learn that Johnny is already to move on to the next concept, or that Johnny is stuck, and needs more help.
I don’t suggest we don’t have rules and just let “anything go.” But I want to remind everyone that giving kids devices and giving them tools to explore and communicate can’t be totally controlled by setting expectations or rules. Kids will bump into things and it is our job to help course-correct their “driving” with digital technology.
Approaching Citizenship with our Gadgetry
The best approaches when it comes to applying behaviorist principles to establishing rules include consistency. A rule for one teacher should be the rule for another. Kids only get confused when one teacher has one set of expectations, and another teacher’s are different, or contradictory. Take the time to discuss rules that work well with your colleagues.
Most important is when rules help students define a moral position. As educators, we might adopt a “games are evil, games are anti-education” moral stance on games. Not educational games, mind you, but, the games that are for pure entertainment.
It’s easy to understand rules when they align with moral positions. But it’s confusing when a moral position is not aligned with a rule. When we make exceptions to rules (i.e., “you may play games when your work is done”), it help sets a moral position about games: they’re appropriate awards for completed work. But how do we explain to students the rule in the AUP with no game playing, and why it exists?
When it comes to the constructivist mindset with citizenship, we have to both design opportunities for learning in this area, and approach it regularly to see how everyone is doing. That includes continual dialog with students and designing lessons where students can be successful in applying twenty-first century skills as part of the learning. That means giving kids opportunities for communication, research, and inquiry, and using their devices to accomplish some of these tasks. Hopefully they take our recommendations and follow our rules, but when they don’t, it’s still a valuable learning experience. And remember some kids will need those experiences to really learn.
I firmly believe that if we are all “tuned” to addressing digital citizenship as a regular, quotidian task, then ultimately it becomes easier to address this important aspect of having and using technology each day. And hopefully issues, like those I’ve described, become less frequent and less frustrating to those of us in the classrooms.