If you haven’t read the new MacArthur foundation report Living and Learning with new Media (http:// bit.ly/SooSe), which discusses how our kids are using social networks and tools to connect, you might want to consider it sooner rather than later. In a nutshell, the study found that kids are using online social technologies in impressive numbers to stay connected to the people they already know and, more importantly for us, to connect to other people around the globe they don’t know but with whom they share a passion or an interest.
It’s that second, “interest-driven” connection that gives most adults pause. Many of us immediately go to the “stranger danger” response, thinking it’s inherently dangerous if our kids are connecting with adults they don’t know on the Internet. We’ve been “datelined” into thinking that predators are lurking around every corner, and that interactions between adults and kids are necessarily bad things.
Reality vs. Fear
The reality is that online predation is extremely rare, however; all the research shows that kids are still far more likely to be abducted or abused by family members or people in their physical neighborhoods than by people they meet online. More importantly, our kids are going to have to become pretty savvy at connecting to adults online they don’t know if they are to take full advantage of the learning opportunities available to them. There is little debate any longer that much of their learning lives will be spent in those online interactions, where they seek out and establish networks or communities with people they will never meet in person.
As a parent, I try to make sure my children know the implications of their actions online at every turn. But most kids (fortunately, I would guess) don’t have a geeky father like me constantly looking over their shoulder. Most kids need teachers and schools to show them the value of these connections and, crucially, how to create them safely. In essence, I expect my kids’ schools to teach them how to connect online with adults they don’t know but with whom they can learn. Is your school doing that?
No doubt, this is a big shift. But it’s a necessary one. As the lead author of the study said, “Kids learn on the Internet in a self-directed way, by looking around for information they are interested in, or connecting with others who can help them. This is a big departure from how they are asked to learn in most schools.” It is, I think, one of the most challenging aspects of the Web these days—the idea that we all can engage in personalized learning around whatever topic or subject fuels our passion. It’s also, however, one of the most amazing aspects of the Web as well.
Teaching kids to connect in these ways can’t be done in a two- or three-week unit in online safety. As with many of these other shifts and changes, connecting outside the walls must become simply a part of the culture of learning in our schools. Not only should opportunities to practice these types of interactions occur in every classroom regardless of age and discipline, these types of connections need to be modeled by teachers and administrators alike.
Most importantly, however, we need to begin having some big conversations among every constituency in our schools, with parents, students, teachers, community members and others to try to create a clearer vision of what learning looks like in the 21st century for our kids. It’s not time and place; it’s increasingly anytime, anywhere, and anyone as well. for us to truly prepare our students for those self-directed, self-created learning interactions, the social networking aspects of the Web must be something we embrace, not dismiss. We have to, as a school community, want our kids to connect with adults online whom they don’t know, because we know we’ve prepared them to do that well.
Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at weblogg-ed.com.