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Cybersafety In the Classroom

District leaders need to take responsibility for teaching students how to wisely navigate the Internet.

Although the Internet has revolutionized communication and provided powerful new educational tools for student learning, it has also created risks and raised ethical issues for students of all grades, as it has created many opportunities for illegal, inappropriate and unsafe behavior among all participants.

Increasingly, K12 educators are seeing the need to not only utilize the Internet in instruction, but also to teach students the knowledge and critical thinking skills needed to be safe and responsible digital citizens both inside and outside of school.

Some districts are accomplishing this by incorporating lessons on Internet safety and security into their existing curricula to prepare students at all grade levels to behave ethically and responsibly online.

For many districts, this isn't optional. Some states, such as Virginia, require districts to teach all kids Internet safety and security issues, and districts receiving certain federal E-rate funds, which support telecommunications and Internet access, must adopt Internet safety policies that include plans for educating students about the proper use of the Web.

K-6 students create posters depicting Internet safety topics for an Internet Safety Poster annual contest at the Portsmouth (Va.) Public Schools. These are the first- and second-place winners.

Although much of the news coverage on Internet safety issues has focused on teens, districts need to start education efforts early, according to Linda Sharp, who directs the Cyber Security for the Digital District program at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a professional association for district technology leaders.

"We need to start on Web usage education as soon as students are on the computer," Sharp says. "Students as young as first and second grade can learn about passwords and the reasons to keep them secret except for a trusted adult. As are undergoing the program, Streeter says.

Like many other districts, Portsmouth also has parents and students sign an acceptable use policy, which regulates the use of district technology. An Internet safety pledge, signed by students, is included in the student code of conduct that goes home to parents.

Involving Parents

It's not just teachers and students that are being targeted by Internet safety and security education efforts. As part of its Internet safety program, California's Elk Grove Unified School District, located near Sacramento, holds "Internet safety nights" at schools for students and their parents, says Web specialist Kathleen Watt.

She adds that, through its adult education division, the district also conducts a more in-depth, three-hour class taught in a computer lab in which adults can take tours of MySpace, Facebook and other technologies as part of an Internet safety and security lesson. "I think it allows parents the chance to ask questions that they are either too embarrassed to ask about or just don't know where to get the information," says Watt, whose district recently adopted the i-SAFE Internet safety and security curriculum.

Watt and her colleague Gail Desler write a blog on the district's Web site that offers information for parents about Internet security, such as what Facebook privacy settings their children should have.

Enlisting Web 2.0

Web 2.0 tools can be deployed to teach Internet safety, security and ethics, as demonstrated by Vicki Davis, teacher and IT director at Westwood Schools, a private K12 school in rural Camilla, Ga.

In 2007, Davis and two educators working abroad joined forces to create the Digi Teen project, in which groups of students collaborate with international peers via social networking on projects about Internet issues. Students focus on nine elements of Digital Citizenship, including traditional areas like security and etiquette, but also topics like ensuring equal access to technology in society regardless of income or disability. Another element is digital commerce, which is about the Web's role in the buying and selling of merchandise, but it also raises awareness of illegal and immoral goods and services such as pornography and gambling.

Divided into groups, students work in international teams to research trends in one of the Digital Citizenship topics. Students on a team then write a wiki entry summarizing their findings and providing recommendations on how students can be good digital citizens, Davis says.

Students also interact over Ning, a social networking tool, where they can reflect on assignments and discuss issues.

The best way to teach students the proper use of the Internet is to employ the same sort of Web technologies being addressed, such as social networking Web sites, Davis says. "So instead of me standing up in front of the room talking about this [technology], they are learning it firsthand," she adds.

In addition, the immersive, project based approach teaches students important technological skills, introduces them to other cultures, and enlists them as peer educators to advise others how to be better digital citizens. "You have to empower teenagers and kids to understand digital citizenship and to become advocates for good citizenship," Davis adds.

For teachers to be truly effective in discussing Internet safety and security, they need to get firsthand experience using social media Web sites, such as Facebook or MySpace, says Will Richardson, co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice, a technology-oriented professional development company. Many teachers have heard of those sites but have never worked with them. "I don't know how teachers can counsel kids eff ectively without some practical experience to fall back on," he says.

Beyond Denial

Not all districts are embracing Web 2.0 technologies. Some districts still ban cell phones and block students from using social networking sites on campus. Some districts also mistakenly believe that if students can't use those technologies on campus, then teachers don't have to teach about their risks and problems, Kaiser says. Even if social networking sites are blocked on campus, districts still must prepare students for using the sites safely when they are not in school, he says.

"If you are really concerned about the students using the Internet safely and securely, then you have to worry about any network" that they use outside the classroom, Kaiser says.

And students grow up. "These are issues that will not only serve students well by protecting themselves and their friends and the computer networks they connect to," Kaiser concludes, "but it will also serve them when they get out of school and they start looking for work."

Kevin Butler is a contributing writer for District Administration.