Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Challenge of Teaching Integrity in the Online World

Over the last fourteen years I have served as Lower School Technology Coordinator. In that time not only has the technology radically changed, but the age at which students begin to explore and misbehave on their devices and on the internet has gotten lower as well. In spite of COPPA standards, parents give their young children email accounts, accounts on game sites, and access to social media. At school we provide Google Docs beginning at third grade, along with first through fourth grade accounts on Dreambox, an online math program.

Parents are surely responding to the social interests of their children, and as teachers we are thrilled with the ease of collaboration and sharing of work that Google Docs provides. The step that so many of us miss is the thoughtful discussion around who we are when we are online, how we use these tools and what the consequences are of oversharing, inappropriate behavior, and bullying that seems to be a natural path for young children who see the world in the screen in front of them as finite and open to any sort of experimentation.

Early this year we discovered that a few of our younger students (first and second grade) had discovered how easy it is to guess the visual passwords provided by our online math program and were regularly masquerading as the students they knew had acquired the most “tokens” in the game. These tokens could be “spent” on playing games they otherwise didn’t (yet) have access to. There was outrage from the students who had worked so hard to achieve the tokens, and the issue was raised with the teachers.

The first hurdle was convincing the teachers and the students that masquerading and “stealing” tokens in an online game deserves real world consequences. It might have been easier to blame the visual passwords, switch to text passwords and say no more, but the school counselor and I decided to address this issue as an early opportunity to discuss integrity online and offline.

Next Steps:

We set up class meetings for first and second grade classes, all of whom had used visual passwords. Our Lower School Counselor and I shared and discussed a couple of straightforward messages with them: 
  • Lying, cheating, stealing are wrong, no matter how you do it.
  • Stop and ask yourself: “Is this the ME I want to be?"

In the first part, students brainstormed the meaning of integrity. The last part of this discussion includes sharing from students about a time when they acted with integrity. This was a good opportunity to assess how well the message was received and who still needed to work with this concept.  I use this type of focused mini-lesson on a regular basis with all grades. These lessons are simple and to the point and, hopefully, timely. 

After the meeting, we changed the second grade accounts to require usernames and text passwords, both as a consequence of their behavior, and because they are ready for the experience in preparation for next year. We left the first graders on visual passwords for this year, with the clear understanding that they should make good choices and never masquerade as another student. 

The lesson of integrity has continued to resonate through the spring, with no more incidents occurring. From my perspective I am shifting the content of my digital citizenship curriculum to younger and younger grades. While they don’t use any online resources other than Dreambox at school, we are learning about all the ways they are given access to online communities at home and it’s never too soon to discuss the meaning of integrity and how it applies in ALL communities, including your community online. 

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