School Climate & Safety Opinion

Teaching Students Cyber Ethics

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 12, 2015 6 min read
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Student safety, student behavior, and student learning are a trio of educator responsibilities. Educators have always operated within and held students to a standard of behavior memorialized in a code of conduct. Ethical behavior, good manners, and certainly legal behavior are taught in homes, houses of worship, and community groups, and are reinforced by teachers and leaders throughout the students’ thirteen years in school. But, the cyber world is introducing new questions and more amorphous answers for all of the adults and certainly for the children as well.

Now, with the ability to participate in unsupervised online environments, the stakes are higher for the children and the responsibilities are greater for the adults. Educators must understand the capabilities of the accessible digital tools so that they can maximize their use in the education of their students. They must also have this understanding to uphold their obligation for safety and for moral, ethical and legal behaviors. It is no longer acceptable to shake off the use of technology. Consequences are increasingly high. It is as much a part of the educators’ responsibility as is the teaching of subject matter. It is as much a responsibility of the educators as of the parents and guardians who place the technology on the desks and in the hands of the students. Ethical behavior, doing when no one is looking what you would do if someone was, is essential to good digital citizenship.

The unfortunate news from Colorado is evidence of the need for this. Without dedicated and ongoing attention to digital citizenship, more children will certainly wander into dangerous waters. We learned that this past week from students at a Colorado high school. Hundreds of nude photos were shared between students at both middle and high schools and stored on their cell phones in a disguised app. A review of the articles reporting the event includes words like “sexting ring” and “felony”, both would have been phrases we would not like to associate with students in schools.

A New York Times article reported:

Because it is a felony to possess or distribute child pornography, the charges could be serious. But because most of the people at fault are themselves minors and, in some cases, took pictures of themselves and sent them to others, law enforcement officials are at a loss as to how to proceed.

Because this sometimes happened during the school day, the school is considered at least partially responsible. It gets worse. There is more. In that same article, it was reported that a “parent had spoken to a counselor about her concerns and the counselor responded, there was nothing the school could do because half the school was sexting.”

The intersection of technology knowledge, adolescent behavior, and leading and teaching with values and ethics is the intersection where educator must operate from or else more adolescents will find themselves in the same horrible situation these Colorado students have.

ISTE Guidelines
The International Society of Technology in Education, ISTE®, offers sets of essential standards for students, teachers, administrators, coaches and computer science educators. One of the domains of the standards is called “Digital Citizenship.” Teachers are called to

  • advocate, model, and teach safe, legal, and ethical use of digital information and technology, including respect for copyright, intellectual property, and the appropriate documentation of sources.

And administrators are called to:

  • Promote, model and establish policies for safe, legal, and ethical use of digital information and technology and
  • Promote and model responsible social interactions related to the use of technology and information and
  • Promote and model responsible social interactions related to the use of technology and information

Keeping Children Safe
We cannot ignore the wonders or the perils presented by current and future technologies. We can no longer allow educators, leaders or teachers to dismiss technology as unimportant and social media as a nuisance. Those views, if held personally, must not be shared or lived within schools. A new level of alertness is required for the adults. It is imperative for observation and acute listening as students circulate illegal photos of themselves and others, changing their lives forever. Educators cannot stop students from enjoying the advantages of current and future technologies outside of school but they can make students aware of the legal and ethical implications of actions. They can also help educate parents and community leaders.

All Students Are Not The Same
As with all gaps in student knowledge to assume that all students are equally knowledgeable about technology is a mistake. Just as gaps in literacy, math, study, and thinking skills exist, the disparity of income can and does contribute to a gap in use (digitalresponsibility.org). Both students swimming in the deep waters of social media and those who are simply wading need teaching and modeling. No different from other moral and ethical behavior taught in schools, values and dangers of technology use must be part of the educational process. One Colorado student interviewed said no one had told the students what they were doing was illegal. And, we can never underestimate the power of peer pressure, even in the world of the 21st century student in the cyber world. What goes into that world almost always remains there, delete or not. Digital Citizenship references the need for “Respect, Educate and Protect” as themes for developing digital citizenship among students; simple and powerful messages for changing the behaviors revealed in Colorado. (digitalcitizenship.net).

From kindergarten to 12th grade, the integration of this information into teaching and learning is essential. No high school elective will do the trick...this is something to be embedded into the work of the students throughout their school careers.

Successful Technology Integration
No matter whether the push for expansion of technology in schools comes from a critical mass of faculty, parents, community, or boards of education, the vision for the way technology is used and the way students and teachers are prepared is, ultimately, in the hands of the school leaders. We watched as the superintendent and the athletic department staff made the decision about forfeiting the last game of the season. It wasn’t an everyday moment and they entered the extraordinary new day together. This is not a question of changing curriculum or directing teachers. Preparing students to take advantage of the technology that is in their hands and on their desks safely is a school responsibility. Helping students find their way through this unlimited world, teaching them how to incorporate it into their learning, and guiding them through the new challenges and questions that arise out there is a part of what we must do. Whether while they are still students in our schools like those in Colorado, or after they graduate and are in the beginning of their careers or in college, the results of our efforts will be evident. Will they be informed, creative, critical thinking communicators? Or will they be off course, uninformed and potentially felons? Part of this choice begins now with us.

Photo copyrighted by Cathy Yeulet courtesy of 123RF

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.