Combattre les trolls et la bête aux mille têtes: Words that shape thinking about digital literacies and learning

DigiGirlI see the world around me with different eyes, and hear it with different ears. I’ve been away from home for a while. Now, I am back. And I notice things.

About a month ago over coffee, I visited HabiloMédias.ca. I hadn’t ever read the French version of the site prior to that day and it has quickly become one of my favourite resources for Canadian perspectives on digital and media literacies. If you don’t know it or its English counterpart MediaSmarts.ca, it is a treasure trove of information and resources for educators.

At top right that morning two featured blog roll headlines caught my eye:

These headlines were juxtaposed with a rolling image gallery of children reading, children on devices, children and teachers together. Trolls, beasts, children — all within my visual field. Suddenly, I felt nervous. I had just checked my girls — they were still sleeping soundly in their beds. But really. I felt nervous.

I think this struck me as especially significant because, since returning to work in Canada, I’ve sensed this inexplicable uneasiness about the digital world and teachers’ relationship with it. With good reason, I have heard in my circles much talk about safety, about cyberbullying prevention, about privacy and what not to do online. Moreover, through student feedback, I’m learning about a range of needs and perspectives on technology and its use in schools. For example, students have written:

“The integration of online components can be useful to some however, the creation of completely online assignments is not conductive to my own learning. Pen and paper is what makes things easier and assignments that I can see the use of for the future.”

and

“You promote the use of technology in classrooms, but not all future teachers will have the same interest as you, and this takes away from learning about Curriculum Planning. For example, I don’t want to be on Twitter, nor will I be required to be on Twitter as a teacher, yet it is a requirement for this class. Same for the personal web site. I will not be required to have a web site as a teacher.”

These comments show me that learning with or through digital technologies cannot be assumed, even for those who, ostensibly, have had access to a range of digital devices for most of their lives. The comments also show me that as a community of educators, we lack clarity around the expectations that we have for teachers and their use of technologies in their instruction. I appreciate these students’ perspectives a great deal — but I wonder whether, or to what extent their background experiences with (and without) digital tools might have been shaped by a general reticence or lack of focus on the strategic integration of technologies for learning in the province’s public schools?

In 2011, the Ontario College of Teachers published this Advisory on Social Media Use. Although the article does offer ideas for how to use social media productively and safely, a teacher already feeling nervous about the “risks” of social media might interpret the advisory as council against its use. As the article says, “Nobody wants to jeopardize their students’ well-being or compromise their own professionalism” and with sub-headings like “Criminal, civil and disciplinary proceedings” and “Know the dangers” leading the eye through the article’s recommendations, it wouldn’t be surprising to me if  many teachers say to themselves, “You know, the safest way to do no harm is to just avoid the social media space altogether.” These folks aren’t wrong. They’re concerned. They’re responsible. They’re professional.

And yet — with my eyes and ears that see and hear in different ways because I’ve worked, lived and studied outside of Canada’s borders for ten years, I also know that the world presents new, digital contexts that our students will need to know how to navigate effectively if they are to live, learn and thrive in a globally networked society. I ask, how are we preparing children to live and learn in a digital world that, for all of its perils, also offers promise never before possible?

Without minimizing the importance of safety, I see value in listening to other voices. I see value in listening to colleagues who can show us how to use technologies thoughtfully, strategically and in ways that enable and empower our students and communities. I ask us to let those voices sing as loudly as the ones that might suggest, even subtly, to avoid the digital world.

I strongly feel that children’s best defence against the threats of the Internet is, actually, more guided experience with the Internet.  Children should build a vast repertoire of background knowledge so that when they graduate, the Internet is known, understood, and maybe even seems banal for its predictability. When they graduate, children should have developed a sophisticated set of problem-solving skills that will enable them to safely and effectively address every situation they encounter online.

By way of comparison, driving a car on Highway 401 is dangerous too. But, how do 16 year-olds learn to navigate its complex and ever-changing perils safely?  I think it’s important to remember that kids learn to drive on the 401 by driving on the 401 — with a couple of years of adult supervision  before they do it on their own.

Everyone wants to keep kids safe from the truly stomach-churning stuff that we all know can and has happened because of the ways that we are all so incredibly and immediately connected through digital technologies. The best defence, in my view, is to actively teach the digital literacies that will prepare our children to be safe in our globally networked world. 

Today, I will drive the 401 — with my children in the backseat — in order to get to Ontario’s ed tech conference, BIT15 Conference in Niagara Falls. There, I hope to hear the informed voices, new ideas, perspectives that might inspire new paths toward complex, strategic, digital integration. I hope to hear people thinking about how to empower flexible, critical, capable thinkers and learners in a digital age.

As I hear these perspectives, I will share them in this space. 

As I drive the 401 this afternoon, I know I will be thankful that I’ve driven it a thousand times before and safely managed to deal with a rather long list of challenges. I have missed exits dozens of times but always managed to find my way. I’ve been broken down on the side of the road (with my baby in her carseat) and called roadside assistance for help. I have nearly fallen asleep at the wheel, but because I knew where the rest stations were, I held on until I got to the next one where I could safely nap for a bit. I have avoided accidents by leaving ample space in front of me, experienced stop-and-go rush-hour, merged when there were transport trucks everywhere, crawled along in rain and snow. 

In my haste to find, listen to and share inpsired perspectives at BIT15, I hope I don’t get pulled over for speeding. Of course, this too has happened before, so I will know what to do…

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