Old Fears, New Technologies: Why It’s Time to Empower Students

“Google makes us dumb, Facebook numbs us, and cell phones pull us apart? Nonsense. It’s time to counter the narrative.” – Jason Feifer

A Google search for “the dangers of technology for young people” will give you around 161,000,000 results. Try the same with a search for something more enlightened like “empowering young people with technology” and you will receive a relatively paltry 2,730,000 results. This statistic speaks volumes about the way some educators think about technology and young people today and many of the priority messages we deliver in schools on this important subject.

Our students are far more likely to find websites that deal with staying safe from online predators than harnessing the learning potential of the internet. And while we must not underestimate the damage that a bully or predator can do to a vulnerable young person, we must avoid the temptation to blame the tool for the crime. The internet did not create bullies, perverts, or pornography, though it undoubtedly makes all three activities easier. Only through fully embracing and teaching our students to use technology in a fully integrated, informed manner can they: (a) be safe, and (b) flourish as learners, creators, designers, developers and entrepreneurs.

Schools too quickly fall back on the old certainties: technology competencies, digital citizenship, obsessing about plagiarism. We should be able to see through this haze, reminiscent as it is of the fear of microwave ovens. If we are honest with ourselves we should acknowledge that a quality assessment, for instance, cannot be completed from a Google search result alone, but still we insist on investing more time on rigorous diligence in the policing of web sources than on the construction of meaningful, life-worthy assessment tasks that require collaboration and creativity, that seek to find problems rather than simply solve the formulaic, school-imagined ones provided.

There would appear to be an unreasonable amount of fear-mongering centred on technology use among young people. While there have been tragic transgressions involving cyber bullying and stalking, some even resulting in suicide, the focus has tended to fall upon the tools used almost more than the culture and responsibility of the individual culprit. Our response seems to have been one of control, extreme caution, parent meetings that deal with topics centred around shadowy digital strangers and corrupted minds. This approach has, I believe, had no significant impact on these issues.

As David Price has observed, “terrorists used to communicate by letter, but we didn’t try to ban stamps; we teach our children how to cross the road, we don’t ban cars. The blocking of social media sites in schools … not only inhibits learning, it does nothing to help our kids develop the digital literacy skills (knowing which information sources can be trusted, how to verify accuracy, etc.) they will need beyond school.” The human reality is this: those who do not understand social media and web-based opportunities will embrace the fear factor wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, many of these people are decision-makers in schools.

Yes, there are some suspect social media sites out there and it is true that the digital landscape is changing all the time, but is it practical to believe we can block all sites, control all web-based realities? Isn’t the need to engender open dialogue and trusting relationships the pragmatic and educational way to give our students independence and enlightenment? As Alan November contends, “we need to fundamentally change the culture of teaching and learning to make better use of the powerful tools of information and communication technology” … but how can we achieve this objective if we live in fear of these very tools?

The fact is that while there are some unsavoury people out there who will use the tools of technology for ill-good, there is simply too great a potential for our students to fence them in from the wondrous possibilities of a tech-rich learning environment. Many writers – among them Elizabeth Perle – have pointed out that some of the things parents have been led to fear most are actually myths. Despite the “fear-mongering, technophobic myths that inundate the mainstream media”, Perle argues that teens do not have an unhealthy relationship with technology, that it is not making them dumb, and they are not taking undue risks with their privacy. The truth is, our landscape has been altered utterly, and the old certainties no longer make sense. As George Couros points out, even some of the most basic advice from our own childhoods no longer applies: “As kids, we were continuously told “don’t talk to strangers”, and this generation has been told the same thing.  Times have changed and we have to really rethink this notion.”

Scott McLeod makes a strong case for us to liberate students from censure to empowerment and suggests replacing our restrictive Acceptable Use Policies with an Empowered Use Policy with the following simple, yet powerful components:

  • Be empowered. Do awesome things. Share with us your ideas and what you can do. Amaze us.
  • Be nice. Help foster a school community that is respectful and kind.
  • Be smart and be safe. If you are uncertain, talk with us.
  • Be careful and gentle. Our resources are limited. Help us take care of our devices and networks.

If we are truly to embrace a more empowered future for our learners, one that prepares them for life in an informed, safe and healthy environment, what, in summary, needs to happen?

  • Schools need to spend less time telling students what they can’t do and more time empowering them to “do awesome things” and share this message within their communities;
  • Parents need to maintain open channels of dialogue with their kids and ensure trusting, informed conversation is at the heart of this critical relationship;
  • Students need to subscribe to the kinds of principles that McLeod and others espouse and, critically, to lead balanced, healthy lives (Physical Education & Health Programs in schools are more important than ever).

This is just a first take on a complex issue, but the essence of the way forward seems clear to me. There’s really no choice. The train has left that station and our students are on board. We need to join them.