Tech Solutions for People Problems

In this blogpost I mention serious issues such as bullying, accessing inappropriate material and plagiarism. It is not my intention to minimise these as the potentially harmful concerns they are. I mention them to offer another perspective from which to consider these issues, and others like them. If you would like help with online abuse, and are based in New Zealand, may I suggest NetSafe as your initial port of call.

With the increasing number of devices in schools, there can appear to be an increasing number of problems that need to be addressed. And with firewalls, filtering, blocking, plagiarism checkers, monitoring software, and more, there are technical solutions to all kinds of problems schools and their learners can face.

It seems reasonable. Because learners can access the internet, they’re more likely to be distracted by Facebook or other social media platforms; they’re more likely to stumble across inappropriate material; they’re more likely to copy and paste from one site into their own work.

Back in the day, I could have copied my friend’s assignment, or her older brother’s assignment from when he did the course, but now I can access a thousand papers from a thousand writers from across the globe at the click of a button. It’s more tempting, and heck, just a lot easier.

Back in the day, when I was bullied in high school, the bullying pretty much stopped at 3:30pm. There were a couple of incidents where my rather determined bullies made some cruel late-night phone calls – to the landline, of course! – but once I left the school gates, I left the bullies behind. Not their words or their harm, unfortunately, but that’s another story for another time. Now, between my smartphone and laptop or tablet, I’m pretty well constantly connected to all my friends… and to all my bullies too. There’s little to no escape, and little to no refuge.

Back in the day, we could look up the rude words in the dictionary or encyclopedia and have a nervous giggle about what we found. Now, even an innocent key word search in Google can result in unexpected and unwanted material.

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Image by Kwi, Public Domain

To my mind, the thing technology has done is to increase access and volume. There is easy access to more information than you can shake a stick at. Technology has not created plagiarism, bullying or offensive materials, but it has increased significantly my likelihood of encountering these problems.

So technology is not actually the problem. The problem is with the people.

This is why technical solutions, like the ones mentioned above, will only ever go so far in addressing the issues. Ultimately, the problem lies with the mindset and choices of the individual concerned.

If I have an assignment that piques my curiosity, is open, authentic and relevant; and I understand about intellectual property, creative commons and have critical research skills, then, plagiarism checker aside, I will be more likely to create a response that is genuinely my work, and accurately attributed in the places where I have built on the ideas of others.

If I have empathy for my fellow learners, live in an open, accepting and respectful culture, and understand my rights and responsibilities as a (digital) citizen, then, monitoring software aside, I will be more likely to be a positive, contributing member of the various communities I belong to.

If I have am (digitally) literate and fluent, am supported by excellent teachers and librarians, and have robust research skills, as well as having good support networks, then, firewalls and filtering aside, if I come across offensive material as I learn, I know where to go and what to do about this.

Seeking technical solutions to people problems results in a false sense of security, and, I would argue, less capable learners. I’m not necessarily endorsing a firehose approach where filtered water is better, but I am arguing for looking at our philosophies and our teaching and learning practices. The internet is always on. And our hearts and minds are too.

Digital Citizenship

Cue: groan.

This definitely used to be my knee-jerk response to this ‘hot-button’ issue.  In the past few days I have been re-visiting this concept, aided by some really thoughtful blogs which I’ll share further down.

Digital citizenship has been dominated, and almost become entirely synonymous with, cybersafety.  Teachers have thought that essentially we could scare kids into behaving themselves on the Internet.  Hmmm.  That’s worked well.  I would perhaps make an sweeping generalisation and guess that most schools’ Acceptable User Policies (AUPs) have focused primarily on this.  They become akin to a list of ‘do nots’ or commandments, for example: thou shall not take photos without permission; thou shall not use social media on your devices during lesson time; thou shall not bully or harass others online (or off!); thou shall not share passwords or logins with others.

Now, cybersafety is a really important issue and I’m not belittling it at all.  All users of technology and the Internet should follow appropriate codes of practice.  But.  As the video by John Fenaughty below rightly points out, this approach is very much in an ‘old school’ model – lecturing from the top down.  It is a model largely divorced from values/purpose/the ‘why’.

So, just like everything else that I seem to blog about, a shift is needed.  A shift to a broader, more genuine idea of citizenship.  One that not just about laws but about contribution.  Not just about taking but giving.  Not just about obeying but respecting.

This is an idea beautifully explored here by ‘Miss D’.

What often frustrates me with the reading and researching that I do in my quest for future learning is that people are very good about defining and describing, and passionately conveying to me why I should care (and it works – I do!), but not necessarily that good at giving concrete ‘how to’ suggestions.

A ha!  Enter this wonderful blog post by Holly Clark which, I think, offers an excellent, accessible ‘how to’ model.

Ultimately, I agree that we need to adjust the cybersafety lens to incorporate a view of considering our online ‘brand’, our reputation, alongside how to be a positive contributor to the (online) world.  This is a shift that engages in ‘real world’ terms which are accessible and easy to relate to – by learners/ako of all kinds.