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Teaching Respect and Responsibility -- Even to Digital Natives

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“We’re about to give your fourteen-year-old a computer,” Michael Allen recently told a group of parents attending a new student orientation, “and here’s why it could scare you.” Then Allen, the principal of no-textbook New Tech High School, said he understood their biggest fears -- the new sites and technologies that crop up all the time, kids multitasking while doing schoolwork, the reality of parents’ lack of control over what their kids see and how they behave online.

But for Allen and many like him who are integrating technology in schools, guiding the behaviors that accompany a new way of learning is just as important as the content they’ll be covering in school -- if not more so. In order to be successful, Allen maintains that students need to learn trust, respect and responsibility for technology. He knows that many of the situations that come up in a school where computers are the only conduit of information must be addressed earlier rather than later, and parents and teachers need to be leading the way.

Parents sometimes say that today’s students are so far ahead in the technological realm, that the older generations can turn to them for help, writes education journalist John Merrow, author of The Influence of Teachers. He worries that this kind of thinking will resign adult responsibility. “But being a ‘digital native’ is not the same as being a ‘digital citizen.’ Young people have always needed ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries.”

Allen also believes adults should set the boundaries for where and when not to use tech. He cites a recent example of taking biology students on a field trip to a nearby river. After some discussion, he and the teachers decided to leave all the technology at school, including cell phones. "The kids were fine with it," he said. "We have to be able to have a conversation with the kids where we say, you'll be losing [part of the experience] if you take it with you."

But how do parents and teachers work together to set the boundaries? Educator and school leader Matt Levinson, author of From Fear to Facebook, says that parents and schools equipped with technology are, in effect, challenged with overseeing two worlds: the real and the virtual. “The Internet is vast, and as one parent said to me, ‘You can't take down the Internet.’"


While the basic tenets of digital citizenship attempt to protect kids from cyberbullying, misconduct, and harassment, Allen is also interested in teaching the positive behaviors that will make successful students and workers for the future: teaching students how to find and analyze reliable sources for research, how to verify whether information is biased and/or credible, and how to be a responsible user.

Teaching students how to code-switch between tech inside and outside of school -- like deciding whether to send that all-school Tweet -- is one of the most critical and valuable behaviors for tech-savvy students to learn, Levinson said.

“Outside of the school, the default is to share everything, whether it's a video or a song, even if the content is questionable,” he said. “Inside of school, there is a time a place to engage and share and kids have a hard time figuring out the ‘code,’ which can vary inside each classroom and across different grade levels. So, kids are confused and have a hard time shifting to new codes of behavior, especially when technology is so ubiquitous after school hours.”


Both educators acknowledge that, as with any behavior involving teenagers, mistakes will be made with online behavior -- and that’s a vital part of the learning process. Levinson insists that parents should “lean into” the challenges brought by technology at home and school with patience, and says that keeping the conversation going between school and home will provide students with consistency as to what kind of behavior is expected.

Michael Allen has seen a couple of kids "crash and burn" trying to manage their use of tech at home and school -- one incident involved a girl who had sent 8,000 texts in one month's time. When it came to his attention, Allen recounts what he said to the student: "If you take all these texts - 8,000 - that's 30 seconds per text, 2.5 hours per day with a phone in front of your eyes. Think of what you are missing in the world, not to mention what it could mean for your learning experience." Allen said that when he broke it down to her in terms of what she was missing, the student had a realization, and has since been texting less.

Allen said that most parents come to understand that a computer is a neutral object -- it all depends on how students use it. A personal computer and smartphone are not to be taken lightly, and he said, "Mistakes have to happen, but patterns of mistakes are no longer mistakes, but habits."

Yet the better parents are able to understand technology’s role in kids’ lives, the easier it will be to find ways to use tech for learning without being fearful of it. “We need to keep our eyes on the prize,” Levinson says, “we are using technology in schools because we believe it can enhance teaching and learning and add depth and complexity to the design of learning experiences for students."