Technology Meets Courtesy and Common Sense

Two of the cornerstones of The Northwest School (NWS) philosophy are courtesy and common sense. These foundational ideas, while simple, capture two of the key lessons we can impart in students as we prepare them for life in the 21st century. Technology provides the ideal junction of social interaction and personal expression where we, as educators, can impart these values. Most of what schools do today is not based in framework of courteous or common sense use of technology. A majority of acceptable use policies focus on listing punishments and consequences rather than laying out expected uses and outlining potential benefits of technology. Instead of viewing the inherent opportunity that lies within technology, most schools today create Draconian zero-tolerance policies which punish students rather than educate them. Our role should be lift barriers for students, not create them.

Here at NWS, we have the rare privilege of working with a faculty that abhors these kinds of discipline policies, and truly wants to educate and inspire our students. The primary directive of any place of learning in the 21st century should be to find ways to remove limits on the uses and implementation of technology and model its use in responsible and intentional ways. At our school we have just implemented student wireless and Office 365. These tools will make it easier for students and teachers to communicate with each other. They will also make it easier for our users to distribute documents, store files, and collaborate. However, these tools will be of little value if their use isn’t modeled constantly by teachers, based in sound pedagogical practice, and if it isn’t tied directly to our core values of courtesy and common sense.

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason. –Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Currently, schools around the country have a flawed view of how technology should be introduced and used. They are often willing to buy new Chromebooks, iPads, or other hardware, but they are seldom willing to implement common sense policies for dealing with teens and young adults. One example of this is the level of filtering that schools place on student networks. Current norms dictate that it is right, or “safe,” to limit students’ access to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.

Let’s take a moment to consider some of the reasons why schools block these sites. First, they claim that there are liability issues. There is some merit to this line of reasoning. When students post irresponsibly on these, or other sites, there are often real-world consequences that manifest in our schools. I would argue that it defies logic and sound reasoning to completely block students from using these sites because: they are going to use them any way, they are going to do so at school (on their phones if not our networks), and most importantly we should teach them how to use these sites responsibly in school. We should instruct students how to manage their digital footprints, post responsibly, and use social media to enhance learning. We should not hide behind worst-case scenario liability issues that may never materialize if we take the preventative step of educating students how to use technology in the first place.

A second concern that schools have is that student use of technology will put unmanageable stresses on their networks. This concern should be a thing of the past in most major cities. Bandwidth prices have steadily declined and the ability to filter traffic on some sites (with some reasonable limits on non-educational bandwidth hogs like Torrent sites or streaming video) should remove this concern. There will still be times when students find sites that can’t be managed during school hours, but when this happens we should speak to students. We should find out what they are trying to do and see if it has educational value. If it does, we should strive to enable them to view the content and pursue their interests. When it does not we should take the time to speak with them about how the network operates and the times they should avoid intensive use of it. Blocking sites does not prevent students from accessing these them, it inspires students to find ways to hack around the technologies that limit their access.

Common sense dictates that there should be some limits on the role of technology in our lives. We should strive to maintain a balance between our digital and real-world lives. If students don’t learn this in school, a place where they spend a large chunk of their waking hours, where will they learn it? As educators we should model the behavior we’d like students to employ, and teach them how to change their habits when they fall short.

“Life is short, but there is always time enough for courtesy.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Courtesy is an equally important value for students to learn as they navigate the world of technology. While it is unrealistic to think that students will never err when they comment, post, tweet, and selfie away their time online, it is important that we model courteous and responsible online behavior. Students need to take control of their digital footprints and one of the easiest ways for them to do so is for them to see adults modeling the behavior. They should learn early and often that digital media does not have a shelf-life. It never expires and may come back to haunt them when they least expect it. That said, they shouldn’t be afraid of the internet. We all learn about the dangers of driving when we turn 16, yet we have implemented a rational and regimented process of learning to drive. Very few people would hesitate to sit behind the wheel of car, despite knowing the dangers that come with the privilege of driving. Instead of fearing cars, good drivers drive defensively. They actively watch for the hazards in the road, follow the rules, and trust that if they do so they’ll be relatively safe.

We treat the other drivers on the road with some modicum of courtesy (usually). We do so without knowing them or often without even looking too closely to see who they are. Students need to learn to take a similar approach to the internet. They should learn to recognize and appreciate the other “drivers” on the web as fellow human beings, and act with the same level of courtesy and kindness that they would expect. They should learn that there are negative consequences when they make mistakes and that they will be held responsible for their actions. However, at the end of the day, we should trust them enough to give them the keys and let them take the net for a spin on their own.

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