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February 23, 2013

Learning digital etiquette

New junior high class teaches kids how to behave online

— GREENTOWN — Eastern Junior High School students Thursday stared at a college girl’s party picture posted to a MySpace page.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” teacher Nicholas Atkins told the eighth-graders.

In this woman’s case, those thousand words spelled out a bad message.

A 25-year-old Pennsylvania woman claims she was denied a teaching degree because of that photo that showed her wearing a pirate’s hat and drinking from a plastic cup.

The caption below it read, “Drunken Pirate.”

Atkins had one question for his class.

What do the pictures you post to social media sites say about you?

Thursday’s lesson was part of the Greentown school’s new digital etiquette class aimed at teaching kids how to use their new iPads and how to behave online.

This year, Eastern Howard School Corp. issued take-home iPads to all students in kindergarten to eighth grades as part of its expanded one-to-one technology initiative.

Before that happened, though, educators sat down together and tried to imagine all the bad things that could happen when they put the devices in kids’ hands, said Lindsey Brown, principal at the junior high school.

Then they brainstormed ways to keep the worst scenarios from playing out in their school.

Brown said the technology department set up firewalls to keep students from accessing certain sites on their devices at school, but they wanted something that would empower kids to make good decisions online.

Indiana Youth Institute CEO Bill Stanczykiewicz said that’s a good idea. Kids are smart and have ways of getting around firewalls.

“Most parents and teachers are technology immigrants, and they’re teaching technology natives,” he said. “We have to help kids protect themselves from themselves.”

Stanczykiewicz said research shows that when kids go online, it can be harder for them to see the consequences of their behavior.

To them, the Internet seems like an alternate reality where normal rules don’t apply.

“It can seem like they are able to remain anonymous,” he said. “It can seem like it’s not real.”

So Eastern Junior High School launched a class that dispels some of those myths and prepares students for the power that comes with having the world at their fingertips.

Every seventh and eighth grader takes the nine-week course. Brown said she hopes to expand the program through 12th grade next year and add parent workshops, too.

The school got the curriculum for free from an organization called Common Sense Media, Brown said. According to its website, the lessons are based on research conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Students learn about email schemes, the digital footprint they leave, cyberbullying, safe online talk and the reality of digital drama among other things.

“We’re hoping to see a decrease in the drama here,” Brown said. “We block social media sites at school, but sometimes what happens at home spills over at school.”

Thursday, Atkins told students to make a list of questions they should ask themselves before they post a comment or a picture online.

After a few minutes, one student stepped up to the white board to compile a list.

She wrote questions like, “How will people think of me? Is it offensive? Does it affect others? Do you have permission to post it? Are there consequences?”

Atkins said these discussions are important.

His students are so young yet, he said. It’s hard for them to imagine that what they do online now could come back to haunt them later.

Before they learned about digital footprints, many of the students thought they could get rid of a photo forever by deleting it, Atkins said.

But companies now are cashing in on those revealing photos and posts by gleaning them from the Internet and selling them to potential employers.

Brown said the class has been a success so far and has made the school’s transition to one-to-one computing much easier.

She said she sees this kind of class catching on at other schools across the state.

“I think schools need to think about this and be more proactive,” Brown said.

Stanczykiewicz said he thinks many schools already embed some of the lessons into their computer and technology classes. But the lessons will likely become more common and more important in the coming years.

People can no longer say that technology is on its way to schools.

“Technology is here,” he said. “One-to-one programs are so common. It’s an everyday part of education now. And schools are being vigilant.”

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