Becoming Digital Mensches at Bialik
Changes in technology are a permanent reality for all of us, like it or not. From my first PalmPilot in 1997 (yeah, I’m that old) to my latest iPhone 13, my career in IT has tracked along with this generational change.
Over that same period, I have been amazed to see some head-turning changes in the classroom, with all of the new ways technology can improve student engagement and help to make connections at school and around the world. But I also recognize the dramatic rise in privacy and mental health concerns for students and families.
Technology in our lives is not without its challenges, but it also brings promises. Can you imagine the last two years without it? I can’t.
Our students’ screen time has been increasing exponentially — and, following COVID, it’s likely now off the charts. And it’s creating an important discussion amongst parents, educators and IT leaders.
How do we protect our students’ young minds from online risks and the risks of relying on so much “plugged-in” time with a device, rather than with other human beings?
We cannot stop these trends or put children in a bubble wrap of technology that will protect them from all the potential harms. Nor do I think we should try. A defensive position is understandably natural for parents and educators. Certainly there are risks — to minds, to mental health and to physical well-being — and we seek to protect, always, our most vulnerable.
What I know from years of observing and supporting students with their IT habits is this: protecting our students’ young minds is about having a good offense, not only a strong defense.
Because the omnipresence of technology in the lives of our children cannot be controlled or limited the way many of us would like, I argue that we must take an offensive, or proactive, stance in the face of the opportunities and challenges our next generation will face.
They will experience a future as confident, well-informed digital citizens. Their social, educational, political, professional, and economic lives will be lived and expressed in terms that are governed by technology, global tech companies and government regulation (or lack thereof).
So we must proactively prepare this generation not just to survive, but to thrive in this new reality.
Our job is to help our students become full “digital mensches” — ethical and honourable masters of society — to use technology wisely for good within their lives, for their communities and society.
Instead of a purely controlling posture regarding the Internet, the way forward for our children and our future must be balanced and one of common sense.
What does that look like?
- Firm Footprint: Learning to talk openly about what apps and groups students engage with online. Listen to, and learn about what they are consuming and contributing. Take a non-judgemental stance and learn to guide them about how to make smart decisions about whom they socialize with, what information they share, and how to cultivate a positive digital identity.
- Better Balance: Support students in creating a self-awareness about how they spend their time in cyberspace. Encourage a balanced use of technology and help them to get a sense of how these various tools affect how they feel. Guide them towards activities that are important, including play time with friends and goofing off.
- Combat Cyberbullying: By building their confidence with online tools we can help to create online social justice warriors who will, themselves, cultivate empathetic and compassionate communities.
- Communication Check-ins: Regularly and openly discuss students’ emotions and help them be self-aware about how different digital experiences make them feel. Just like in life, we all need to be steered away from situations that may not be good for our personal mental health.
- Laptop Literacy: The ability to take many sources of information and synthesize them into a balanced perspective is possibly the most vital digital citizenship skill we can teach our students. This isn’t about hiding what’s out there, but rather about allowing them, with a guided hand, to explore and interpret what they consume. Much of the internet makes money from putting us into a hyped-up bubble of who we are, and then doubles down by fostering negative emotions. Developing digital discernment and judgment are critical, life-long skills for students to learn.
As a school with a leading technology program, the topic of digital citizenship has always been important at Bialik and, with these changing times, it is currently one of profound significance.
Bialik has formed a Digital Citizenship Committee made up of educators and administrators thoroughly engaged on these very points. This is an important recognition of the issues and how we need to come together as a community to forge the digital future for our students.
I encourage us all to take a proactive stance — on the offensive — when thinking about our children and technology. They are in a brave new world of digital citizenship. And if we embrace that fact today, students will be so much better equipped for their tomorrows.