Monday, August 20, 2012

Make sure you look both ways!

“This is an invitation across the nation,
the chance for folks to meet
There'll be swinging, swaying, music playing,
and dancing in the street”
- Martha & The Vandellas

I live in an urban area of Phoenix, right downtown in fact.  One consequence to growing up in a place like New York City is that you’re never comfortable unless you see lots of cars, hear police sirens all night, or have your street lit up by police helicopters on the weekends.  Because we live in the city, and while my kids were young, I decided to teach my them to cross the street.  I knew I wasn’t going to be able to ban the cars.  The other option was to pretend the cars weren’t there and never ever let my kids cross the street.  I didn’t think that was reasonable.  Eventually they had to deal with cars so it made sense to teach them early and often.  When it comes to the web and our children, that’s exactly what many of us are doing.  We are pretending the web is not there.

The web isn’t going anywhere so ignoring it isn’t going to work.  We certainly aren’t teaching our kids how to navigate the web (teaching them to cross the street).  We’re left with the only option we have left, we simple ban it.  I don’t know if that’s the smartest idea in the world.  Like cars, eventually they are going to have to deal with the web.  Wouldn’t it make sense to teach them, early and often?

I have the opportunity to speak to lots of principals, superintendents, school board members, and parents.  Whenever I bring up this subject, they all start blaming each other.  The superintendent says, “the school board will never let me.”  The school board member says, “the parents wouldn’t let us.”  The parents say, “the school is to rigid and would never allow it.”  One of my favorite arguments I hear all the time is that the kids are picking up the skills at home.  The general argument goes something like this:

“Listen, the parents here are very traditional.  They don’t want their students surfing the web.  What if they end up complaining to the board?  Also, the feds would take away our eRate funding if we unblocked YouTube and we can’t lose that (I even had one senior administrator of a large district tell me that they would lose ALL federal funding, including Title 9!) Besides, the kids are developing these digital skills on their own, in their own home.  They were born digital citizens so there is no need to teach them.  Yes, I know a lot of them already have access to the web in their pockets but they aren’t doing it on school property so we aren’t accountable.”

I push back:

“Have you talked to the parents?  Have you showed them the benefits of the web?  Are you demonstrating how your school is developing student skills as you prepare them for their future?  Have you showed them how the web opens up new opportunities to learn?  Have you offered them ‘parent Internet classes’ to teach them what their kids will learn?  In terms of CIPA and eRate, can you give me the name of just one school that lost their funding for violating CIPA?  How much did they lose?  Can you show me where it says YouTube violates CIPA?  Finally, in terms of students developing the skills on their own at home, are you sure that’s what’s happening?  How do you know?”

The assumption that kids are learning these skills at home is insane.  Most college educated folks lack basic search skills.  Even if it was true, not all our kids would be learning these critical skills.  If the kid comes form a family that makes more than $75,000 a year, they have a 90% chance of having computer and Internet access at home.  If they comes from a family that makes less than $30,000 a year, then they have less than a 50% chance to have this access at home.  This applies to new technologies as well.  For high income families, 55% of kids have used a smart phone or a tablet.  For low income families, that number drops to 22%.  In fact,  38% of low income parents say they don’t even know what an app is.  In case you were wondering, it’s only 3% for high income parents.

So even if they were learning how to be good digital citizens at home, and we all know that most of them are not, then we are failing a good portion of our students, the ones who probably need the skills the most.  We need a different approach.  We need to teach our kids how to cross the digital street and turn their web experience into something positive.  We need to get parents involved.  We need to look at the web as the new platform which will require a set of skills critical to success. We should also be asking ourselves, what do we need to teach our kids so they are safe online?  How do we teach them to stay secure?  How do we teach them to protect themselves and their information?  How do we teach them about privacy, and what is the right and wrong way to interact with each other?

Things are certainly getting better, like in the case of Chicago Public Schools lifting it’s ban on YouTube ( to help expand digital learning.    
Filtering bad content and sites is essential but not in the way many school systems do it.  Broad filters that catch everything, including sites like National Geographic, aren’t very useful. 

We need to teach our kids to be good digital citizens.  Even more importantly, we need to  teach our kids to be great digital leaders!  The world’s information is at our fingertips, we must take advantage of it.  As my teacher friend says, what students post and share on-line should be the reason why they get into college, not the reason they don’t.

Let’s teach our kids how to cross the street.


  1. By the way, I submitted a proposal to SXSW Interactive called "A Hoodlum's Perspective on Education Reform" If you want to read more about it or vote for it, you can find it here:

  2. Great post Jamie. Couldn't agree more and I too am doing my part to try and make that happen. Thanks.