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Behind the Mask: Providing Students with a Safe Online Presence

by Julie D. Ramsay
 | Feb 26, 2014

In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning. 

When February rolls around in Alabama, minds turn towards the big celebrations surrounding Mardi Gras. A little-known fact is that Mardi Gras actually began in Mobile, Alabama, not New Orleans, Louisiana—a fact that any Alabamian will gladly share with anyone who thinks that New Orleans is the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the United States.

p: andy castro via photopin

In spite of having been one of those who needed educating in the true origin of Mardi Gras, I find myself thinking fondly of travelling to New Orleans to attend IRA’s 59th Annual Conference. Even though Mardi Gras will be a memory for many by May, I can’t help but think of all the beads, costumes, and masks that are found year round.

The masks are masterful works of art that disguise the wearer while still allowing him/her to actively participate in festivities. As a classroom teacher, I am immediately reminded of how that parallels with what we want for our students in their online learning; we want for them to be present and actively engage in a world of possibilities for their learning while also learning in a safe environment.

Many ask, How can you include learning activities that include digital and social media when there are so many seemingly potential dangers lurking? The fact is that students are already engaged in these mediums with or without us. With us, they are in a safe environment where there are filters and safeguards put into place. If a student makes a poor choice, we have the opportunity to have a discussion where they can identify an unsafe practice and determine why they need to make a change. When in our classrooms, we are giving them the opportunity to build safe habits that they carry with them once those safeguards are absent, which for many of them is when they return home. It is not uncommon for students to come and express to me how unsafe they had been in their online profiles or practices and how they have immediately made changes to protect themselves.

Because safety is a topic about which I am most often asked, I thought I would share a few of the practices that I have put into place to help students develop an understanding of the rules in this digital playground.

Let them set expectations. Even though I teach middle level students, it surprises me how much they do not know about making good choices online. Quite often they express that no one has ever talked to them about digital choices. Sometimes learners may know not to do something, but they have no understanding as to the “why” of the discussion. I often write about the importance of students taking ownership over the practices in the classroom. They need to discover and understand how the choices they make could impact them or those around them. I do not believe in scare tactics, but I do believe that students need to have a clear understanding of the potential ramifications that something they put out in cyberspace can have, positive and negative (and yes, these need to be age appropriate).

At the beginning of the school year, I guide my students in a discussion about the world of possibilities available to them through digital mediums. We start with a beginning activity where they work in small groups creating a list of what they know about online practices and opportunities. Then they share their list with the class. A crucial part of this conversation is having the students share the “why” behind each of their ideas. They need to begin connecting the dots between their choices and the impact that they could have.

After a week of these conversations, my learners create a list of expectations for their online behavior; they are building their mask. Because we have discussed this over the course of several days, they have a clear understanding as to why each element is included on their list. Each year the list is a bit different because my students are different each year. You will notice that the list my students created this year includes a lot of positives. Yes, safety is addressed and each one of my students can enumerate in a very detailed explanation of each characteristic, but this is their list, not mine. They have complete ownership over this process and they hold one another to these practices.

Let them create a safe profile. So many of the tools that students use, from Voice Thread to blogging to Google apps have users set up an online profile. Since this is a part of connecting with other people, it is important that students have the opportunity to build a profile that gives them some individuality while still providing the protection that he/she needs.

One way that we create individuality while staying behind the mask is through various online avatar creators. Students have the ability to create an online avatar that is unique to them to use in all of their accounts. That becomes their mask where other students can identify them with just their profile photo while not putting their photo out for anyone to view.

My learners’ favorite avatar creator is Build Your Wild Self. On this site, users have the opportunity to select a cartoon version of different boys or girls and then add fun animal parts to their avatar. It is something that can be as unique as each of your students. And who wouldn’t remember a girl with peacock feathers and octopus tentacles?

If your students are into superheroes like many of mine are (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t like to be a superhero?) Marvel’s Create Your Own Superhero and Hero Machine are both really super options. Many of my learners are into Legos or Claymation characters. If they would like to become a Lego character, the Mini-Mizer is fun, while creating a clay version of themselves on ClayYourself (like the ones in the Hotels.com commercials) may appeal to other students.

Whatever their interest, there is a way for them to create a safe, fun, and memorable profile “photo” that helps them to connect and build relationships with a parade of learning opportunities from around the globe.

Let them communicate and collaborate through class accounts. When discussing social media, many teachers shy away from bringing these tools into their classrooms. There are students whose parents do not feel comfortable in having their students on social media. Once I explain that we will be using our class account where I am the only one with the login and I am the one controlling what content comes into and out of our learning environment, I have never had any students denied access to all of the learning opportunities possible through these tools.

One tip that I would suggest is that you set up accounts separate and apart from your own accounts. For example, my Twitter name is @JulieDRamsay while the class account is @RamsaysClass. The audience needs to know that the tweets, posts, or photos are coming from students, not an adult. It changes how individuals or groups respond to content put out through different feeds.

I’ve written in previous columns about the amazing learning opportunities that have resulted because my students are on Twitter, blogging, and Instagram, which are all done on our class iPad. An incredible amount of in-depth, real world, authentic learning would not have occurred had we not been actively involved with connecting with other students, authors, and experts through social media.

One more idea I’d like to share is that the purpose of social media is to be, well, social. That is what appeals to today’s students. They know they have an authentic audience; someone who will be reading, commenting, and questioning their thoughts and ideas. When you create a blocked account, you are extremely limiting the individuals who can connect with your students. If you are using a class account, you are already serving as the filter. You will quickly be able to identify those trolls who will offer no learning experiences for your students. Blocking them is a matter of a couple of clicks.

So as the Mardi Gras parades and festivities march on, let us remember that we can open up a world of possibilities for our learners through digital resources while providing them the protection they need from behind a mask of sound online practices. Until I see you in May, Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Are you a fan of Plugged In? Come see Julie D. Ramsay present “The Global Read Aloud: One Book to Connect the World” at IRA’s 59th Annual Convention, May 9-12, 2014, in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

Julie D Ramsay on Reading Today OnlineJulie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator and the author of “CAN WE SKIP LUNCH AND KEEP WRITING?”: COLLABORATING IN CLASS & ONLINE, GRADES 3-8 (Stenhouse, 2011). She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at juliedramsay.blogspot.com

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