Monday, December 17, 2007

Hard to Imagine, this Cyberbullying Stuff.

We have been engaging in online collaborative work now in our district using Web 2.0 tools for over a year now, and the number of students and teachers blogging, using wikis, or creating screencast tutorials with their students keeps growing daily.

When I meet with a class at the behest of the teacher to introduce them to using the blog or wiki, I go over the contract that they are signing or have already signed which clearly states the behaviors we condone, and those that we do not. All in all, we have had over 1000 students at one point or another online and creating with one another, commenting, linking, critiquing and collaborating.

The odds that some of them are engaging in behaviors that we don't condone are pretty good, but until this past week, we have never had a problem with any type of cyberbullying or internet safety issues.

A few students, using wikispaces, created a "Gossip Page" about all of the people in their grade level. When I first got the email from the classroom teacher who found out from her students, I immediately thought the worst: that children were using these technologies for the worst purposes. My heart almost stopped. We had all worked so hard to get to the point where we are right now, and we had really done a great job of providing the students with the right balance of academic rigor and academic play in a collaborative space. All of what we worked towards, I felt, was about to be crushed in a swarm of negative publicity.

When I finally got to the site, which was harmless, save for the "hookups and breakups" section, I breathed a little easier and began to process what we could do with this situation to turn it around. Here were some options that floated in from the twitterverse:

  • have the students create a wiki, much the same way they already did, but about the dangers of cyberbullying and about how to "be" online. Provide them with the building blocks of resources, and guide them on their way towards teaching other students about the dangers of using the internet as a platform for slander.
  • invite all stakeholders to a presentation where we laid out exactly the tools we are using, plan to use, and see as the most important for stakeholders to understand. From this meeting, we could then branch out into parent and community workshops designed at guiding them through the nuances of digital citizenship. Our students could be leaders in this as well.
As an administrator, but not tied to a building, I really have no jurisdiction over the disciplinary side of things; all I can do is make suggestions and give feedback if asked. But I really wanted to help with this one, and I probably should have made that more known.

There are a few things I think we lose sight of sometimes as teachers who are on the leading edge of these new pedagogies. First, we have to realize that our students excel at entertaining themselves online, but rarely possess the ability to apply advanced "online" thinking to their research or organization. Yes, there are some wonderful examples around the world of teachers and students disproving what I just stated (like Clarence and Barbara, Vicki, George, and Clay), but in my classroom experience, the connection between academics and technology with our students is lacking. That has to change. Second, when we educate our students on how to do link the two together successfully, we most likely will be educating the parents of our students in this as well. What Kim did this summer, and Jeff recently are ideal situations that every district should provide for the parents of their students. "What are our children doing?" "How can I be involved?" "To what extent should I be involved?" "Are our students good kids?" "Is Dateline: To Catch a Predator the exception or the rule?"

In the end, it comes down to an adage that one of my graduate school professors told us as we were learning the ins and outs of classroom management (and by the way, one of the few valuable things I garnered from my time there): "you either pay now, or pay later."

Be proactive, rather than reactive.

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Image Credit: "Shimmering Madness" from sbluerock's photostream


Kelly Christopherson said...

As we work through all the things that these new tools are bringing us, we will tend to find which ones give access to the "less than desirable" first. Unfortunately, we have a whole society that, for the large part, is still very mistrusting of the technology with which we work. Some don't trust the "flakey" side of it, some don't trust the "evil" that seems to appear each day via the media and some just don't want another thing on their plates. As educators on the edge, we need to remember that what we are doing isn't the norm and is viewed by many as being a nuisance or extra. We see this through the constant media barrage that shows the internet to be a very unsafe place for kids when, in reality, it's no more dangerous than anything else they do. Cyberbullying is something we need to deal with but in the same breath, we need to deal with all bullying, some of which is out of hand in the adult world never mind with youth. As a society, we have to do more than pay lip service to these things or we will pay later - in a very big way.

Bach said...


Good post. First, is it possible for you email me a copy of the contract that you have kids sign? I'd love to take a look at it,

Second, since you have kids sign the contract (which is questionably binding because they are minors, especially if parnts don't co-sign..but I digress)did you consider having the teacher who found the "gossip wiki" have a discussion with the class about if they felt the wiki violated the provisions of the contract? If might bear fruit to have kids understand the ramifications of what a contract is (fair use statute connections?) as well as what their perspectiveis on the language.

Just a thought towards constructivist learning!



Patrick Higgins said...


It is true, we bring our own misgivings to the new technologies; not understanding or not trusting leads to the demonization of it. Funny how social networks are now misunderstood when only a few years ago it was the internet as a whole. In due time, I suppose.

We most definitely not the norm, and I make a point to tell the teachers I work with who are using these tools that. As I am sure you are, I am choosing to lead by example as an administrator: I will use these tools to organize and accomplish practical tasks where I can. That in itself might serve to decrease the fear teachers may have.

I agree with you conclusively that the issues we deal with outside of the these technologies are equally as pressing, and carry over into any type out-of-school network we create.

Patrick Higgins said...


I will email you what we use in our classrooms as far as parental permissions.

For us the "contract" is a matter of semantics: in the middle school, we call it a permission slip, but in the high school it's a contract that your parents have to co-sign.

Our plan for dealing with it has become two-fold, where the teachers are going to meet with the students (and I will pass along your suggestion--it's a good one), and myself and the building administrators and guidance counselors are going to call a parent meeting for all those interested in early February (only dates available) to discuss this issue and lay out all of the technology that we use, both online and off.

Thanks for the ideas!

diane said...


Students need to have some freedom to explore the new technologies.

The situation you describe was just a 21st century version of the "slam books" that existed even in my long-ago school days.

It's the behavior, not the tool, that is the problem.

This is the same argument that keeps recurring re. social networking: when someone misuses a SN site, the person who committed the transgression should be appropriately disciplined, but the network should remain open to the population that is using it properly.

It sounds like your district handled the situation intelligently. Unfortunately, many do not.


Patrick Higgins said...


It takes a lot for a school not to react to parental pressure in these situations. As it turns out, the parents were wholly misinformed by their children as to what the wiki was and where the "gossip site" sprang up. They thought it was on the teacher's wiki.

It's misunderstandings like this that we should aim at clearing up through parental education nights. As a result of all of this, a group of teachers has begun crafting a series of classes for parents to take place throughout the year on the various social networking and online collaborative tools we use. I think that is great.

Now let's hope the parents show up!

Bach said...

Show up indeed. I hope you have better success that us. We ran "Keeping your kids safe on the Internet" seminar, run by two NJSP detectives; about a dozen came to the high school night and about half a dozen to the elementary/middle school night. With numbers like that, it didn't seem worthwhile.


Kim Cofino said...

I agree about being proactive rather than reactive. In my opinion, the critical piece of the parent education issue is that the conversations and learning are ongoing, delivered by people they can reconnect with, if and when necessary.

I have to admit that I am not surprised that not many parents showed up to @Bach's parent night with the policemen. Although they may present a very real-word view of online safety, I personally think parents want to hear from people that work with their children day and in and day out, to see that these conversations are part of their children's daily learning experience - not just a one-off evening (no matter how valuable).

Most of the topics for our parent sessions are based on ideas that parents give me in the hallways, questions they ask via e-mail, and concerns they raise when they stop by the Learning Hub to pick up their children.

It's this community environment that, I believe, makes our parent coffee mornings a success.