Saturday, 4 May 2013

Taking back the Streets: Creating Positive Online Communities

When I wrote in my last post that students "need to be taught how to take care of each other online just as they would be taught to make positive community decisions offline", I wrote it from my blogging armchair--lemon zinger tea in hand. The reality is: creating a positive community is not an easy thing anywhere.  But as teachers, if we are not creating positive community, we are not maximizing the learning potential in students. Safe interconnectedness leads to thriving.  Dan Siegel would describe it like this: "When children are interconnected, in tune with others, and have the capacity to be reflective, it increases empathy and understanding for the self and others."(from a post on his recent visit here by Pam Becker). Gordon Neufeld describes the opposite of safe interconnectedness, saying: "peer interaction is the primary source of wounding" (see his How to Keep Children Safe in a Wounding World description).   Now with the viral acceptance of social media and the blur of what's public and private, the ideas from these influential thinkers need to be applied to the online world.  Questions about positive online communities need to be asked.

Students are in constant community.  Simply ask a classroom of students who has a Facebook account and the hands start flying up.  Now ask the same class how positive their online interactions are and you will get an eye opener.  Sadly, the difference between the nature of the online interactions of adults versus students is akin to the difference between an AA group and Lord of the Flies.  In fact, the community vibe of the boys in Lord of the Flies by William Golding is just the thing that is happening out there in cyberspace--a self-governing disaster. 

As always, I am speaking in general terms.  Definitely, pockets of positive interaction develop.  From back patting communities of Tumblr and Instagram to the creative sharing on multi-player servers in Minecraft, the interaction is not all fluff or harm.  But I would question the depth and meaningfulness of even these connections.  Isn't it the adults in a child's world who draw him or her into depth?  Think of the people who poured into your life, making you who you are.  As I said in a previous post, students need to be poured into, not left to themselves in a community that has no investment in them.

What are the essentials to creating a positive online community?  If it takes a village to raise a child, the village is going to have to be involved online as well.  Here are some ideas about what that village could look like:

Do not be far removed from what your child does online?  If privacy is developmental (changing kids' diapers is not a private affair) and respect is earned (think about rules around family car use) then it should be no different online.  Some parents know their children's passwords.  Others follow and friend.  Some allow for privacy but have an open dialogue.  Involvement is the key.  But I suggest that simple involvement is the minimum.  Become part of your child's online world, sharing ideas and thoughts as you would around the dinner table or campfire. 

Connected Adults
Model positive online behaviour.  Make good choices about what to share, what to put out there.  Use your Personal Communication Network as a Personal Learning Network.  Use your online influence to make the world a better place, a more thoughtful place, a more creative place.  Take a true interest in others' ideas.  Forever keep in mind: the little ones are watching.  And when you give them a negative inch. . .they just might take it a negative mile.

Offline involvement
Creating a positive online community requires people of maturity, empathy, thoughtfulness and discretion.  This kind of teaching is "better caught than taught".  I feel I imparted this best when I was taking students to the seniors home to sing, or to a nearby creek to pick up garbage, or when I took students to Mexico to work at a hospital.  Roots of Empathy, Random Acts of Kindness, managing the schools recycling--giving back or even just giving.  This, I believe, is where we start. . .far from a screen. 

Online involvement
Here is where I defer to those who have thought deeply about this.  David Truss supports teachers jumping right in.  He says in his post Facing Facebook, "When facing the issue of Facebook, our students are there, and we should be there too".  This is a must-read with many examples of successful online teacher intervention and suggestions for teacher involvement.  It really is a post against denying teachers the opportunity to play a role on Facebook but has wonderful thought out advice from a wealth of experience.  His follow up post Facebook Revisited goes into more detail about friending students.  These thoughts he wrote a year later still suggest that teachers intervene when something is not right.

Sarah Kessler in The Case for Social Media in Schools shares the benefits of using social media as a teaching tool.  To her, it's a tool students already know how to use and she shares six reasons why it should be used in school.  What a great way to lead in making online communities positive by making positive online communities.  She also talks about social media networks that allow teachers to control the environment including Edmodo and Edublogs.  (Two programs that in Canada, I believe parents would have to sign off on.)

Now on to the juggling act.  Of course, along with the ethical (I have to live with myself and if I didn't intervene I couldn't do that very well) responsibility comes the legal (oh great, my district has a policy that I have to follow too) or (what?  This great thing I want to do in my class goes against FIPPA) responsibility. A year ago, News1130 reported in this post that at that time BC as a whole didn't have a social media policy in place.  This is understandable.  I can just imagine how difficult it is for large entities to keep up with the rate of change in this world.  But this also screams that THE OPPORTUNITY IS STILL OURS.  Through our involvement (and even through our own blogging and tweeting) we can have an influence making sure that these policies are a product of thought and collaboration.

It takes a village.  I understand why the block parent thing fizzled in the '80's but I always liked the idea--people looking out for the kids in the community.  Although no one has a sign in their window these days, I think the idea of making the streets a secure place is a good and respectable thing.  There is something honourable, proper, and also risky about taking back the streets.  Fighting to clean things up.  And making it safe.  Wouldn't it be something if we could do this online?