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Yes, the Internet can be a dark place, but that doesn't mean parents and teachers should avoid it, argue Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer. In this excerpt from their new book Pushing the Limits, the educators offer ideas on teaching kids how to use the web wisely

Teacher among kids with computers in elementary school classmonkeybusinessimages/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Book excerpt from Pushing the Limits: How Schools can Prepare our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow. Doubleday Canada

One Montreal school board has launched a large-scale effort to ensure every student is equipped to take advantage of – and remain safe in – the new world of digital learning. Lester B. Pearson School Board, a large suburban English-language school board that runs from the West Island of Montreal to the Ontario border, has established itself as a Canadian leader in the use of educational technology. The board has been intentional and innovative in pursuing the dual goals of ensuring that students have access to educational experiences enriched by technology, and that they are prepared – through an explicit digital citizenship curriculum that runs from kindergarten to graduation – to participate in the Internet in ways that are safe and responsible.

Michael Chechile is the director general of the Lester B. Pearson Board, a position he moved into after spearheading the board's digital citizenship rollout. He shared a series of images with Kelly to explain the goals of the program—showing the World Wide Web as an updated version of the "wild wild west." The board's vision is to take away power from outlaws by putting into place rules and norms that make the Internet a safer and more civil place.

As Chechile remembers it, the transformation at Lester B. Pearson began when he and a group of educators started to "really have issues with technology being blocked." Chief among those issues was the awareness that students will always find a way around the blocks parents or the school system put in place. Blocking access to the unfettered Internet, he argues, is more about maintaining the perception that "everything is under control" than it is about effectively protecting children.

Chechile was worried it also sent a message that the Internet was bad. He thought the board needed a different approach, based on the idea that the Internet is, on the whole, good – and the recognition that for students today, there is often a very fine line between the digital and the real world, and that it is therefore critical that they be taught how to navigate both.

Digital citizenship – which gives students a voice and teaches them to take responsibility for their actions online – became the framework for a major policy overhaul. Interestingly, Chechile found support wherever he went. The Council of Commissioners (roughly equivalent to a school board in the rest of Canada) "said go." The Central Student Committee, comprising student representatives from every high school, was completely supportive. Parent consultation sessions were marked by enthusiasm – parents were more interested in their children improving their computer skills than concerned about the potential risks of excessive screen time or unwanted exposure to inappropriate materials. "It was remarkable," comments Chechile. "The more work we did on digital citizenship, the shorter and simpler official policies got."

Author Kelly Gallagher-Mackay.
Author Nancy Steinhauer.

Notably, student and parent engagement in the digital citizenship program is ongoing. At the beginning of every year, in every class in the board starting in grade 4, students and their teachers negotiate an "acceptable use policy" to establish their rights and responsibilities for technology and the Internet.

Students are asked to think through what the rules should be, and these are then formalized into a contract that they bring home to sign alongside their parents. For example, students have access to unlocked browsers, but they have to stay away from materials promoting hate or pornography, and can't share their personal information online. The contract only applies at school, but many parents have adopted it at home, too.

In schools with one-to-one computer programs, where every student buys a laptop, teachers meet with parents to go over the benefits of the program and appropriate uses for the technology. And the board facilitates parent-to-parent digital citizenship training sessions, where parents from each school are trained together; they then go back to their home schools to share what they have learned.

Sometimes, Chechile reflects, the sessions "open parents' eyes to unwanted risks students often experience in their digital lives." Teachers, in particular, keep pushing for students, and their parents, to receive training around digital citizenship at ever younger ages, worried about students posting pictures of themselves on their Instagram accounts in grade 3, and even kindergarten students who described seeing what sounded like porn on home computers. Although the teachers saw it as important to ensure that students and parents were educated about how to respond to the dangers of the Internet, Chechile worries there can be too much emphasis on risks, such as cyberbullying. The digital citizenship program therefore works with students to stress the importance of developing a "positive digital footprint." Chechile believes schools have a role to play in helping students communicate "all the positive things about themselves" in real life and on the web.

Kim Meldrum and Susan Connery are both pedagogical consultants, part of the board's digital citizenship education team who work to help teachers adapt to using new tools in service to their learning goals. For Meldrum, helping students develop a positive digital footprint means harnessing technology to emphasize the broader learning goals of creating, collaborating on and publishing their work from a very early age. After a field trip to an Algonquian Village, students created animated short films about the daily life of this Indigenous group in the early European contact period. They wrote scripts and created figures and backgrounds to share what they had learned, and they main­tained copies of their work in an electronic portfolio.

Pearson has had significant success in getting teachers on board to use technology, mostly through extremely intense and sustained coaching in real-world classroom contexts, which is widely considered best practice in professional development.

Nathalie Charland is an experienced teacher, but when she graduated from teacher's college, technology was not on the agenda at all and, until two years ago, she didn't use it in her personal life. She team-teaches grade 3 with another educator, Anne Jenkins. Charland and Jenkins were asked to start the rollout of one-to-one iPads at Evergreen Elementary School, a beautiful, recently built school in Saint-Lazare, Que., – a leafy suburb about forty minutes from Montreal.

When she started, Charland described the interactive whiteboard as something that just collected dust in her classroom. An interactive whiteboard allows images to be displayed and manipulated using touch-screen technology. Many teachers, however, mainly use it as a place to project images. They do not capitalize on the "interactiveness" of the device, reducing it to a very expensive blackboard.

Initially, Charland was quite happy using a blackboard and chalk as her main technology. To push herself to change, she papered over her blackboards—using them to showcase student work, and forcing herself to use the new tools. "You know, you have a bucket list," she explained. "Teaching with technology was on my professional bucket list – but I had a lot of fear. Finally, I said to myself, you've just got to do this." Soon, she was able to use her interactive whiteboard to embed videos into her presentations; invite students to interact with the material on the screen; annotate notes with thoughts from class discussions and save those annotations for later lessons; and use interactive games and activities to keep students focused on the learning at hand.

Her path to becoming a digital educator was eased by something relatively rare in the education field – what she describes as "unending technical support." Susan Connery from the digital citizenship department spent three months working with Charland and Jenkins, helping them plan lessons, access the new tools and programs, and troubleshoot as everyone used the devices together.

As anticipated, by starting to work with technology hands-on, they encountered the unexpected and the inappropriate – which, however embarrassing, did create teachable moments. Charland blushes when she remembers the time she ran across the hall to ask Jenkins what the English word for pivert, or woodpecker, is. She returned with the single word written as two ("wood" and "pecker"), and a child earnestly searched the latter, quickly finding a series of inappropriate images. Charland remembers him saying, "Madame, c'est trop gros" before she saw what he'd discovered, and suddenly found herself teaching a lesson about how to respond: tell an adult, turn the screen off. Her response helped teach the children one of the larger lessons of the digital citizenship program.

Now, Charland sees the technology as something that both helps her students be more creative and is "motivating" for them. She describes boys who would normally spend four minutes writing in their journals now using the whole period to write – because of the screen. Many boys thrive when they use visual media, and computers can be an engaging way to improve their literacy skills. Tools like grammar and spell check can be useful as students write, offering them real-time feedback on common errors a teacher would never be able to provide. These self-correction tools allow teachers to devote more time to higher-order thinking skills, like analysis, synthesis and creation – much more important skills in an age when information is so plentiful and readily available. Overall, Charland sees the students in her class take more pride in their work – and put in much more effort – because it looks so good when they are done.

From Pushing the Limits: How Schools can Prepare our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow. Published by Doubleday Canada. Copyright 2017 Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer.