Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Is MySpace a Train Wreck?

(Podcast Version)

In a recent discussion on one of the major Ed Tech mailing lists, the discussion of the educational merits of MySpace came up. Someone said, “I wish someone would tell me what kind of educational uses there could possibly be for a train wreck like MySpace.

To me this comment as both surprising and expected. It was expected because the train wreck view of MySpace is common with people who don’t understand the concept of social networking and the importance of it to the Net generation. It was surprising in that previous lengthy discussions on this list and others have made it clear that MySpace is not the problem. It is the behavior of the users that is the problem.

Their behavior is to be expected. Before MySpace was in the news, millions of teen had already populated MySpace and were interacting there in a society they had created. For all effective purposes, there were no adults around to model, mentor, or supervise their activities.

If you don’t have a good picture of what transpires under those conditions, I suggest that you go back and reread Lord of the Flies. Attacking MySpace, is like finding Piggy and friends on the island and then destroying the island because of what it has done to the children.

We have found the lost children of MySpace and we as teachers have a unique opportunity to provide guidance to students in the proper use of blogging and social networking in their world. We can work with them in THEIR~world, a world that is important to them and if we do it well, what we teach will stick, because it is relevant and real.

Who should do it and what they should do is a matter of comfort with technology and curricular needs. We are all familiar with the technology gap that exists between our generation and the Net generation. The greater the gap between teacher and student, the less advisable might be to use MySpace for an educational activity, assuming you had a valid one.

Any valid use of technology in education is one which is curricular driven and can’t be done better or easier using some other vehicle. I would NEVER use MySpace to do something I could do elsewhere better. As far as what a valid activity might be, that’s difficult to say for someone else, because it depends on their curriculum, but for me it’s simple.

The problem at social networking sites is that kids are doing dumb things! They are behaving badly! They are engaging in risky behavior! They are being kids! Does it not make sense to use the social networking sites in a way that might modify that behavior in a positive way?

How about modeling alternative ways of social networking? I avoid the phrase “right ways”, because the way you network is to some extent dictated by the environment in which we are networking. In the case of social network sites, we have as much to learn about networking in a teen world and we have to teach.

Personally, I would start with general classroom discussion of the social networking problem. Begin talking to the kids. You might learn a lot. Then, under my supervision the students would set up accounts and register as being between 14 and 16 so that the automatic privacy restrictions kick in. I would put other safeguards and guidelines in place.

We now have a closed community of friends, our own mini-MySpace. The kids can teach me and I can teach them. What we do in that community is a question of curriculum… what class.., what need... whatever...

For example, if I were to write a book on web design and lay out, I would want examples of poor design. I could work for weeks to create examples of bad design, but why do that? With little or no effort students have created visual effects and web pages that curdle milk if it was placed in front of the screen.

Megan, one teacher on the list hit upon a use that goes directly to the heart of one of MySpaces biggest attraction, the ability to personalize their profiles with HTML. She’s a technology teacher who takes her classes to MySpace and shows them how to use Cascading Style Sheets and MySpaces page design environment to create orderly well constructed pages that allow students to express themselves in more powerful ways than before.

Jennifer’s students were complaining of people stealing poems and things they had created on MySpace. She turned that into a lesson on copyright and intellectual property.

So what else? Hmmm… How about having lessons on responsible blogging? Show them that blogging is more than telling about their likes and dislikes. It is a journalistic tool that can be used to change the world! Now let’s add peer support. Now let’s add collaboration and communication between other classes in the same school, or other classes in other schools. Now let’s add (your works here)… The possibilities may not be endless, but they certainly are numerous.

The kids need us, but we need them more. We need them because they are the future, but more importantly, we need them to teach us about their online world. We teachers must be as much of a student as we are teachers. We are partners in education and need to recognize and value what they can teach us. If not, they will not recognize or value what we try to teach them.


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posted by Art @ 9:03 AM   12 comments

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Till We Outnumber Them...

[Podcast Version]

I'd like to start this podcast with a quote from a friend of mine. Ted Nellen is an Internet pioneer and has been teaching Cyber English in New York City since 1994. Ted says what he thinks and this particular quote is typical of his straight forward, thought provoking style.

"There is nothing wrong with MySpace or any other technology. The problem is in ourselves, the adults of this nation as we refuse to learn and pass it on. We have failed to see we are roadkill, unless we wake up and use our expertise to educate our children instead of punishing them by throwing them out of our schools and censor them and stifle them and filter them. They will not be stifled, filtered, censored and we don't get that."

You make not agree with all that Ted says here, but one thing is certain. We have about as much of a chance of stopping kids from using sites like MySpace, Xanga, and FaceBook as our parents had of keeping us from listening to Rock and Roll.

Wake up folks. These networking and blogging sites are a much a part of their life as R&R was and is of ours and theirs. The PEW institute has estimated that 1/3 of all teens have blogs, and what is a typical reaction to blogging in schools? It is to block them and not permit blogging to take place, even under the supervision of a teacher. In my mind, these are the decisions of ignorance and fear. Too many educators are ignorant of the transformational power of blogging. Too many administrators go into an automatic litigation protection mode. We just can't do that!

As Ted said, we as educators have to learn about the technology so that we can guide the student in responsible, productive, engaging educational uses of blogging. Information and lessons about blogging will soon be available at the WiredSafety site. We are still in the early stages of developing or educational material and what is up is still in draft form, but even in draft form I think it's important that people have access. If you want to take a peek at what we are doing, visit

Arlo Guthrie tells a story of two rabbits who get chased into a hollow log by a bunch of dogs. While the dogs are jumping up and down, barking, and making a lot of noise, the mother rabbit looks at the father rabbit and say, "Poppa, it doesn't look like we are going to get out of this one."

To this, poppa replies, "Don't worry. We'll just stay here until we outnumber them!'

While educators and parents are barking, jumping up and down and making noise, the teens are populating the blogsphere. The are outnumbering us and are in danger of overrunning us. We have to act appropriately and responsibly. Educators must learn, supervise, teach responsible use and join the blogging population. Parents must learn, supervise and be active parents.

Until next time, this is Art Wolinsky helping to make you Cyber Safe and Information Literate.

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posted by Art @ 12:46 PM   0 comments

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Trouble in Three Little Words

(Podcast Version)

I remember the good old days when I was in the classroom. It was around 2 or 3 BC (Before Consulting around 1996). I would stand in front of a class of students in my Internet Basics class and say, "Here are the keys to my car and my house. Here is my wallet with all my money and credit cards. I would give you any of these before I give you my password. With my keys and wallet, you have my money in your possession. With my password, you have my life."

That's how I started my discussion of passwords with my students. They looked at me like I was crazy, because they saw no problem with that and many of them shared their passwords with friends and family, an unwise and easily dangerous habit.

I would continue, "I can wreck your life with three words." The students then begin guessing unsuccessfully what they might be. Eventually I say, "You are dead."

That remark is greeted with more strange looks that seem to confirm their opinion of my sanity until I explained that if I had someone's password and used it to send those three words to the President of the United States, the Secret Service would be at their door in very short order.

The discussion went on from there to discuss how people are tracked down on the Internet and that it is very difficult to be anonymous.

Today, password protection can literally be a matter of life and death. Identity theft is a serious problem and when it takes place in a cyberbullying situation, it can be devastating to the point of suicide.

Oh, there is an interesting twist to the "Your are dead" story. I had given that lesson on a Friday. When I came to school on Monday, my boss called me to his office and said, "Art, we have a problem."

My obvious reply was, "What is it?"

His answer was one short sentence, "We're getting a visit from the Secret Service."

My immediate thought was that I knew where that had come from and I told him of my lesson. He looked less than pleased. As things turned out, it was not my lesson or even one of my students who had caused the problem. A student had accessed the White House website and left a message there threatening the President, using another student's name.

They had traced the IP back to our school and in short order we were able to determine who had actually sent the message. Problems over a girl had precipitated the message, but girl problems were the least of his problems now. While the Secret Service took no action, there as a suspension from school and significant impact on the student's college plans.

From that day on, my keys and wallet story had a new conclusion, but the message remains the same... Share your password with no one!

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posted by Art @ 9:02 AM   0 comments