When the subject of “cyber-bullying” comes up (I’m putting it in scare quotes because… well, I don’t know. I guess because it’s a goofy word and I wouldn’t mind some authorial distance from it), I sometimes tend to think of it as something which usually takes place outside of the classroom, away from the academic world, and which might better be left up to parents, or maybe policemen.
If a student is at home up into the wee hours making scabrous or vituperative posts on Facebook, then isn’t that the parents’ problem for raising and then neglecting to adequately monitor their beastly little tot? Upon reflection, jein. While I do think good digital citizenship is to some extent a shared responsibility which parents should have a definite hand in, there are nevertheless certain responsibilities or clear areas where teachers in particular can help detect, avert and improve risky situations – at least in middle school, which is the age I’m thinking about most often.
Here’s a short list of things that I think I do, or at least try to do, in order to help students develop appropriate online social habits and to minimize the potential for the dreaded “cyber-bullying”.
1. Teachers should create an atmosphere where students feel they can share their concerns and report incidents.
This is one that I think I’ve partially achieved but which I can’t take full credit for. I don’t know why, but this semester alone my students have come to me and told me of three or four incidents of online vandalism or bullying that they’ve seen happen outside of school. Whether it’s because they see me as some kind of tech authority because we use a lot of online tools in class, or because we’ve been explicitly discussing online etiquette in some of our classes, or because teachers are the people you naturally go to when you have a problem with another student, or because the counselor was busy – whatever the reason, I think students who know they have that kind of real-life channel for grievances will feel less upset or alone in the event that they’re victimized online, and transgressors might feel less likely to sin again if they know there are real-world authority figures who’ll hear about it tout de suite. So in the future I’ll try to consciously do what I can not to mess up my role as someone my students can talk to when they see anything odd online.
2. Teachers should create projects that involve practicing good online etiquette and community behavior.
This is pretty self-explanatory. If, for example, students see blog comments as a fun way to tease people the first few times they encounter them, because they seem thrillingly new and anonymous, they probably won’t feel the same way after they’ve made dozens of blog comments during the course of school projects. Both wikis and shared Google Docs usually end up as horrible messes of vandalism and wanton destruction of others’ work for the first half hour or so after students are introduced to the tools, but after a short period of experimentation students catch on to the rules of conduct in the new space. The more projects they have in different classes where they are simultaneously learning how to present themselves sanely online, the better – and the flip side of the coin is that a project where students work alone, on paper, might be fine for the course content but is a missed opportunity to embed digital citizenship skills. Parents, obviously, no matter how much monitoring they do, don’t quite have as much power to set standards for what students habitually do online in this way, and so this is a good example of something that teachers can take on as a responsibility unique to their role.
3. Teachers should watch for in-school behaviors that might be mirrored online.
Similarly, teachers probably see students’ real-world social behaviors relative to a wider community of peers more often and from a broader perspective than parents do, and can see when there are students who, for example, are always making or receiving negative comments. Given that eagle’s-eye overview of how students interact in reality, I think teachers are in a unique position to predict when students might be at risk of either being bullies or bullied online, and to nip things in the bud, head them off at the pass, take the bully by the horns, etc. Parents and other adults might not normally get to see, for example, how their middle-schooler acts around the opposite gender or someone from a very different cultural background, and thus not be able to suspect looming problems whether on- or offline, making this another job for teachers.
4. Shouldn’t teachers explicitly be teaching values and skills that would lead to responsible digital citizenship anyway?
I see the rules of online behavior as being, of course, different in many ways from those of real-world interactions and behaviors, but it’s almost always in my opinion a difference of format or mode of expression rather than a fundamental schism. Being a polite or risk-taking or reflective or tolerant person will produce positive interactions with others and positive personal achievement in any format and in any mode of expression. These values and skills aren’t just up to parents to inculcate; they’re part of most curricula in some way, and we just need to make sure that students are working on developing them and displaying them in everything they do regardless of whether or not a computer is involved.
5. Teachers should communicate with students online, and model use of new tools for academic and constructive communication.
This is similar to #2, but I think it bears mentioning that, for example, teachers might be students’ first experience of sending e-mail back and forth to a “boss”. With that role in mind I’ve recently been trying to be more conscious of how available I am to students online, and how I communicate with them when I am. When if ever is it OK or not OK for me to use emoticons when commenting on a student’s work? Should I always use a salutation when sending a message to a student, or can I just fire off a few words? We have a lot of power to shape students’ perceptions of what appropriate tones, modes and content can be in various forms of communication. Instead of being afraid of chat, etc., we should be minimally fluent in the modes of communication our students themselves use, but we should also set ourselves up as models for academic, professional use of those modes. This is an area that will take some continued thought and reflection on my part before I have specific guidelines figured out. All I know is that I use a lot of emoticons in e-mails to students, and maybe I should figure out if that’s philosophically justifiable or not.
I think most teachers already do most of these things pretty well, and I do think they form part of our (and not necessarily parents’) responsibilities as mentors helping students become digitally literate and responsible digital citizens. I think I’m making some progress in these areas, so I think I’ll allow myself a celebratory emoticon: ヽ(▽｀)ノﾜｰｲ♪ヽ(´▽｀)ノﾜｰｲ♪ヽ( ´▽)ノ