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The other week I co-wrote with Dr. David Pelcovitz Instill Children with Values to Become Their Own Internet Filters.” Below is a focused piece on education unlike the previous article which focused on internet safety in general. For that reason, there are some comments and stats that appeared in the first article article as it shares a similar message. 

Launched in 1971, a famous public service announcement that continues to run in some markets, asked its viewers. “It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your children are?” While I remember this PSA clearly as a child, I know the answer is very different than it was when I was growing up. Today the answer would be “online.” In a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 93% of teens 12-17 are on-line, 73% use social networking, 62% get their news online and 50% create content online. In another recent study by Birmingham Science City, 54% of children ages 6-15 who were surveyed stated that Google is the first place they go when they have a question. 3% stated they go to a teacher when they have a question. So we know they are hanging out online and is clearly an educational tool of choice. So, as educators, what responsibility do we have to keep our students safe online?

Since the days of dial up and AOL free trial discs crowding our mailboxes, the debate has raged about how to keep our children safe from inappropriate material online. In 1996 congress voiced its opinion with the Communications Decency Act (CDA) criminalizing the dissemination over computer networks of obscene or indecent material to children. Our justice system quickly responded with its opinion by ruling the act unconstitutional under the First Amendment in 1997. This debate continues more recently as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Washington library district for blocking pronograpy from their computers, which the ACLU says it is unconstitutional as it also improperly blocks access to other types of lawful information for adults. The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the library district two years ago. The case is now pending in federal court.

Clearly we are on our own and must make smart decisions about how to utilize the most powerful social, productivity and educational tool in our history. However, as anyone knows who has ever installed filters or relied on google safe search, there are limitations. On the one hand not all inappropriate information gets filtered out and, on the other, sites that are appropriate get blocked. These limitations that possibly endanger our children begs the question, is it worth it? Should we just ban the internet from our schools? Why not simply rely on traditional methods of teaching? A valid question.

In a recent conversation with a Jewish day school educator, I was told by the teacher that she refuses to use any technology in her classroom as she wants that time to be a technology respite. The 160 Waldorf schools in the country (over 1000 around the world) would agree. They focus on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks and choose not to include computers in the curriculum feeling it inhibits their approach, and ultimately learning. However, their approach is a centuries old humanistic approach to pedagogy based on the educational philosophy of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. This is not to say this approach does not incorporate 21st century skills, but it certainly does not focus on digital competence and citizenship which are critical skills for today’s learner.

According to the partnership for 21st century skills, one of the leading organizations that advocates for 21st century student readiness, there are four overarching skill categories that include; Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes, Learning and Innovation Skills, Information, Media and Technology Skills and Life and Career Skills. The International Society for Educational Technology proposes six similar categories; Creativity and Innovation, Communication and Collaboration, Research and Information Fluency, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making, Digital Citizenship and Technology Operations and Concepts. Hands-on, non-technological activities are critical to many of these skills, such as project based and problem based learning activities.  Yet, eliminating technology and the internet from the classroom limits the students ability to engage in learning at the highest levels and work in a fashion that will prepare them for their future and.

Technology affords educators the ability to teach concepts in new, exciting, and effective ways that would have never been possible without the internet and, more importantly, in a way that is student centered.

In the last decade, education has recognized the changes in the way today’s students learn and has begun the critical shift of aligning 21st century education with the learning styles of the 21st century student. There are many factors that have motivated this shift, but it stems primarily from the rapid advancement of technology (primarily connected technology), which has created a global economy and an information age unlike any in our history. No longer is the teacher the guardian and sole transmitter of information. Each student now has any number of devices that can locate information with a simple click.  And the social connectivity afforded by today’s technology has allowed for global knowledge sharing and creative production. 21st Century education continues to recognize the need for teaching core content, but as information becomes more available and easily accessible, skills like creativity, collaboration, problem solving, innovation, communication, digital citizenship and critical thinking have become the primary skill base.

As I have written about extensively on YU20.org, connected technology can transform your curriculum into a more creative and engaging lesson. Many Web 2.0 (online sites and applications that allow for interaction) platforms, like wikis, blogs, and social networks allow educators to create collaborative learning environments for your students to play in, learn in and share with each other like never before. A wiki, a collection of web pages that can be edited by others, can be used to work on a collaborative class project. Students could use a blog for reflective writing and reading activities while allowing for external feedback by other students. Technology can allow your students to take charge of their learning, produce content and creatively express themselves in ways that is essential for their success in this globally connected world.

Additionally, while these technologies clearly afford high quality 21st century learning, it is critical not to underestimate the importance of using tools the students are comfortable with and use in their daily lives. It for this reason, and all the educational value technology and the internet bring to the classroom, that we as educators have a great responsibility to ensure this technology is only used to enhance learning and never detract or, worse, create an unsafe learning environment. All schools and educators must be aware of how to create this safe learning environment.

As we continue to address the important issue of shielding our children from inappropriate materials online, we must keep in mind that for most the internet is and will always be a daily tool in their lives. Suggesting we ban it is not realistic and could be detrimental to success in the 21st century and beyond. What we must do, as we have always done as Jewish educators, is instill a strong value system and Jewish identity to allow our students to be the filters in this world. That will be much more powerful than any software filter.

I would also urge all Jewish community and school leaders to be forward thinking about new technology as it evolves at a rapid, often unmanageable pace. Too often new issues that impact society and at the same time the Jewish community, are often ignored as external problems that would never infiltrate a Jewish value system. Time and time again we have learned the hard way that is not the case. Technology, and specifically the internet, has great value in the classroom and our lives, but with it comes great challenges. Only by being aware of both and being proactive in discussing these issues with our students and children can we ensure our students will grow up as upstanding Jewish digital citizens.

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