Tools or toys? Ensuring that our young tigers learn to use digital access safely and responsibly

Parents of students I serve know that I harness the instructional power of digital tools. Sometimes heavily. With safety and security being on everyone’s minds these days, now is a good time to review what, why, and how digital access can and should be used in any classroom.

First and foremost, digital safety and responsibility is taught and instilled. When students log in, they are entering a new environment. We wouldn’t take our children to the store and say “see you in an hour”. We wouldn’t drop them off at the park and say “have fun while I run an errand”. Therefore we shouldn’t let them log in without ensuring we see their screens and monitor their use. They are 8-10 and will make mistakes. They are curious and will open a tab or initiate a search. It is our jobs as teachers and parents to be there when those moments happen. Of course we work to reduce them, but they can and will happen. Therefore, we teach children that navigating the Internet is just like going out into the real world. There are wonderful things to discover, but safety and security is always number one.

We are prepared to monitor. In my classroom, my children learn quickly that I will check their history, their digital footprint, and I will hold them accountable. Something as simple as giving into the temptation of a “game” will cost them access in my room because I stress that my devices are tools and are privileges. I am prepared to reinforce a consequence for using a Chromebook in an “off task” way just as I would take away a pencil if it were used in a way other than to write. This is a non-negotiable.

What do I have my students use digital tools for? Well where do I start? First are productivity tools like gSuite applications to demonstrate learning and “create” products for others to learn from us. While fancy fonts and flashy images are fun, it is always about the quality of content. We use digital tools to access up-to-date and current information. This then leads to the WHY? As we read, we come across words we don’t know and honestly a quick online search of a definition is much faster and efficient than grabbing a dictionary. We look up a word in question and get back to the discussion or task at hand. Often a discussion leads us to wanting to know more about a related topic, so we search that too. It is about adopting the mindset that our Chromebooks, iPads, whatever are TOOLS. The reality is that we want our learning energy to be focused on thinking and problem solving; on collaborating and communicating. Digital tools help us get the information we need and share the thinking we have in ways that transcend how we learned as children.

Now how to ensure… well it is easy to let a device pull us off task. I fall victim myself. So I teach children about self-regulating and monitoring. At least once an hour I am asking… is that an on task choice? Children can get distracted with a chromebook or a piece of paper. There really is no difference. What is different is they can hide their “distractions” easier when online, so I make it clear that I can and will access their screens anytime. Until they earn some trust, I have them sit where I can see their screens. It is that simple. Once they earn trust, I still walk around the room and take their Chromebook for inspection. They learn quickly that a misstep carries a big consequence.

This leads me to my attitudes on “controls”. I am 100% in support of filters to help with safe searching. Even with these filters inevitably my curious learners might get a hit on something we didn’t expect that may not be fully age appropriate and so I teach them how to navigate away. I see no difference between steering a child away from a bulletin board or ad in public that I do not feel is “kid-appropriate”. Our kids are going to experience and see content we wish they wouldn’t so we have to teach them to responsibly navigate away from it. I want to shelter my students but I also know that they are going to need life skills to know how to cope or handle something when I am not there to do it for them.

Then there are the “temptations”. When I was in school, we passed notes. Our curious kids today can send a doc to each other or an email. Same curiosities and ways to be “off task”… the tools and delivery have changed. When I was in school we made up games to distract ourselves in class. Ever sit in class and play tic-tac-toe with a classmate on paper? Well today we can open a new tab and play a math game.  Again, same desire to lose focus but different way to do it. So is the answer taking the device or blocking sites? I don’t think so. I think we teach kids to self-regulate and monitor; recognize they are letting themselves get distracted and how to get back on track. This too is a life skill…

So with letting our kids harness the power of digital tools, we also have to help them be responsible and we have to monitor for safety. It is really that simple. It takes time, energy, and effort on our part but in doing so we are helping our children learn to be the learners and citizens they need to be. For parents of students I serve, know that I am doing everything I can to ensure your children are using devices responsibly and safely when they are with me but also to instill those lessons for life.


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