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Train them up in the way they should go . . . digitally!

“Did anyone come across the target temperature increase being discussed at the Climate Conference in Paris?”  
“It’s on the discussion board on the Chemistry site.”  

“Can I use my phone to check on the video you posted on our website yesterday?”
“Sure, but you need to make sure that each member of your group has seen it so that they can post their comments.”  

Discussions like these are becoming more frequent in our schools as we shift from print-based information to engaging the wildly expanding world of digital learning opportunities. Access to information has never been easier, but discerning the quality of that information has become ever more difficult as digital options flourish. How do we engage with the seemingly limitless potential of the internet yet avoid the dangers that exist there?

At Abbotsford Christian Secondary School, it seemed that a good starting point would be to enable students with their own digital device. This would allow students to find information that was needed quickly and efficiently. In addition to taking notes, writing papers and interacting with others, the devices would allow students to utilize many applications specifically designed for education. These include the school learning management system, electronic texts, video sources, electronic modeling, language programs, information display formats and many others. The evidence suggested that this was the future and, if we were going to stay true to our mission to “engage minds” and our vision to help “students achieve their maximum potential,” we needed to get the program going.

Back to the drawing board
ACSS is blessed with a wise parent community. When the principal (Mr. Gerry Goertzen) met with parent groups about the proposed “Digital Learning Initiative,” he was not met with the support he expected.  Rather, parents were concerned about the dangers of allowing what seemed like limitless access to the internet. They wondered what steps the school had taken to educate students toward wisdom in this area. The team went back to the drawing board and soon realized that the parents had pointed out an obvious flaw in our plan.

A decision was made to develop a program that would, on an ongoing basis, introduce students to the challenges of the stewardly use of digital resources. A “Digital Citizenship” course was developed. It consisted of a series of short lessons, each highlighting an aspect of responsible internet use. Each lesson comes equipped with a situation arising from a student’s internet presence, a media-based learning aid (usually a short video) which illustrates the issue, some discussion questions meant to engage the students and a summary or “take away” of the message. These short lessons are taught each Tuesday morning at the beginning of the first class. In this way each student, regardless of grade, is exposed to the same lesson. 

The lessons are organized around the themes of self-respect, self-protection, respecting others, protecting others, respecting intellectual property, protecting intellectual property and digital citizenship at school. These, in turn, are addressed from the perspective of some overarching principles of digital citizenship:

     T – Is it true?
     H – Is it hurtful?
     I – Is it legal?
     N – Is it necessary?
     K – Is it kind?

Consider the words of Paul’s letter to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity”                 (1 Tim. 4:12).

Shaping God’s changing world
Designing this curriculum was a way to honour our school’s mission: “Celebrate and explore the truth that, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.’ Students will learn to discern the culture in which they live and how they can positively influence it for God’s kingdom.”

Students are encouraged to explore digital resources and become fluent in the use of digital technology.  As the amount of information grows (seemingly exponentially) it is imperative that students are taught to question, review, research and ultimately learn to discern truth from the material they find. These are essential skills for all students but especially for those seeking to honour God in their work. 

Rather than protect students from digital information (and culture) we help students to engage with technology. This is part of their training in 21st century skills which will be essential for them as they become active members of society and shapers of God’s world. Education is changing because the world we study is changing and because we have a better understanding of student learning. We understand that in order for real learning to occur, student engagement is needed. Using digital resources increases our options for building student engagement.

Digital ambassadors for Christ
Part of the effective use of digital technology is the understanding that not everything out there is good or true or healthy. There are dangers to be avoided and rules to follow. These make up the core of the digital citizenship lessons. Examples of lesson topics include:

“To Post or Not To Post” –  A look at the types of things that should not be posted on the internet and the possible consequences of posting inappropriate material.

“What Comes Around Goes Around” – Materials posted on the internet are permanent. You can’t really delete anything, resulting in unexpected and unwanted consequences.

“I Thought It Was Free!” – Things are often not what they seem on the internet and “free” is seldom “free.”  Beware of traps that lead directly to your wallet!

Initially some parents questioned whether kids should be encouraged to use the internet freely. These worries were taken seriously and the resulting program aims to prepare students to respond to internet dangers in a safe and discerning manner. The aim is not simply to avoid danger but to be ambassadors of Christ as they engage in their digital activities. An important component of digital citizenship is commonly referred to as “netiquette.” This focuses more on using social media and other conversation sites in a civil and thoughtful way. Social media often functions with a different set of rules than conventional conversation. Students need to know how to interact politely and effectively if they are to make a positive impression with others. Students are taught that as Christians they show their love towards others in all of their activities . . . even digital ones.

Bringing it home
In the interest of accessibility, one of the teachers (Mr. Mike Cumiskey) takes the time to post the week’s lesson on the school’s website each week so that both students and parents can refer to it. The intent is to foster discussions at home regarding the student’s use of internet resources. Parents may have questions about the lessons and are free to discuss these with the school. The results have been very positive. Teachers, students and parents have indicated that they feel this is a positive step forward as we continue to navigate our way towards increased student engagement and improved learning at ACSS.

  • Rob Bakker (moc.naitsirhcdrofstobba@rekkabr) is a science teacher and vice principal at Abbotsford Christian Secondary School. He has taught there for 36 years (!) and has seen many changes in the school and in education. He attended UBC where he studied zoology, specifically fresh-water ecology. He returned to UBC to complete his teacher training and has taught at ACSS ever since. He lives in Chilliwack, B.C., with his wife, Brenda. His interests include fishing, motorcycles, playing guitar and hanging out with his five grandchildren.

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