This article was originally published in the summer 2013 Harker Quarterly.
A series of presentations started in 2011-12 seeks to equip Harker parents with the knowledge necessary to help their children become well-rounded digital citizens. The advent of constant access to the Internet and unprecedented interconnectivity via social media has made sound digital citizenship and management of one’s online identity more important than ever. While the instructional technology department had been engaging students and faculty on concepts of digital citizenship for some time, instructors realized that parents could benefit from knowing how their children were learning to conduct themselves online, and in turn could find the information useful in how they managed their students’ screen time.
“We realized that we were telling the students things that the parents didn’t necessarily know,” said Dan Hudkins, director of instructional technology. “And that if what we’re trying to do is build Harker’s community and have effective parent-school partnerships, that this was an area where we could help Harker parents better understand what they needed to do to cope with all of the things that were going on.”
These talks began at the lower and middle schools, with K-5 parents learning about topics such as creating passwords, acting respectfully toward others online, interacting with strangers online, deciding what information should be shared with others and cyberbullying. Topics for each presentation are kept developmentally appropriate for the grade level of each family.
At the middle school level, topics include an introduction to social media, personal responsibilities in creating and managing an online identity and the various online tools that children may be using, such as Tumblr and Google Chat. “We let [students] know that we already know how they’re using [the Internet],” said Scott Kley Contini, assistant director of technology at the middle school, who designed and gave the parent presentations along with Gary Mallare, middle school academic counselor. A key point in developing these presentations was to make sure that they were more informative than cautionary.
“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t telling parents what to do,” said Kley Contini. “We said, this is what we’ve done and then left it open.”
This approach, he said, better enabled parents to make informed choices about what was best for their children.
Upper school presentations began in the spring semester and primarily informed parents about how their children were learning to manage their digital footprints, which included their students’ activities on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. “This is the point when the juniors need to be thinking about, well, what is a college going to find out about me if they go looking online?” Hudkins said. “And just as we’ve had student assemblies that addressed issues like that, we wanted to make sure we were talking with the parents about the same issues we were talking about with the students.”
The upper school talks, given by Diane Main, assistant director of instructional technology, emphasized the importance of enabling students to make good decisions on their own. “If [parents] lock down everything, they don’t get the opportunity to make a right choice. You’ve already made the choice for them,” she said. “We want to help our parents feel like they’re informed and that they can be involved in their students’ technology use in an appropriate way.”
Harker’s recently emerging philosophy on how to teach students and parents about online conduct is partly a reaction to information in the media and some educational materials that was perceived to be too fearful in tone.
“There was a lot of information that we do not think particularly highly of that came out five or 10 years ago that uses what I refer to as the ‘fear voice,’” Hudkins said.
“It scares them into not doing anything [online],” Kley Contini concurred.
One of the primary resources for the information contained within the presentations was Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that provides a wealth of information for parents and educators, including film reviews, book recommendations and, of particular use to the instructional technology department, resources on digital citizenship. Also, as Hudkins remarks, “they don’t use the fear voice.”
“We’ve used a lot of their stuff as the backbone of our sequencing and some of our topics,” Kley Contini said.
According to Kley Contini, parent response to the presentations so far has been positive overall. “The statement that children must earn screen time stayed with me,” said Chi- Pei Cherng, parent of Justin Chao, grade 1, and Jonathan Chao, grade 4. “Our family value of being responsible needs to carry over to their screen time mentality as well. It’s a subtle shift in thought from screen time as a prize or bribe to a simple acceptance that our responsibilities come first.”
While parents have shown appreciation for the talks, the courses of action that parents are taking in response have varied, with some parents instituting tighter restrictions on Internet usage and others relaxing them.
“For the most part, what we’re telling them is, you can go whatever route you want,” Kley Contini said. “We’re teaching them at a developmentally appropriate level, and we want you to know what that level is.”
Hudkins explained that part of the overall K-12 scope of the presentations is the idea that restrictions should gradually be lowered so that graduating seniors conduct themselves online properly once they are in college and free of constant supervision.
“The point we’re trying to make is to empower the parents to continue parenting, but to recognize that along the way, the process from kindergarten through 12th grade is one of very gradually letting go, and if kids have difficulty managing this kind of behavior when they’re in high school, we want them to fall on their faces now when we can pick them up and help them,” he said.
“We don’t want them to be so tightly wrapped that when they leave here and are no longer under adult supervision, they just explode.”
People outside Harker have also shown an interest in the school’s approach to this topic. At a February conference held by the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), Kley Contini and Mallare prepared a presentation on how they speak to students and parents about online conduct and digital citizenship. At least one school has contacted Kley Contini so far about modeling its approach after Harker’s.
“I believe that these events can benefit every parent,” said Cherng. “Media exposure is pervasive in our children’s childhood, and it’s important to be aware of how to guide them in a positive, thoughtful and safe manner.”
“It’s important that we’re able to communicate what we’re telling kids, what our expectations are, and that we know that some kids are going to mess up,” Main said. “We’re just continuing what Harker does for students but in this specific area.”