N.J. schools to guide students on using social media

Posted: March 17, 2014

Starting next school year, New Jersey public school districts will be called on to teach middle schoolers about responsible use of social media, according to recently passed legislation.

Another bill, if signed by Gov. Christie, will require districts to create written policies about electronic communication between students and staff.

With both pieces of legislation, the Garden State stands to become more of a part of a conversation - some would say movement - that is gaining momentum nationally.

The topic is digital citizenship, a concept that includes responsible use of technology and learning to function in an ever more digital world.

Given the 2010 suicide of cyber-bullying victim Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman, and, nationally, several rapes in which photographs of the teenage victims were put on the Internet, sponsors of the education bill say they want to help protect young people from abuse and misuse.

In addition to concerns like cyber-bullying, the sponsors want schools to address issues like ethics and cyber safety. For example, programs on appropriate use of social media often teach that anything put up on the Internet can become public and permanent. Students might be told before posting something that they should think about whether they would want a college admissions officer or potential employer to see it.

"Every day, we see stories about youngsters facing legal repercussions, humiliation, and, tragically, even suicide, as a result of social media activity," said the sponsor, Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D., Camden). "Proper education will hopefully help open students' eyes to these consequences so they do not end up as the next unfortunate headline."

Last month at Moorestown High School, feelings were hurt when some students used a new app called Yik Yak to anonymously make crude, hurtful posts about fellow students and teachers. The app's designers said they launched it three months ago as a community-building tool for college students.

A problem with the Internet is schools and society in general too often end up reacting to the next new thing instead of preparing young people, said Richard Guerry, founder of the nonprofit Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-Phone Communication in Mount Laurel.

"We've taken basically the most powerful tool on the planet and given it to people of all ages, and we really didn't give them a guide for using it," Guerry said.

Interest in such guidelines seems to be be growing, he said. Since starting his institute in 2009, he said, he has been asked to conduct more than 2,000 "Course to Digital Consciousness" workshops nationwide and in Canada.

The rapidly evolving nature of technology has left schools lagging in how to deal with student-staff electronic communication.

Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera (D., Camden) said the bill she cosponsored, which Christie has not yet signed, seeks to correct that by requiring districts to establish rules for such communication. The policies will left up to individual districts, she said.

The New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Association of School Administrators supported both bills.

"The lives of everyone have been influenced by technology and social media, and school district policies and curricula have to respond to the new reality," Richard Bozza, executive director of the administrators association, said.

School boards association spokeswoman Jeanette Rundquist said many districts already addressed social media with formal policies, in staff handbooks, or at orientations, "but interest among districts is definitely increasing."

Her organization is working on a revised sample policy on staff use of social networks and other electronic communications, and, she said, "we expect more districts to request it."

Use of social media by teachers, however, is still uneven.

A recent survey by the University of Phoenix College of Education found many teachers were not using social media in their classes or to engage with students and parents.

According to the survey, 47 percent of kindergarten-through-12th-grade teachers and 58 percent of high school teachers believed participating in social media with students would enhance students' educational experience. However, only 17 percent of K-12 teachers said they encouraged their students to connect with them through social media, and only 18 percent used it in classes. Among high school teachers, the participation levels were 21 percent and 19 percent.

Brad Campbell, a history teacher at Cinnaminson High School, has embraced social media and technology. He uses the "flipped classroom" mode of teaching.

In that, the contents of a usual classroom lecture are viewed at home by students via the Internet - a PowerPoint presentation, video of a lecture, etc. In class, the students work on applying the information through a debate or discussion, or in an essay or project, with their teachers present to help them work through it.

Campbell said he and his students made much use of Edmodo, a free app where he posts learning materials, students and parents can ask questions, and youngsters collaborate on projects.

"It's especially good with your shier, quiet kids," he said.

When his senior elective students learned he was going to Skype their mythology presentations to a class in St. Louis, they arrived dressed like their gods and goddesses - a much more serious effort than ordinarily would have been expected the week before senior trip, he noted.

Live-tweeting a class debate on Christopher Columbus was also a hit; it made the class "feel more authentic," he said.

Elsewhere in the region, schools or districts have developed their own policies and programs.

Antoinette Rath, Mount Laurel's superintendent, said her district had had a written policy on social networking and electronic communities since 2009. Responsible use of social media is discussed in class, an annual cyber safety workshop for parents is popular, and programs like Google Docs are used in classrooms.

At Haddonfield Middle School starting this school year, sixth graders are required to take digital citizenship, a course that looks at responsible Internet use as well as the positive potential of social media, principal Gino Priolo said. A parent workshop last spring was well attended, he said.

Some school officials, though agreeing these issues are worthy of discussion, take exception to yet another mandate flowing out of Trenton.

"While we do more to meet new initiatives and mandates, our citizens and taxpayers don't understand why costs go up," said Robert Goldschmidt, Washington Township superintendent. "This is one of the reasons."

Scott Oswald, superintendent of Collingswood and Oaklyn, said that if a mandate is added, another should be taken away.

"Our primary mission is to teach reading, writing, problem-solving, and citizenship, and every new thing takes away from that," he said.


856-779-3893 rgiordano@phillynews.com

@ritagiordano

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