Keeping kids safe on the internet and allowing them to learn and explore online don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals: That was one of the key messages delivered to state educational technology leaders who attended a recent event in Washington, D.C.

The occasion was the annual Leadership Summit and Education Forum, hosted by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) on Nov. 5 and 6. Called “What It Takes to Compete,” the forum invited state education leaders from around the nation to a series of sessions highlighting best practices and innovative approaches for using technology to transform instruction and create 21st-century learning opportunities.

Session topics ranged from managing internet security to the importance of high-speed networks, and from “three-dimensional” social networking to a definition of global awareness.

A central theme throughout the event was the importance of educational technology in preparing today’s students for success in an increasingly global economy.

Though most school leaders would agree with that notion, concerns about internet safety are keeping many educators from using the internet to its full potential as an instructional tool. But it doesn’t have to be that way, said forum participants.

In a session titled “Internet Security Doesn’t Need to Block Learning Opportunities,” Jayne Moore, director of instructional technology for the Maryland Department of Education, and Lan Neugent, assistant superintendent for technology and career education for the Virginia Department of Education, gave examples of how their states balance the need for security with the freedom for students to engage online.

In both cases, their success is the result of having clearly stated internet policies and procedures, and communicating these policies to students at the outset.

For example, Maryland’s Voluntary State Curriculum (VSC) defines ethical use of the web and proper digital citizenship for each grade level to help teachers and students prepare for classroom internet use.

In general, elementary students must “exhibit respect for the intellectual property right of others, explore and discuss the concept of plagiarism as taking something that does not belong to you, and explore and discuss how to cite sources when using text and digital information.” They also must “utilize safe practices when working online, as well as discuss safety issues related to use of the internet.”

Middle and high schools students must build on these basic principles by being able to “review and apply strategies for avoiding plagiarism.”

Digital citizenship in Maryland schools requires students to practice responsible and appropriate use of technology systems, software, and information; understand and follow their school’s acceptable-use policy; and recognize the potential harm of intrusive applications (such as viruses and pop-up windows). Students also must demonstrate an understanding of current legal standards and comply with copyright laws and fair-use provisions when using digital content.

To make sure they understand safe and responsible internet use, students who take part in the Maryland Virtual Learning Opportunities (MVLO) program must sign an agreement saying they will abide by all rules and regulations of their local school. The agreement is as follows:

“As a student enrolled in a Maryland Virtual Learning Opportunity course, I will abide by all rules and regulations published by the Maryland Virtual Learning Opportunity program, as well as the rules and regulations published by my local school. I agree that I am subject to all disciplinary procedures establishes by the Maryland Virtual Learning Opportunity Program and/or my local school to address violations of rules of the MLVO.”

Maryland also has technology literacy standards in place for teachers, students, and administrators, as well as a state technology plan, Moore said. In addition, state officials host leadership councils, university conferences, and discussions with regional ed-tech companies to discuss internet security products.

“The goal is not to disassociate” from using technology in schools, said Moore. Instead, “the goal is to enable technology and social networking through alternate assignments, [plagiarism] detection software, multiple versions of tests, legislation, and state-to-state collaboration.”

3-D social networking

One topic that has sparked some interest among educators is “three-dimensional” social networking through web sites such as Second Life. Jeff Mao, coordinator of educational technology for Maine, and Julia Fallon, technology integration program manager for Washington, led a session on Second Life’s potential as a learning tool.

Mao and Fallon revealed that the popular social-networking site is becoming a big hit with ed-tech companies and education administrators. For instance, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) holds regular meetings for educators and administrators in Second Life to discuss preplanned topics, such as preteen social networks.

“As educators and stakeholders, we’re always looking for ways to inspire students and do something new. We’re experimenting, seeing what will inspire and help teach 21st-century skills,” explained Mao.

According to Mao and Fallon, joining Second Life is not as intimidating as some might think. Here are some helpful tips:

  • It’s free to join Second Life as an avatar, or virtual representation of yourself.
  • An avatar cannot “die” in Second Life.
  • Second Life software can be downloaded from the Second Life web site.
  • Buying or renting “land” refers to buying or renting server space in this virtual world. One does not have to buy or rent server space to participate.
  • A large server is called an “island.”
  • Money is referred to as “Lindens.” Thousands of Lindens usually equate to a few dollars. In sufficient quantity, Linden dollars may be converted to U.S. dollars.
  • There is a keyword search and a URL bar to help you navigate through Second Life.
  • “Talking” occurs through instant message chats, but Second Life has recently added audio chat as well.
  • Educators receive 50 percent off the cost of server space.
  • The owner of any piece of “land” can make a list of users who are allowed to enter. Anyone not on the list cannot enter the space.
  • Schools, companies, and other organizations can post live links to video and television sources, as well as links to web pages.
  • Second Life requires a lot of bandwidth.
  • There is a Second Life for teens; schools interested in having virtual classrooms on the site must contact Linden Research to set up such an agreement.

Many universities have set up after-hours virtual classrooms in Second Life that are used as meeting spaces for conversations. One university has a philosophy classroom in the sky. “Some universities make exact replicas of their campuses, and that’s fine,” said Mao, “but even virtual universities can use their imagination to inspire student creativity, and some colleges have completely transformed their campus on Second Life.”

He added: “It’s such as great way for people to come together. People from all around the world can finally have a meeting place. With [instant messaging], it’s hard [to do that]. You have to find everyone’s addresses and add them to your buddy list. Here on Second Life, you can chat with an educator in China, a company representative in India, and many others without a lot of hassle.”

One professor even created a science experiment on Second Life. Using purchased applications, the professor built a Tsunami recreation on his university’s island. Students can go to the site, press a virtual button, and experience a Tsunami virtually.

Regarding internet security, Mao explained that Second Life is relatively safe. While the company trusts users to provide their accurate age and reviews complaints filed against those who might be older or younger than is allowed, there are some measures that prevent misuse.

“Each owner can put a block around [his or her] land,” Mao said. “You can make a list of all the people you want to enter, and those who are not on the list cannot enter without your permission. Since you cannot regulate who builds next to you, some educational [organizations]-like ISTE-have other educational sites try and build around them.”

For instance, he said, ISTE’s land is surrounded by a company that hosts tours of a replication of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London. This way, students can’t wander into unseemly territory-and those avatars that do visit inappropriate-for-student sites won’t be near the organization’s site.

Users also can block obnoxious avatars that perhaps shouldn’t be talking to them.

Mao explained that educators and companies are using Second Life as a testing ground for now, and many educational benefits have yet to be seen-such as the ability to host professional development courses on the site. However, 3-D social networking has the potential to help various students.

“Second life is really that-a second life,” he said. “You can be anyone you want to be. Imagine that you are a shy student in class. Maybe in Second Life you are able to ask questions all the time. You don’t feel so embarrassed or intimidated.”

He concluded: “Kids have no fear of technology. If they’re not networking at school, they’re doing it at home. Wouldn’t it be great if we could introduce them to something new they haven’t already explored?”

Global awareness

Besides sparking students’ interest, online social networking also can be an effective way to break down international barriers and create global awareness, which was the topic of another session at the SETDA forum.

To be able to compete globally, “we’ve got to dissolve boundaries in time, place, and education,” said Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth professor of learning technologies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Dede hosted a session, called “Global Awareness and Innovation,” alongside Karen Cator, director of education leadership and advocacy for Apple Inc.; Mary Sladek, outcome manager of informal education for NASA; and Gordon Freedman, vice president of education strategy for Blackboard Inc.

Freedman said students need to acquire what he called “global competence.”

“It’s eLearning, it’s geography, it’s once again dissolving those time and place boundaries,” he explained. “Our students need to know where they stand in the world and where other countries stand. It’s vital for the [United States’] ability to compete globally.”

The panel concluded with the following recommended courses of action for U.S. schools:

  • – There should be a new set of education standards for the 21st century; the ones from the 1990s must go. (Dede)
  • – Educators need to use new media flexibly to communicate. (Cator)
  • – Schools need to differentiate and personalize instruction. (Sladek)
  • – There have to be feedback loops-from students to teachers to parents and back to students. (Freedman)

As sessions came to a close, some SETDA administrators and program coordinators met with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to discuss the prospects for federal ed-tech funding, building stronger working relationships between federal and state education officials, and related issues and concerns.

Recipients of Title II, Part D (“Enhancing Education Through Technology”) block grants provided feedback to ED about ways it can improve customer service and technical assistance during the upcoming program year.

“We hope this forum has encouraged questions and provided some answers,” said SETDA Executive Director Mary Ann Wolf. “We encourage all educators and education stakeholders to push for meaning as we work toward developing the next steps for the education community. We have a responsibility to our students to guarantee they are prepared for the future.”

Links:

State Educational Technology Directors Association

Maryland Technology Initiatives

Maryland Technology Literacy Standards

Second Life