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Posts Tagged ‘AUP’

This weekend, I had the exhausting pleasure of attending Educon 2.3 at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.  The first class that I was privileged to participate in was “Crafting Character” led by Karen Blumberg and Meredith Stewart.  Here, the conversation focused on educating students about acceptable behavior online and the implications that mistakes can have in the future.  As a librarian, this issue is certainly not a new one.  We have revised our Acceptable Use Policy with an awareness of the impact of a student’s behavior online, although postings take place after school hours.  We have dealt with the issue by including any derogatory postings about our students, faculty, or school online as falling under the “harassment” section of our disciplinary policy.  I think our AUP has become a fluid document, that is revised and revisted as situations occur.  With this document, and a library curriculum that taught students about protecting themselves online, acceptable behavior, and future consequences of improper behavior, I thought that I was preparing them for the future.

But, as the discussion progressed, it took a turn I had blindly not foreseen.  We discussed taking a more proactive stance by helping students craft a positive digital footprint.  Someone suggested flooding online sources with positive information about oneself in order to subordinate the inappropriate or unflattering information that may already exist in searches.   I had not considered attacking the issue from the other side, from a more upbeat action-oriented way, giving the students the power to take charge of their online persona.  While concentrating on “don’t do this,”  I missed “do that.”  Thanks to all the participants in the class who helped me open my eyes and see that thinking forward  is much better than looking backward.

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Last week, during a discussion of Acceptable Use with fifth graders, students became focused on the issue of plagiarism, and questions began to multiply.  It began with the students trying to quantify just how much copying constituted plagiarism.  A paragraph?  A sentence or two?  A phrase?  What if you copied something by mistake?  What if it was similar to something you never read?  All these are legitimate questions, and deserved clarification.  But then the pragmatist raised his hand — “How is anyone going to know?  The author of that encyclopedia article will never read my report.  You said it’s illegal, but nothing’s really going to happen, right?”   That’s when it hit me.  I wasn’t dealing with naive students eager to listen, learn, and please the teacher.  These were not rule followers.  They were rule analyzers.  Right and wrong for some of these students was all about the odds getting caught.  While I’m trying to teach them ethical behavior for ethics sake, there are students missing the message entirely. Instead of being appalled by the plagiarism – theft analogy, they’re trying to figure out the odds of beating the system.  They’re weighing their chances: what’s the probability that my teacher is going to find my source?   Or, can she prove I plagiarized?  The depressing truth is, their chances of beating the system are pretty good.  And that’s when the epiphany came: I can teach them about acceptable behaviors and ethical use of information, but those will always be my rules, not theirs.  They have to determine the behaviors that they are willing to engage in, and the consequences they’re willing to accept.  The responsibility’s all theirs.  Let’s just hope they make the right decision.

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As I put together my presentation for the students explaining the Acceptable Use Policy, one thing is clear: the new policy represents a major shift in thinking: it centers on trust and responsibility.  In the past, our policy concentrated on behaviors that were not allowed.  It was a list of can’ts and don’ts, and was extremely long, attempting to cover every possible action or behavior.  It was no one’s fault but my own; I wrote it almost ten years ago, when after reviewing the examples used by other schools, it seemed reasonable.  Of course, it’s undergone several revisions during that time to cover holes in the policy brought to light by student behavior.

But last spring, I began to rethink the policy and its focus.  If we are preparing students to be the most efficient and effective users of information, then they must be given guidance as to location and evaluation, and the freedom to use those tools. This means turning over the responsibility to the students to explore the information on the internet, and trusting that the ethics they’ve been taught will guide their behavior.  Setting up artificial boundaries by banning certain web sites is not only ineffective, it’s impractical.   Digital citizenship involves choices and ethics to guide those choices.  Banning information violates all these precepts.  After all, most would agree the practice of banning books is abhorrent.  Why has it taken us so long to realize banning sources on the internet is no different?  It’s time we shift our thinking and hand over the responsibility for ethical behavior to the students.

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The library of today

Photograph courtesy of Darlene Fichter, University of Saskatchewan

Once upon a time, a library was a place for quiet place for reading and research, where the librarian easily maintained total control with a “shhh”.  Today, a library is an active place where students are involved in multiple processes with many tools once thought verboten.  They gather information from multiple sources: YouTube, Twitter, Wallwisher, GoogleDocs, Wikis, etc.  These sources were once banned from school use by many Acceptable Use Policies because of horror stories of student misuse.  But today, participation and sharing via these Web 2.0 tools is essential for the full spectrum of learning to take place.  Just think how restrictive a project would be if source information was limited to books and selected websites. 

But it isn’t easy for educators to loosen the reigns of control.  Students’ safety has always been an concern, and rightly so.  This philosophy of student protection resulted in overly protective and limiting AUP’s.  But recently, a member of my PLN sent a quote that I found enlightening.  “Don’t condemn the source of information, but its improper use.”  This made me look at the school AUP again, and begin to consider an alternate approach: one where ethics of information use were stressed, rather than a list of approved and banned sites.  This requires a radical trust by teachers and librarians to allow students to use sites that may have questionable material, for directed research and information sharing.  Students must be given the skills to make the decisions to find the information they need.  That is an integral part of the research process.  By limiting sources, we are also limiting student’s growth.  It’s time for a major leap of faith.

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