This semester I teach computers (Information Processing) to three junior high classes. Last month I taught a mini lesson about using quotes when doing an internet search. I told the students that there were over 4000 hits when I Googled Rhonda Lynn Jessen but only 38 hits when I Googled “Rhonda Lynn Jessen”. I had barely finished my explanation when they were off Googling themselves and animatedly talking about the results. They were so engaged with their findings, and the results were so varied that I started new discussion threads in their class Moodle sites for them to share what they had found. But I didn’t want to leave it with the students just trolling what already existed about them on the net; I wanted to have a larger conversation with them about their contribution to the data stream and the idea of controlling the information that is out there about them.
This school year I am participating in a PLP cohort facilitated by Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and it has already changed how I feel about posting personal information on-line. I have been a nerd for a long time. I explored the internet before the arrival of the World Wide Web. I remember thinking the web was pretty silly when it first came out since the majority of the sites I came across were of the “photos of me and my dog” variety. Even when I learned how to code HTML and supported others in making web pages I didn’t see the need for a personal website; I didn’t have anything to say. Fast forward a decade and I am starting to see that there is value in developing (and contributing) to a personal learning network, hence this blog, which even has a real photo of me in my profile.
I teach my students about the rights and responsibilities of Digital Citizenship, and they have had internet safety lectures since they started using computers. I strive to teach them how to have effective on-line discussions, create personal and group wikis and make web pages. But until this year I have always kept these contributions inside the school firewall, explaining how to post the websites they have created outside of class time. I guess the lectures about internet safety were getting to me too. This year it is going to be different, I want to teach my students how to post their work on the internet, while still being safe. I knew I wanted to have a discussion about reputation management but I wasn’t sure how I was going to start it.
Then I read Clarence Fisher’s blog entry Stalking in English Class and I knew this was the approach I was going to take. Having students research someone else’s digital footprint before they started crafting their own would be a great hook and I thought they would find the idea of stalking someone they didn’t know interesting.
I made a list of six targets with a strong web presence. There were three men and three women; three Americans and three Canadians (that was just a fluke.) I gave students the list of names and a small photo of each target and let them select their target. I gave them several classes to research their targets, with a mini lesson on researching beyond Google (meta search engines, YouTube, 123people.com, etc.) halfway through their search. They saved their research in shared Google documents. Once the research was complete they had to create a report about what they found out about their targets, and their assessment about how safe their targets were being. When I assigned the report I pointed out that sometimes you can share information and still be safe. I gave the example of university professors who need to share their contact information with their students since half of their targets were university professors.
I was surprised when I read their reports. Many could not (or did not) differentiate between work and personal contact information, indicating that several of their targets were being unsafe because their phone, fax or email addresses were posted on the net for anyone to see. A few realized that the contact information was work related and deemed it safe to share, but they were in the minority. Apparently the lectures about on-line safety had reached their targets. They know that they should be careful about sharing their contact information; but it became obvious that they had very little idea that there were ways to share and still be safe.
Next week I am going to debrief all of the classes about the activity and what they learned. I am going to talk about two issues that came up in all three classes: the necessity of sharing contact information with some jobs and the importance of checking the date of the information they find (it doesn’t matter if you can find my address online if I haven’t lived there in ten years.) Then we’re going to start talking about Brand Management and the idea of crafting your on-line presence. They are going to post the projects they are working on right now about Cyber Bullying on-line (gasp) for the world to see. And they are going to start blogs and share them with the world. It’s a bit beyond my comfort zone, but it is obviously time to start.