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April 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 7
The Transition Years
William M. Ferriter
A few months back, a group of 7th graders who were studying digital footprints with the guidance of teacher George Mayo at Silver Spring International Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland, interviewed me. "Do you think most kids know what their digital footprint is?" they asked.
"You're the experts!" I replied. "What do you know about digital footprints?"
The students gave me a definition right out of my worst nightmare: Digital footprints are the trails people leave behind when they live online—and Internet predators use these trails to track down careless tweens and teens. "At our elementary school, they really tried to scare us," explained a group member. "It's like they wanted us to be afraid of what would happen if we used the Internet."
Sadly, their definition sounds familiar, doesn't it? Schools—caught up in sensational stories about cyberbullying, sexting, and Internet predation—spend an incredible amount of time trying to frighten digital kids. Although some students are at risk because of careless choices—openly talking about sex in digital forums, posting inappropriate pictures of themselves or their friends to the Web, or failing to act when confronted with dangerous situations in social media spaces—those risks are often poorly understood by teachers, who receive little training about how to effectively introduce Internet safety and new media literacies to students (Online Safety and Technology Working Group, 2010).
Scare tactics like those my 7th grade informants described are not only ineffective at changing student behaviors (Online Safety and Technology Working Group, 2010), but they also prevent students from seeing digital footprints as potential tools for learning, finding like-minded peers, and building reputations as thoughtful contributors to meaningful digital conversations. As technology expert Will Richardson (2008) explains:
One of my worst fears as [my children] grow older is that they won't be Googled well. … that when a certain someone (read: admissions officer, employer, potential mate) enters "Tess Richardson" into the search line of the browser, what comes up will be less than impressive. That a quick surf through the top five hits will fail to astound with examples of her creativity, collaborative skills, and change-the-world work. Or, even worse, that no links about her will come up at all. (p. 16)
That's an interesting dichotomy, isn't it? While schools are teaching students to worry about the consequences of being found online, Richardson is worried about the consequences for kids who
can't be found online. Educators need to bridge the gap between these two divergent views of how to live in a digital world, and two practices can help us do so.
Online Safety and Technology Working Group, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet. (2010). Youth safety on a living Internet. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Richardson, W. (2008). Footprints in the digital age. Educational Leadership,
66(3). Retrieved from
William M. Ferriter (@plugusin on Twitter) teaches 6th grade science in Raleigh, North Carolina, and blogs about the teaching life at The Tempered Radical (http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/the_tempered_radical). He is the coauthor of Teaching the iGeneration: Five Easy Ways to Introduce Essential Skills with Web 2.0 Tools (Solution Tree, 2010). His latest book, Essentials for Principals: Social Media, will be published by Solution Tree in spring 2011; 919-363-1870;
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD
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