I remember way back in high school, when we still used typewriters, writing up my résumé of experiences and hoping that college admissions officers or local employers might find them compelling enough to consider me. My résumé glowed with initiative and industriousness: newspaper deliverer when I was 12, local church locker-upper when I was 14, food runner at the hospital when I was 17, and more. I tried really hard to make myself sound impressive; dare to say, I might even have fudged a few lines here and there in the effort. I mean, who was going to check, right?
Well, today everyone checks. This is a world in which public is the new default. Thought leader Michael Schrage (2010) notes that "the traditional two-page résumé has been turned into a 'personal productivity portal' that empowers prospective employers to quite literally interact with their candidate's work." The rules for building your personal brand are changing at light speed. It's not enough to suggest that we have those admirable skills of creativity, initiative, and entrepreneurship; now we have to show them in action online.
In short, our résumé is becoming a Google search result, one that we build with the help of others and that requires our participation. Most students are beginning to face this reality without much assistance from the schools charged with preparing them for the world beyond school. That has to change. We need to help students understand more than just the safety and ethics of participating online; we also have to give them opportunities throughout the curriculum to find and follow their passions and publish meaningful, quality work for real global audiences to interact with.
Creating a Brand
A student's "branding" effort may take many forms. Students may have blogs in which they write about the things that most engage them, making connections with others who share those interests and deepening their knowledge in the dialogue. Or they may create a Facebook group around a change-the-world idea, a YouTube video that shows off their musical talent, or even a live-streamed radio or TV show that builds an audience around a particular topic. Regardless of the tool, the result is the same—the creation of a portfolio of work that is both public and interactive, that reflects the potential of the online world and that serves as a solid foundation for a lifetime of participation online.
Not that the "screenagers" in our schools aren't already publishing. The Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project study last year showed that almost 75 percent of teens regularly use social-networking sites and that the vast majority publish updates, photos, videos, and more (Lenhart, 2010). However, these postings are primarily "friendship-based" (MacArthur Foundation, 2008); such content is intended for a known audience, not for global consumption, and that's an important distinction. As the National Council of Teachers of English (2008) states in its revamped Definition of 21st Century Literacies, students need to be able to "design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes." That suggests something far more complex than simply updating one's status on a Facebook page.
Yes, You Can Talk to Strangers
No question, we need to take pains to keep students safe and to teach them to keep themselves safe as well. By putting ourselves out there, whether as students or adults, we do expose ourselves to different risks.
But research strongly suggests that the web is a safer place than most think (Stone, 2009). In addition to teaching safe publishing habits, we must also teach connection, the idea that the "publish" button is no longer the end of the process but a midpoint, an opportunity to learn from those who take the time to read and respond. In essence, we want students to talk to strangers, to have the wherewithal not only to discern good strangers from bad ones, but also to appreciate the huge learning opportunity that online strangers represent. As author Steven Johnson (2010) put it in a blog post, "We have to learn how to break with that most elemental of parental [read: educational] commandments: Don't talk to strangers. It turns out that strangers have a lot to give us that's worthwhile, and we to them."
At the end of the day, high school graduates need a clear sense of both the potentials and the pitfalls of interacting online. They should be able to create their own connections in safe, effective, and ethical ways. For schools, this means far more than just doing an information literacy unit. Rather, we must envision a K–12 curriculum that seamlessly integrates these new skills and literacies in age-appropriate ways and gradually moves students into more public interactions online. Not doing so would be akin to handing teenagers the keys to the car without having taught them to drive.
What Schools Can Do
What might those interactions look like? It starts with a school and classroom philosophy of sharing, with the idea that without sharing, there is no education (Wiley, 2010). A culture of sharing doesn't mean just providing content for others to read and learn from; it means sharing to connect with other people with whom we can learn as well. (See "Moving Students Online: First Steps for Teachers.")
In this kind of culture, teachers regularly share lesson plans, thoughts, and experiences with the world and serve as models for how to interact with others online. Thousands of teachers now blog regularly to audiences large and small; others create wiki pages, podcasts, or bookmark lists to share resources and links. On the basis of their own experiences as participants, these teachers encourage students to publish the best of what they create, be it blog posts, VoiceThread stories, YouTube videos, or photo montages.
But the purpose of posting these artifacts online is not just to publish—it's to connect with others who might be interested in and learning about the same topic. At the outset, teachers might vet and create these connections, bringing in other classrooms from around the world to do book discussions through Skype or coordinating "blog buddies" to facilitate conversation on the topics students are working on and writing about in class. As students progress, teachers can give them more ownership over the process, allowing them to create other pieces for their "online portfolios" and share around their own interests. By the time they leave high school, students should be "Googleable"—that is, able to find themselves online—associating their full names with their best work for a global audience to see.
Already, student work using global publishing tools in schools is taking many forms, from blog posts to video how-tos to presentations to online photo books. All too often, however, these efforts lack the coordination necessary to ensure that all students enter college or the workforce with a healthy presence online. Whether it's because of fear of putting students out there, lack of teacher publishing experience, or parents' desire to keep their children's privacy intact, most students receive little instruction on how to do this well.
In schools that are intentional about having students share work online, teachers play an important role. As kids begin to use social learning tools in class, teachers need to show them the value of an audience—not just in a social sense but in a participatory learning sense. As Chris Lehmann (2008), principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, wrote on his blog,
We need to help them see their audience. … Whether it is using a blogging platform for an art classroom exhibition that other students will critique or bringing in a group of math majors from a college to work with our math students, kids need to understand why they should share their work with the world.
In other words, early on, we need to create these connections for students to build a foundation for their own future sharing online.
How soon is too soon? These types of interactions can begin taking place in measured ways in elementary school. Paula White, a resource teacher in Virginia's Albemarle County Public Schools, uses online publishing tools as a way to introduce the complexities of connecting, even if it means initially using a pseudonym. She notes,
As an elementary teacher, I believe having kids create a "safe" pseudonym allows me an opportunity to teach even more about safety. They will join websites with their real names anyway, so when that happens, I can then teach [them] or at least set them up to learn [how to do that]. (personal communication, June 21, 2010)
For example, last fall, one of Paula's students, Nicolas Gutkowski, presented to the K12 Online Conference 2010 on the topic "Learning on My Own," which discussed how he used his own personal wiki space (http://nicolascres.wikispaces.com) to create and share reviews of books that he has read, post his creative writing, and collect links to resources relevant to his various interests, such as Lego Mindstorms (a line of programmable robotics and construction toys) and online games.
Students as Passionate Participators
In some cases, students take those initial forays in the classroom and use them as starting points to pursue things they really care about. Last year, 7th grader Michael Kinley from Van Meter Community School in Van Meter, Iowa, created his Mike's Tech News blog (http://mikestechnews.blogspot.com) as a part of a student technology group—the Computer Efficiency Workers League (CEWL)— which helps integrate technology and troubleshoot problems that students and teachers have. His blog covers such topics as the Xbox 360, 3-D TVs, and Apple-related news. Mike also created a YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/mike398100) that has dozens of tech-related videos, many of which have been viewed thousands of times, as well as a Facebook Internet safety video that he created for school.
According to Van Meter teacher librarian Shannon Miller (personal communication, September 14, 2010), the school wants to make sure every student not only understands how to safely and ethically publish online, but also sees the learning connections and communities that can happen as a result. Students need to "show through their online presence that they are creative, collaborative, and self-directed." In other words, students need to see the web not just as a place to socialize with friends, but also as a place to learn in profound ways—and where many others "out there" will create important first impressions about them on the basis of what they choose to share.
However, it's not just about creating and sharing with the intention of impressing people or building a brand. The work needs to convey a passion for learning, participating, and being part of the conversation. In other words, the brand is a by-product, not the end goal. It's not uncommon to hear stories of parents searching for available web domains before naming their children (Jesdanun, 2007), but no amount of marketing or brand preparation can be an effective substitute for quality, passionate participation.
Students as Change Agents
Aside from passion and participation, what other qualities and skill sets can online compilations show? Many so-called 21st century skills come to mind, things like problem solving, reflective thinking, collaboration, and creativity. But there is also room for leadership and initiative—not just posting a well-done assignment online but starting a movement, creating change, or showing an entrepreneurial bent.
Take, for example, Ryan Hreljac, who, after learning in 1st grade that millions of people around the world were without clean drinking water, raised $70 as a 7-year-old. Now, 12 years later, he heads Ryan's Well, which has raised millions of dollars and brought clean water to hundreds of thousands of people primarily through the fundraising done on his website (www.ryanswell.ca) and Facebook pages (www.facebook.com/pages/Ryans-Well-Foundation/233569828371).
Or take 14-year-old Monik Pamecha from Mumbai, India, who, according to his "about" line on his Twitter page (http://twitter.com/monikkinom) is "Trying to change the world, starting with the Internet. Bring it on!" Monik has over 17,000 followers on Twitter at this writing, and his website (www.etiole.com) is filled with timely articles and posts about his passion, technology.
And check out Tavi Gevinson, who started blogging at The Style Rookie (http://thestylerookie.com) at 11 years old; at 14, she now has a huge following of 50,000 daily readers around her passion for fashion.
A Literacy for the Times
Not every student needs to aspire to become a Ryan, a Monik, or a Tavi. The point is that the potential to do so exists. Social media afford the opportunity for all children with online access to contribute to the world in meaningful ways, do real work for real audiences for real purposes, find great teachers and collaborators from around the world, and become great teachers in their own right. That should be our most important motivation for helping students build their résumés on the Web.
At the same time, we need to help students understand the ramifications of participation, both good and bad. In organized ways throughout their K–12 experience, our kids need to learn how to make great choices about what they share, act ethically in their interactions and connections, and continually review and manage their online reputations in light of others' ability to contribute to that reputation either positively or negatively with a few clicks of the mouse.
You'll find any number of services online that are willing to do "reputation management" for any one of us and create our "online portfolio websites" should we be unable to do so for ourselves (Indvik, 2010). But these modern ghostwriting services are surely not the answer, either for us or for our students. Building and maintaining a compelling, creative, connected, positive online presence is a literacy for the times, one that we teachers must model and help students develop.
Moving Students Online: First Steps for Teachers
- Become "Googleable" yourself. To fully understand the implications for students, teachers need to have some personal context for sharing and interacting online. As a first step, start a Twitter account or a blog and begin exploring your own interests with others with whom you can learn and collaborate.
- Model connections. Share your own online interactions with students. When relevant and appropriate, talk about how you're learning from others and how and why you choose to participate online. Use Skype or shared blog spaces to introduce students to learners who are passionate about the subjects they're studying. Use the learning connections you've established in Step 1 to begin to share your work with the world.
- Share student work. Create a classroom portal online where you can regularly share student work. As much as possible, make sharing a natural part of the learning process, publishing interesting student blog posts, videos, or other quality artifacts that students create. Find ways to encourage discussion and interactions from readers online. See, for instance, how to use the hash tag #comments4kids (http://comments4kids.blogspot.com) on Twitter to find blogs to comment on and to get student posts commented on.
With younger students, moderate those interactions. With older students, share strategies for moderating and vetting to help them become responsible for monitoring and responding to comments on their own. Have discussions on what appropriate interactions look like, how to make sure commenters are who they say they are, and how to respond to a comment appropriately.
- Practice and teach "reputation management." Help students hone strategies for the continual monitoring of their lives online—not just in what they produce but in what others publish and share about them. This might include setting up e-mail alerts or RSS feeds that deliver links when they are mentioned online or tagged in photos or learning simple strategies for searching for themselves online.
Indvik, L. (2010, May 5). University to provide online reputation management to graduates [blog post]. Retrieved from Mashable at http://mashable.com/2010/05/05/brand-yourself/
Jesdanun, A. (2007, August 21). Parents pick baby names with available URLs. Retrieved from Today Money at http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/20378395/
Johnson, S. (2010, May 20). Web privacy: In praise of oversharing. Retrieved from Time at www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1990586-4,00.html
Lehmann, C. (2008, February 1). When to publish [blog post]. Retrieved from Practical Theory at http://practicaltheory.org/serendipity/index.php?/archives/932-When-to-Publish.html
Lenhart, A. (2010, June 10). How do [they] even do that? A Pew Internet guide to teens, young adults, mobile phones, and social media. Retrieved from Pew Internet and American Life Project at How-do-they-even-do-that-A-Pew-Internet-guide-to-teens-cell-phones-and-social-media.aspx">http://pewinternet.org/Presentations/2010/Jun/How-do-they-even-do-that-A-Pew-Internet-guide-to-teens-cell-phones-and-social-media.aspx
MacArthur Foundation. (2008, November 20). New study shows time spent online important for teen development. Retrieved from k.3CE6/New_Study_Shows_Time_Spent_Online_Important_for_Teen_Development.htm">www.macfound.org/site/c.lkLXJ8MQKrH/b.4773437/k.3CE6/New_Study_Shows_Time_Spent_Online_Important_for_Teen_Development.htm
National Council of Teachers of English. (2008, February 15). The definition of 21st century literacies. Retrieved from www.ncte.org/governance/literacies
Schrage, M. (2010, July 29). Higher education is overrated; skills aren't [blog post]. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review at http://blogs.hbr.org/schrage/2010/07/higher-education-is-highly-ove.html
Stone, B. (2009, January 13). Report calls online threats to children overblown. Retrieved from The New York Times at www.nytimes.com/2009/01/14/technology/internet/14cyberweb.html
Wiley, D. (2010, March 8). My TEDxNYED talk. Iterating toward openness [blog post]. Retrieved from Iterating Toward Openness at http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/1270
Will Richardson is the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Tools for Classrooms (Corwin Press, 2006) and cofounder of Powerful Learning Practice (http://plpnetwork.com). He blogs at http://weblogg-ed.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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