By Mercer Hall and Patricia Russac.
In the changing topography of web interactions, the luxury of a slow, linear approach no longer exists. The landscape of online learning is constantly upheaving. Digital technologies have revolutionised the exchange and the design of information, and the speed and availability of a mobile environment inspires both allure and angst for teachers. Right at the moment many teachers have grown comfortable with the interfaces of Web 2.0 tools, they now must adjust to a new, interlinked Web 3.0 that is, in fact, several years old.
Currently, “Web 3.0” defines the always-engaged, always-on nature of this minute’s, this second’s internet. Teachers and schools looking to tap into these dynamic learning networks must worry, therefore, about protecting the digital privacy of students. Via avatars, social media, and digital collaborations, educators can take advantage of the liminal web while still preserving the anonymity of school-age learners.
What Is Web 3.0?
While definitions for Web 3.0 vary, it is often referred to as a merging of the semantic and social webs. It is based on personalisation, intelligent searches, and a seamless diffusion across devices. The tools of Web 3.0 involve real-time virtual worlds and personal agents. They no longer rely on pushed or stable content, and they involve more than the two-way sharing of information. Instead, Web 3.0 is live and mobile. Its layered structure affords the ability to engage with content in an interactive, rich environment through avenues that continually morph and migrate. This Web 3.0 architecture is both the offspring of a determined effort to update the internet lattice and a grassroots drive to expand individual reach.
One part of the Web 3.0 infrastructure comes directly from the father of the internet himself, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who as director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is leading an endeavor to build a web blueprint that relies on evolving links and synaptic databases. The other half of the Web 3.0 evolution is the natural by-product of programmers and users perpetually seeking to push the potential of open-source media. This contemporaneous web becomes an ever-altering geography for teachers to explore. Nova Spivack has been a leading technologist in identifying this organic convergence of the semantic and social webs. His analysis of the trajectory of information and connectivity opens up many celebratory yet also concerning possibilities for student engagement.
In essence, schools need to adapt to the changing digital culture to take full advantage of what Web 3.0 has to offer. They need to be less fearful of “what if” and more worried about “what if we don’t”. Administrators cannot put the genie back into the bottle by restricting access to websites and social media. They can, however, ensure that students are informed, reflective, and safe participants in this new net normal.
During the past 30 years, teachers have reliably refined their daily classroom activities to employ the latest in PC and tablet learning. If the classic Web 1.0 page of readable content was the online restaurant menu, then the teacher equivalent was the online homework sheet. If the exemplary Web 2.0 activity was personal blogging, then the student equivalent was digital storytelling. Now, if the prevailing Web 3.0 incarnation is social media and smart databases, then the school equivalent is … social media and smart databases.
The dividing line between the ‘real’ web and the ‘schoolhouse’ web has disappeared. Just as social platforms dominate the daily lives of parents on their smartphones, so too should social learning become the norm among school children. The blessing of modern content creation is that is can occur anywhere on any device. This flexibility is at the crux of the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement, as well as the increased mobility of virtual learning.
With Twitter alone, teachers can invite students to curate research archives, create evening study groups, offer field trip reflections, receive instant feedback, volunteer pre-teaching predictions, and share projects with peers and parents. Similarly, on Pinterest, students are building virtual pinboards to gather primary sources, interpret political cartoons, and compare historical photographs. Many schools are using Instagram to reimagine literary characters and capture classroom moments. They are posting Vine videos as book trailers and foreign language dialogues. Soon, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and all the other apps-du-jour will also become regular players in daily learning.
Within all this potential for real-time sharing, however, come very real risks to student privacy. If LinkedIn can figure out whom a person knows and Google can tailor ads based on search, email, and YouTube activity, then students are vulnerable to this same micro-targeting of massive data.
Not too long ago, the primary message of internet safety was the warning about ‘stranger danger’. Current online safety instruction is still too focussed on technology and not behaviour. Teachers need to continually engage in an open dialogue with their students about their roles as stakeholders and leaders in the online culture. While the threat of child predators still obviously exists, the advocacy group ConnectSafely now maintains that, “young people are far more likely to be harmed by peers or the consequences of their own online behaviour than by adult criminals”. Today, when students post personal details on Twitter or tag friends on Instagram, they are broadcasting intimate revelations that can never be withdrawn.
The line between what is public and private becomes blurred, as every disclosure is replicable and scalable by invisible audiences. Potential colleges or employers gain access to possibly unseemly activities, not to mention the embarrassment of having one’s sheepish mistakes or confidential secrets blazoned across the globe. This should not lead educators to avoid using digital media; instead, it opens up opportunities for conversations and ways to monitor online behaviour and usage.
As author Jonathan Strickland notes, Web 3.0 is like having a personal assistant or giant database “who knows practically everything about you”. This digital privacy is a critical currency that must be safeguarded by schools. Interactive Web 3.0 resources demand proactive ways to access tech tools while still preserving learners’ anonymity.
The Live Classroom
In an always-on classroom, learning takes place from the teacher to student, student to student, and student to teacher. Collaborative whiteboards such as Padlet allow information, links, images, and videos to be posted simultaneously. Smore, a tool for fashioning digital fliers, enables students to gather, create, and embed content for publishing.
However, this real-time interactivity comes with a caveat to prevent young users from posting too-revealing details. For example, students should be reminded to only type their first names and last initials as identifiers. Similarly, the “Google trick” can be used for teachers to create one class email account and still distribute unique logins.
Other workarounds can be employed to protect privacy while still allowing for personalised identities so that children feel creative and unique. Besides setting-up username conventions and creating email shortcuts, students can screencap their content instead of creating accounts. They can also generate customised avatars to stand in for their online personal selves.
Shielding Student Identities
Most mobile apps and social networks encourage users to upload personal IDs or photographs. Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs), such as Second Life or Minecraft, also urge participants to create individualised servers and identities. Clever and quirky avatars, therefore, can help students distinguish their profiles while still remaining incognito.
An avatar is a self-designed online icon that represents a user’s virtual self. A signature avatar can give a child pride in his or her project and help personalise a Twitter profile or Tumblr page. Among the array of cartoony avatar generators, though, many require individual accounts or are not safe for school.
Some of the best free avatar tools are: DoppleMe, which offers a range of colors and kid-friendly characters; Bitstrips, which focusses on the nuances of the face; Square Face Icon, which is perfect for younger students; and BuiLD YouR WiLD SeLF, which uses animal features to generate half-human, half-beast images. While all of these are static likenesses, talking avatar generators such as Voki and Tellagami allow for backgrounds, voices and personalisation.
The Citizenship Of Active Learning
Teachers recognise the need for their social savvy youths to demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop products using technology. Their ability to communicate, work collaboratively, and make informed decisions enables them to monitor their behaviour as digital citizens. Educators want students to apply technological prowess to make appropriate online choices and avoid the pressures of new media.
In truth, teachers can only do so much to shelter students from their own activities. Once children become familiar with Twitter in the classroom, it is only a nanosecond until they set up their own home Twitter accounts, on which they can ping celebrities and transmit jejune outbursts. A curriculum of new media literacy is necessary to identify internet scams and to rebut potential spammers. Planet Nutshell is one organisation that offers a valuable range of animated videos about online safety for all grade levels. The titles range from “What Is Personal Information?” to “Posting Pictures Online”.
While today’s collective consumption of knowledge has changed because of technology, learners still need to be able to create it, use it, search it, and share it. Students also need to be able to view their schools not as medieval institutions with stoic views of the world, but instead as gutsy centers of perpetual reinvention and scholarship. As long as Snapchat boasts 400 million images per day, schools cannot restrict its access or prevent students from using everything at their disposal to learn. Teachers need to know how to craft students’ digital portfolios in imaginative, anonymous ways and head off students from rushing in head-first.
The potentials of Web 3.0 are enormous in spite of some pitfalls. If the goal is the student-centred classroom, schools need to loosen the reign and believe in the potential for good behaviour. The hope is that personalised learning will encourage creative interactions and self-directed investigations within a prudent, protected digital approach.
Mercer Hall and Patricia Russac are K-8 teachers and media specialists in Roslyn, New York. They are also the co-founders of The American Society For Innovation Design In Education and co-editors of the ASIDE blog (@theASIDEblog), whose work has been featured in Edutopia, EdTech Magazine, and other outlets. They write about technology and literacy in publications such as ISTE’s Learning & Leading With Technology, EdSurge, and Al Jazeera.
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