Educators address the digital dilemma |

Educators address the digital dilemma

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” When Basalt Middle School Principal Jeremy Voss watches the playground at lunch, he sees groups gathered around hand-held devices, engaging in multi-player games over the school’s wireless network.

He said it concerns him that students are playing video games instead of exercising, but he acknowledges that “the technology is pretty cool.” And some pundits would argue the game-players are learning important skills, like peer-to-peer learning and the use of virtual reality.

These days, many local parents and educators say they worry about helping children navigate the digital world.

And the rapidly changing nature of technology ” along with the fact that parents didn’t grow up with today’s toys ” adds a challenge, they say.

“It feels overwhelming to protect your child from technological advances sometimes,” Aspen parent Marilyn Seltzer said.

And today’s adults may be singularly ill-equipped to help children navigate emerging technology, said Aspen Middle School Principal Tom Heald. Heald said some research argues children born after 1996 “really have a native understanding of technology. Whereas the rest of us come from a more immigrant understanding of technology.”

If that theory is true, the “digital divide” throws a wrench into the conventional wisdom that adults should be deciding what students learn.

“You can’t take a non-native English speaker and have them teach English,” Heald said.

On the flip side, parents and many local adults are in agreement that adults should help children navigate issues around technology.

Fortunately, criminal incidences involving technology are low locally. Aspen schools Superintendent Diana Sirko remembered just three incidences of bullying e-mails in the last five years. Aspen Police Officer Matt Burg counted just a few incidences locally of a minor meeting up with an internet acquaintance.

But many adults cite concerns over less obvious dangers, such as possible future harm because of a failure to properly manage one’s Facebook profile, or “virtual self.”

“We’re trying to remind students that when they interview for college or jobs, people are checking,” Sirko said.

Chris Durham, technology coordinator for the Aspen School District, noted that just two years ago the reaction from parents and schools was to block and discourage emerging technology.

Now the district is backing away from that attitude. Instead, Durham pushes responsible use and finding academic uses for new technology.

Sirko said when MySpace emerged, the district decided to block it. Almost immediately, Facebook emerged.

“You’re not going to be able to be reactive enough to block everything, so you have to be able to teach kids how to use it responsibly,” she said.

And when the next digital craze crops up among teenagers, Durham hopes to be proactive. Last week, Durham created a student advisory committee to help him stay abreast of popular new technology.

“We have teachers with incredible life experience, some with Ph.Ds, but in many cases, technology is where kids surpass the teachers,” Durham said.

For younger students, educational professionals preach monitoring.

“There’s really no reason why kids should have a wireless laptop in their bedroom,” said Heald.

Burg recommended that parents set up their own pages on MySpace or Facebook and become friends with their children.

Voss suggested parents check the contents of text messages. Like e-mail, texting capabilities allow one mean message about a student to be forwarded indefinitely, he noted.

Local education professionals also cautioned parents to help kids set screen-time limits. Both Voss and Aspen Community School principal Jim Gilchrist said students who fail to finish homework often admit they have spent the evening watching television or playing video games.

But a recent MacArthur Foundation study of children and technology, hailed as the largest of its kind, cautions parents ” even as they counsel ” to respect their children’s digital learning.

Heald agrees.

“You don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said.

“There are myths about kids spending time online, that it is dangerous or making them lazy,” said MacArthur study author Mizuko Ito. “But we found that spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.”

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