The Feral User

When did we become responsible for “civilizing” feral users, and why d'esn’t anyone realize the huge responsibility that has been thrust on higher education IT staff?

If you’ve read Lord of the Flies or Tarzan, or ever heard about the Wolf Boy in anthropology class you’re familiar with the spectrum of mythology regarding what young people without adults are capable of getting up to. Tarzan, of course, was remarkably civilized for having been raised by nonhuman animals but those kids in Lord of the Flies were scary.

We’ve almost got a Lord of the Flies situation with our freshman class and its cyberculture. They’ve grown up with access to IT and the Internet and have acculturated in a shadowy, underground cyberworld that is not under adult supervision. And most of them have been exposed to little or no “civilizing” processes with regard to their computer usage – until they come to campus.

Beloit College published the annual Beloit College Mindset List (http://www.beloit.edu/~pubaff/releases/ mindset_2007.html). It makes headlines each fall with items intended to educate college staff about incoming freshmen. Items like: “Bert & Ernie are old enough to be their parents”; “Computers have always fit in their backpacks”; “They have always had a PIN number”; and “There have never been dress codes in restaurants.”

One item I am not sure that I agree with is ““Ctrl + Alt + Del” is as basic as ‘ABC.’” Some of them know that, but others just hit the off button and hold it down until everything stops. And that’s symptomatic of a really huge societal problem. They don’t care about hitting the off button, because if the computer breaks their parents will fix it for them – they don’t see the costs of that. Ditto with the situation on campus.

As recent news items have made clear, our incoming students have an expectation of state-of-the-art connectivity and access. Many of them have spent years by now going home after school and spending hours online doing e-mail, chat, surfing, and also talking with friends on cell phones, simultaneously.

They’ve lived a chunk of their lives inside their computers, but who have they been learning social behavioral norms from? Basically, no one but their peers. So we’ve got something that sometimes looks like a Lord of the Flies situation.

Parents aren’t teaching them, d’oh! Sure, a handful of conscientious parents spend time showing kids computer basics – more likely they go to their kids when they get a new toy and ask the kids to learn how to use it and show them. Few parents spend any time at all monitoring their teenagers’ online behaviors and connections and those who do are largely frustrated and lack a real grasp of what g'es on. In my own household, we had a rule that computers capable of going online had to be in a room adjacent to and within sight of where the parents spend their time, and our teenagers stuck to that. That let me occasionally get a glimpse into the teenager cyberworld, but only a glimpse . . . and what I saw was often scary.

How about their teachers in middle school and high school? What a joke! The K-12 world is pathetically hopeless about IT, and especially about student usage of the Internet. There is a complete lack of funding, teacher training, or focus. Even those school systems which are giving students laptops – every 6th grader in Michigan is getting a laptop, for example – don’t really know what to do with them. Teachers and K-12 administrators almost universally find it impossible to deal with because it is uncontrollable, and K-12 is all about control.

It’s no wonder that we find students with a completely different morality with regard to P-to-P file sharing and other related intellectual property issues. And that we have students who think nothing of writing worms or viruses that will cause (mostly) adults problems. I could tell you stories about how they harass, stalk, and emotionally attack each other using IT that would curl your hair, but that’s for another article.

So, we get these kids and we – for reasons that have to do with education, research, and the desire to attract the students to our campuses in the first place – give them an even better cyber playground than they had before. And, of course, after being on vacation all summer with even less supervision, doing all sorts of unsafe computing, they come back and we have to create the IT equivalent of a cyber health strike force to get them healthy again. We’re just at the point where a handful of schools have a few hours, maybe, of required sit-in-lecture indoctrination about not stealing music files and not clicking on unknown attachments in e-mail. The good news is that we may have reached some sort of critical threshold this academic year where the student body is as a whole cognizant that safe computing is important because it affects their ability to be connected and do the things they’ve become used to doing.

Let’s take advantage of that. We were forced into a huge, focused outreach and we spent a lot of money we really didn’t have. But we’re going to save a lot more money if we spend more on educating these students about cyber responsibility. And it may even be that we have a society-wide responsibility to do so.

The fact is that graduating college students comfortable with information technology tools and their safe use, is as important for the future of modern civilization as graduating primary school students who can read well. In either case it’s “literacy,” and important!

But no one’s doing it. Their parents didn’t. Their schools didn’t. The formal curriculum at our colleges and universities won’t.

Yet we need them to learn about how to be responsible participants in cyberspace – and so do the companies and organizations that will be employing them when they are graduates of our institutions. But we aren’t requiring classes in computer user behavior and we’re not likely to. Our institutions, despite the swerve in recent years away from liberal education, have not shown an inclination to spend a lot of time teaching practical things like personal hygiene or its cyber-equivalent.

Recent students have shown that our institutional leaders, even in difficult financial times, think investments in IT are important. Recent columns in this series have made the point that we need to take more responsibility for things like providing our students with antiviral software.

Maybe we need to do even more, we being IT staff. Maybe we need to consciously accept responsibility for taking in our freshman class of feral users each year and within four years turn them into responsible cybercitizens.

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