Sense & Clickability

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Having been asked by Campus Technology a couple of months ago to think a lot about student risk-taking behavior, especially online, I've collected quite a set of interesting links.  For example, a senior at Boston University started the magazine, Boink, which solicits real students to "portray" sexual behavior ("soft porn"). Its tagline is: "College sex by the people having it." Oh, BTW, don't visit  that site if you're at work. It is what is known as "NSFW" (Not Safe for Work). At Harvard University, H BOMB publishes articles, fiction, poetry, and art about sex, sexuality, and related topics. Tagline: "Don't believe the hype; read it for the articles."

So, college student-aged human beings do some pretty stupid and potentially unsafe things. There's nothing new about that observation. That's why wars are mostly fought by the young: Everyone else is smart enough to let young enthusiasts "portray" cannon fodder in places like Iraq and Vietnam. It bears noting, though, that neither of the magazines mentioned here have much of a substantial on line presence, which I hope indicates that the students portrayed are at least smart enough not to license their images for Internet display. (Although, like I said, you could get into trouble at work just from viewing the front page of Boink.) And, H BOMB appears to have only published a single issue, in 2005.

Age and responsibility
Although most college students would deny me the memory, I can close my eyes and recall what it felt like to be "lectured" by older people about ethical things. I also retain from those years a strong resistance to not considering an 18-year-old an adult, although I find myself more and more frequently referring to my work-study students as "kids," something I'm trying to get under control as it is not only potentially offensive to them but dangerous to me.

However, recent brain imaging research funded by the National Institutes of Health "suggests that the region of the brain that inhibits risky behavior is not fully formed until age 25, a finding with implications for a host of policies, including the nation's driving laws." That's a daunting finding, and might just become the motivator for not only more in loco parentis action by colleges and universities but for more (and better) early training about risky online behaviors.

In my research, the best piece of writing about actual online risk-taking prevention I have seen, and which I highly recommend, is an ECAR Research Bulletin titled "Teaching Digital Responsibility." It describes a first-semester, required credit course taken by all Carnegie Mellon University students called the "Computing Skills Workshop." You can view more about the Computing Skills Workshop at its website.

The course is peer to peer taught, and the most pertinent section to my recent thinking is:
Responsible Computing. Bandwidth, academic integrity, and copyright guidelines are covered in this session. It includes a section that explains safe and secure use of social networking sites such as Facebook. We present recorded case scenarios, review related policies and guidelines, and facilitate discussions to enhance the comprehension of students' responsibilities. (p. 3)
This section of the course used to be called "Ethics." The students, as measured through evaluations, responded well to a new title (and new process) of "Responsible Computing." That change included "providing students not only with practical, real-life examples on how to behave responsibly in the Carnegie Mellon community but also what to look for and how to address questions in other situations." (p. 7)

Ethics (or maybe just consequences ...)
On the Responsible Computing Workshop site you can see nearly all of the class materials, including video of a number of "scenarios," which are supplemented with additional readings and discussed in small groups (12 students). These include:
  • A scenario where a student ignores warnings about overlarge file transfers and then loses access for 45 days;
  • A scenario where a student uses part of a report from her first year to bolster a later class report and is found out;
  • A scenario where a student gets an RIAA subpoena and loses access for 45 days; and
  • A scenario where a student rants on Facebook about how crappy a job interview went, and how terrible the company really is, and learned later that she was going to be offered the internship until the recruiter saw her Facebook post.
I truly can't imagine being a student and losing online access for 45 days during the middle of a semester. It must be a terrible situation, and, frankly, I wonder how often such penalties are really imposed and to what extent. But these do sound like excellent scenarios for students to "think" through rather than "live" through.

Likewise, the Facebook scenario is better viewed virtually than lived through. A recent Newsweek Kaplan College Guide article should probably also be in the required readings. In it, Laurie Sybel of Vermont University is said to advise students to "treat a Facebook page as though it were a resume...." I'm not so sure that doesn't take the "fun" edge off of having a Facebook page, though. Actually, the more I think about this, the more I think about how that would feel like writing one of those "bragging Christmas letters" that your family may enjoy poking fun at each year.

As an adult, I have felt stymied when I try to use MySpace, Facebook, and other, similar sites. Maybe that's because I am an adult, a little wiser about the kinds of things that can happen when one part of your life spills over into another. Every time I think about starting a blog or really getting my Facebook or MySpace site going, I end up feeling like several split personalities: Do I really want my professional friends and colleagues that attuned to my views on religion and politics? Do I really want my disc golfing buddies to know how boring I can be when I write professionally?

Maybe it's because a part of their brains is not quite finished developing. Who knows? But universities and colleges that want to ensure the best for their body of alums may need to find some space in the already-squeezed curricula for more about "responsible computing."
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