Myths of Technology Series: “Don’t Talk To Strangers”

For ISTE 2014 in Atlanta, I will be presenting on the “Myths of Technology and Learning”. As I am really thinking about what I will be sharing at the conference, I wanted to write a series of blog posts that will help myself and others “rethink” some of these statements or arguments that you hear in relation to technology in school. I will be writing a series of blog posts on different myths, and will be posting them on this page. I hope to generate discussion on these topics to further my own learning in this area and appreciate any comments you have on each idea shared.

As kids, we were continuously told “don’t talk to strangers”, and this generation has been told the same thing. Times have changed and we have to really rethink this notion.

If you really think about it, everyone you are close with now was a stranger at one point. Not only does that notion come to play, but as adults, we have to realize that it is much more common for people to meet someone online first. Online dating has moved away from being “taboo”, it has become the norm. If you took it even further, many people probably meet friends online first. My time connecting online, has actually helped me to connect with some of my best friends in the world. Similar to online dating, many of these friends that I have become closest with have a list of qualities that I was drawn to that I may not have necessarily met if I was only open to “offline” connections.

Kids are also starting to create those environments for themselves as well. Danah Boyd discusses in her book on “Networked Teens”, how kids are using social media to connect with peers that have similar interests. One example I have seen was a student in a small community who had a unique interest in gaming, use his Instagram account to connect with other gamers. None of these people were in his class, and could have lived in different countries, yet they were all people that this student identified with and gave him a sense of belonging. There are many kids in our schools that would benefit from a sense of belonging.

As I continue to do workshops with students, I have continuously asked them, “How many of you have met someone online first, and then met offline. Years ago, my guess would be that the percentage would be very low, but I consistently get above half of the room raising their hands. I would also guess that several students chose not to raise their hands because they have been continuously told that this is something that they shouldn’t do, while we as adults, continue to do this ourselves. Safety should always be our number one concern, so if we are going to help kids be safe in a networked world, we have to think differently.

One suggestion that I have given students is that they have connected with someone online that they want to meet in person, they should talk to their parents first and arrange a video chat with their mom or dad in the room. Not hovering over their shoulder, but so that it is obvious that the parent is present. They could arrange to meet somewhere where their parent drops them off, and is around. Obviously this depends upon the age of the child, and some still might scoff at the idea, but it is a lot safer than pretending this could never happen and covering our eyes. We have to start thinking about different approaches to keep our kids safe in such a networked world.

Many educators, such as Kelli Holden from Parkland School Division, understand the power there is connecting with “strangers” and has focused on modelling the power of social media with her students, which has made a tremendous impact on their learning. Using a classroom Twitter account, Kelli will ask questions of the “world” that are often developed with her students, and they will learn a great deal about the rest of the world. Using the hashtag, #whatsdoesyourspringlike, her students displayed a picture of the weather outside in Spruce Grove, Alberta, Canada, and received responses from around the world, including Palm Springs, Washington, Norway , Tokyo, amongst many others. If we want our students to have a “global awareness”, we have to teach them how to safely connect with others.

If I think about my experience with a subject such as science, I remember losing interest quickly. This lack of passion for the subject probably spilled over to my own students in my first few years of teaching, as I never really understood or developed a love for the subject. But now, with the ability to connect with biologists, physicists, astronauts, or even classes around the world, there is an opportunity to learn about science from “scientists”.

If we let our notion of what a “stranger” is and decide not to connect with these people, we are taking away tremendous opportunities from our students. Instead of the idea that we “shouldn’t talk to strangers”, maybe we need to focus on Bill Nye’s notion that “everyone you meet knows something you don’t” and teach our students how to be safe in a world that is powerfully connected.