Teen Grid Gone. What’s next in Virtual Worlds for Teen Students?

The recent announcement of the discontinuing of the Teen Grid on Second Life and allowing 16 and 17 year olds to register on the Second Life Main grid has sparked much conversation regarding digital responsibility and safety on the Internet and Virtual Worlds.  In conversations with colleagues, educators using the Teen Grid, Second Life residents and students I have some thoughts about what could and maybe should happen.

Operating a secure closed grid was a complicated venture and educational organizations were not exactly flocking to take advantage, for several reasons.  Costly fingerprinting and background checks for people who already have fingerprints and background checks, a reputation for adult content (despite the security and separate grid), and a general lack of knowledge and understanding of VW among educators were all barriers to taking advantage of the the Teen Grid.

One possibility now is for companies who are developing on Opensim or who have already developed Virtual Worlds with a more educational/student focus could fill the void.  Reaction Grid and Kaneva are both viable possibilities.  A safe environment designed for students under the age of 18 where student participation is monitored.  Supervision is key, one educator told me that even on the Teen Grid students figured out how to smuggle in or create inappropriate content (just as they do in the real world).

The second possibility is to use the Main grid on second Life, not a possibility for my district.  Certainly individuals under the age of 18 will now be allowed to register but a school district will not likely be convinced that the SL main grid environment is safe for students and there would be no liability issues.  Students I have talked to about this tell me that “it is boring” and they would rather play World of Warcraft with a pre-defined objective, points and great graphics and action.  Sims devoted to this type of activity may indeed draw some gamer youth, but not for educational purposes.

An electronic border is used to prevent an avatar from entering a restricted area.

If an educational institution does decide to go this route they could develop filters and restrictions to keep students in appropriate locations and to keep intruders out.  Filters would need to be in place to prevent particular activity and content, possible but complicated.

It is a complex issue,  one widely publicized, inappropriate event involving an underage person could set the entire focus of using these environments for purposes of education into a tailspin, not to mention what it could do to the student.  Educators who are interested in and involved with using the virtual environment for education are clearly innovators and are working for the benefit of children.  In their enthusiasm they must not forget safety and security of the students they teach and should ensure the teaching of digital responsibility to their students.

What’s the distinction between Protection from and Prevention of the Net?

The topic of safety on the Internet and protecting children from the perils of the Internet, as well as protecting organizations from possible lawsuits, have been coming up more and more frequently. A few years ago I would encounter the “ACCESS DENIED” screen not more than once every couple of months.  I would even have participants in a training purposely type in a URL that would produce that same screen, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the system keeping children secure and I would also report a site for needed blocking, if I stumbled upon something that was clearly inappropriate.   When encountering ‘the screen‘, I would continue with my work  and possibly check the source I was looking for after hours from my home computer.

Today I encounter the “ACCESS DENIED” screen several times a day and my colleagues report a similar experience.  The firewall is becoming a barrier to research, learning, collaboration and  innovation.  Now I contact the appropriate department requesting adjustment of the site I am trying to get to and  inevitably get the answer that “there is nothing that we can do – the School Board will not allow this site as it is classified as______”.  Are there more inappropriate sites than there used to be?  Are we blocking more than we used to?  Are we screening effectively?  Are we effectively teaching the appropriate use of the Internet?  Has the firewall become a replacement for teacher monitoring and supervision?  Is there a difference between social networking and professional networking?  How are social networking and social bookmarking the same/different?

The advent of social networking and virtual worlds used by the working world have caused me to ponder these questions and push back a little at our well-meaning and disciplined “Internet Police”.  I wonder if the fear of what students MAY encounter has caused us to prevent encounters that could be useful and educational.  Can social networking sites and working in virtual worlds positively impact collaboration and learning?
A government site, http://www.onguardonline.gov/, provides information for parents to know what to look for and to discuss with children regarding safety on the Internet, including social networking and virtual worlds.  Could this be curriculum material for educators to use?   In an ISTE 2010 address Mario Armstrong referred  to school districts blocking of the Internet as the  Locked Net Monster.  Check out the learning today blog for some ideas on teaching digital safety in a k-12 school setting.

I am not suggesting we unlock the firewall to all that is available, just a more thoughtful approach to what could be useful.  An approach that includes academic review, intellectual curiosity and alignment with 21st century skills.  The approach would require diligent supervision by teachers and appropriate preparation for use of the tool that has become ubiquitous, except in the classroom.  In the meantime I’ll do like the kids – use my smartphone, call a friend or wait until I get home to look it up.


Safety In the Virtual World

Keeping students safe is of primary importance.  How to do this effectively and still provide opportunities and experiences that will enrich, motivate and instruct is a challenge that requires planning, development of content and activities and vigilant supervision.  It is easiest to simply block anything that may possibly have some content that is not appropriate, with a firewall.  This protects all students from anything potentially harmful and of course also protects a school system from potential legal action.  The downside to this type of blocking is that A) sites may be erroneously judged B) blocking for an elementary school child is not necessarily the same as blocking for a high school child and C) we are not helping students to discern between useful and appropriate and not useful  and inappropriate.

The careful monitoring and releasing for access of websites or virtual worlds does require time, work, and judgment.  Much of this falls on IT staff and not instructional staff.  IT staff members are typically given parameters for blocking and they apply the firewall to adhere to these parameters.  Instructors and other personnel may request for “unblocking” of specific sites and provide justification.  Ultimately, that decision is made by someone other than the classroom teacher.  For the most part this practice protects the student, the teacher and the school system.

I cannot help but wonder about the learning that  could take place, the guidance that could be provided as technology becomes more ubiquitous in our daily lives.  Should we be using social networking and virtual worlds in our instruction?  Do the benefits outweigh the risks?  Can teachers supervise effectively enough to ensure the appropriate use of these technologies?  Should our instruction include what is available in the world beyond the classroom walls?  Can the technology provide access to some areas for some children?  Are teachers prepared to discern between what is appropriate and what is not?  Can the issue be reviewed holistically?  Certainly everything carries risk – getting on the highway is one of the riskiest activities we have yet we put children in school buses and send them on their way, without seat-belts.  Perhaps we need to develop “seat-belts” for the ride on the Internet rather than blocking all the ramps.  Ultimately we need to prepare our children for a future we do not know, that future includes access to the Internet and the ability to determine value of what is found there.