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Internet Courage: Is This the Biggest Challenge Facing School Leaders?

By Megel Barker
Internet Courage: Is This the Biggest Challenge Facing School Leaders?

About twenty years ago, I happened to observe an almost 180-degree behavioral transformation in one of my closest friends as a passenger in his car. We had just finished school and my car was in for its annual service and I needed a lift to the nearest taxi station. This was pre-UBER, specifically, the fall of 1998, a time when getting a lift to get a cab was paradoxically the way the world functioned. As we pulled out of the school gates to join the ongoing traffic on the main road, a driver unwilling to yield, almost crashed into us. With both sides of the argument seeming based on the discourtesy of the other driver. I observed my normally staid and professionally composed colleague launch into a verbal tirade, discordant with his otherwise debonair image, before hitting the gas pedal and speeding off. This was my first personal encounter with the phenomenon of road rage.

Recently, as I sought a parallel experience to understand the nature of my students’ conduct as they navigate the Omniverse of social media, I reflected on this distant memory. In the internet space, I had observed my otherwise well-behaved students demonstrate almost a split personality when they communicated in their online spaces. Words, phrases, thoughts and opinions that would never be aired in a public space were given full freedom in the various platforms to hurt, discourage, destroy, and humiliate their peers. The language, the insensitivity, the callousness, and the lack of empathy observed when the transcripts and or screenshots were laid across my desk compelled me to consider my students’ conduct in harmony with the fearless responses of people who fire a verbal volley of invectives and drive off from strangers. Was this a weird courage typology?

I raised this observation with my dear friend Dr Joseph Williams, a Seattle school principal, wondering if the issues were similar in American public schools as I had noticed in my international school. As I shared the latest incident and outlined my confusion with the alter-egos evident in my students’ online behavior he shared a phrase that I had not heard before. He said, “Megel, they are showing internet courage!” The descriptive phrase was immediately resonant with me. I had tried without success to describe the bravado that my students showed online but struggled to find a phrase that captured the essence of their actions so aptly. Subsequent to the conversation, I decided to research the term, assuming that the phrase was ubiquitous, and I was the one out of the loop. To my surprise, “internet courage” was widely used as a description for adult behavior but nothing in my cursory trawl connected student behavior in online spaces with this newly observed pubescent machismo. Internet courage? Were my students displaying internet courage?

Couple this phenomenon with the onset of COVID in the past eighteen months and it is demonstrably clear that our students are being courageous online in the absence of physical experiences of society’s mores. Where there was an upswing in the “internet courage,” moral courage had taken a backseat. For educators dealing with issues germinating online but flowering in the school playground daily, how might we relay our values, when we are not present in the group chats to enforce them? How might we enculture a resurgence of moral courage so children can police themselves? Has a full swing to learning online exacerbated this conduct?

With the onset of the information age, one would have assumed that educators and policymakers would have anticipated the inevitable challenges students would face. Yet, despite evidence that technology integration would become a real challenge for schools in the 21st century, educators seemed relatively unprepared for the obstacles facing our students and the impact this new addition has on student conduct in and out of school. As we shifted curricular focus to 21st century skills, might we consider cyber-ethical conduct as well?

The curriculum we offer at my school encourages our students to be courageous, take risks, and demonstrate moral courage, yet a group of students observe their peers bullying, harassing, and humiliating others but remain silent, even while remaining in the groups. When faced with the evidence of their passive support for bullying, they agree that they needed to be more courageous. But how do they combat the bravado of their peers without now becoming the object of their wrath?

Bailey (1996) unveiled ten areas that required understanding about technology integration. The ten understandings that were deemed critical for technology integration prior to the new millennium were: change, technology planning, teaching/learning, ethics, safety and security, staff development, technical support, curriculum, infrastructure, and technology leadership. Bailey’s work may seem dated but the challenges or “buttons” he outlined that needed pressing for sound technology integration are still relevant nearly three decades later. Reading through this now seemingly prophetic article would seem it was written only a few years ago. The reason, despite its age, is that even with the rapid change of technology in today’s world and since his writing, the issues are still omnipresent in many education systems. In that sense, the work is timeless. Bailey identified the contemporary issue in education as technology integration in schools. Contemporary then and contemporary now!

Yet technology integration inadequately defines the phenomenon being experienced in schools worldwide. It only shines a light on the area without fully illuminating the real challenge facing schools globally. With the advance of technology in the educational environment, teaching has been improved and more learners can be better supported for success. However, an important area that seems to be left to chance is the development of digital citizenship in students. This represents a real challenge for educators who are behooved to introduce technology but have yet to work out a formula that fully anticipates how students would (should?) behave in the new educational landscape. Bailey’s (1996) button on ethics is now so meaningful in today’s world.

Ribble (2011) questioned whether the ubiquity of technology for students is being matched by supportive networks to ensure that they can function safely in the new paradigm. Ribble (2011) offered nine elements to digital citizenship highlighting the issues that emerge through research. He identified bullying as connected to online commerce sites, students communicating during normal classes and during test using texting software, students being unaware of rules and responsibilities of using social media sites, students downloading copyright materials, students bypassing firewalls using coding skills, students using information available on the net without acknowledging sources, and students failing to protect their identity when using social media. Ribble (2011) considered these so critical for educational policy that he advocated their infusion in the curriculum in explicit ways.

As technology advanced, our students advanced with its power. As digital natives, with digital immigrant parents and teachers, they are always ahead of the game with new ways of circumventing school rules and home expectations. Young people view this ability to outwit the system or their parents as the expected behavior. The question is whether technology brings not only its infrastructural challenge but also a moral one. Might there be a need for a cyber ethical literacy? Mayes, Natividad, and Michael-Spector (2015) identified the redefined and refined role of teachers, one of which is to recognize and address issues of cyber bullying behavior and called for modified teacher training programs to not only focus on technology itself but on the impact on the behavior of students.

Four years ago, as acting middle school principal I was faced with the most complex problem imaginable. The problem I faced involved students being unbelievably abusive to each other in a social media chatroom. The concern I had was not the behavior itself, students’ behavior at that age takes many forms, rather I was concerned with the language, the impersonal nature of the discourse, as well as the utter shock students revealed when faced with a transcript of their conduct. While I had to mete out consequences using our mission as the guide, it was patently clear that our schooling had not prepared them for this scenario and our school rules were not flexible enough to accommodate the new paradigm. Or did not seem to pierce the forcefield of the group chats enough to affect moral thinking and action. Teachers in the middle, were unsure of how to proceed while parents were clueless. How did we get here? A strong mission had been the glue in students’ real-world conduct yet, in social media settings students were let loose without morals. Might we bear some responsibilities?

Now as a principal, not only am I concerned with solving the problem at hand, I am also seeking sustainable approaches to combat the urges of Internet Courage.

Internet courage manifests itself in several ways:

a) Use of excessive expletives online but not in real life

b) Explicit memes posted in group chats

c) Sexist, racist, homophobic threats and slurs when communicating online in groups

d) Sharing of pornographic material in groups

A student embodying internet courage would make bold posts in groups that are opposite to the life they lead and the homes they live in. Many times, parents express shock at the level of abuse their child has vomited at someone online. When faced with the text of their conduct online, very few double down on their action, in fact they reveal shame and often break down. Interestingly, I am yet to deal with a student that implies that someone else made them do it. However, most of the action is geared towards gaining popularity – some pressure. With no restraining or brooding adult presence, students feel unencumbered to modify their comments or attacks as they feel embolden by the distance, and anonymity the internet seemingly provides. Internet courage in students is an area that admins need to address.

One challenge that we faced was that the deplorable conduct often did not happen on campus. How might we address conduct off site, on student’s personal device and among friendship within and without our school walls? How responsible are schools for students’ behavior that happen between 4 pm and 6 am? Is our mission expected to address this conduct? Schools grapple with this issue daily. The ethical argument under the ethic of critique (Shapiro & Stefkovic, 2016) provides a theoretical lens for analysis. With the child at the center, educators should act fairly and morally. Ribble (2015) argued that educators need to be anticipating the challenges and prepare students with digital citizenship lessons. In the real world, the behavior codes, the ethics are set by society. Parents and teachers represent the standards for students to emulate. In that sense, students know how to act and act within approved norms. In a chat room, with no role models except peers, who sets the behavior framework? Or importantly, what is the moral standard? How might students be prepared to handle these inevitably unfamiliar settings? Do schools have a role to play in this issue which is really one of and for our time?

Laws have struggled to keep up, with schools in Western settings handcuffed with legal obstacles considering whether the breach happened on site or off site. With cyber activities quite likely to happen on weekends but involving students, can schools really ignore immoral or unethical behavior due to its temporality and locality? Would this be an abdication of responsibility? Certainly, parents expect schools to act, but will schools find support in law? There have been cases in the US where schools were legally barred from acting on bullying incidents that happened off site. The rulings suggest that unless the issue is clearly affecting school behavior then schools are limited in the consequences and must consider the scope of their rules. Paget (2013), a lawyer in the US writing for Education World confirmed that different states have rules outlining how school can respond to offsite online behavior. Even in the states where it was outlawed, the courts weighed on whether the behavior affected in-school life to determine the scope for administrators. If a country like the US has struggled, what say the rest of the world? As a global trend, this issue will require more thinking. Abdullahi (2010) asserted that the fundamental goal of global education is ensuring students are prepared for interconnected and interdependent worlds. Students will have to be taught how to behave online if they want to be stakeholders in the global marketplace.

International schools have the access to technology. Students in most international schools will be ardent social media users. But is there a set of standards that guide schools’ policymaking and provide support for student behavior? The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards include digital citizenship amongst its standards (ISTE, 2018). The standards promote the need for students to be engaged and conscientious global citizens and to be empathetic, respectful and ethical online. Additionally, the standards highlight the need to guard privacy while online. So, if these standards are considered to be the global expectations, how will teachers be prepared to lead learning in this future.

Schools are notoriously deficient at providing meaningful professional development for the “core” function of teaching, so with that record how will this issue be resolved using an already dire framework? The real issue we face is that as we prepare students for a future of ethical ambiguity online, we miss the opportunity to equip them with the skills due to a poor professional development framework. This is indeed a global challenge with the manifestation more prevalent now in Western more developed countries but will be the central focus as more countries become more open to technology. The challenge we face is how might a digital citizenry be nurtured in students?

Darling- Hammond, Hyler, and Gardner (2017) provided a synthesis of research in effective professional development and stressed the need for seven components. These seven components are: content focused, active learning, collaborative, utilizes models of effective practice, coaching and mentoring, reflective, and of sustained duration. To address this critical issue of teaching digital citizenship, schools will need to ensure that the professional development of staff include these considerations (Mayes, Natividad & Michael-Spector, 2015). Masrom, Mahmood, and Zainon (2015) found that experiences on the internet affected student behavior and recommended that teachers be trained. The authors studied the relationship between cyber ethics and internet behavior and found some connections with behavioral intentions and internet use.

Administrators when organizing the professional development sessions on engendering digital citizenship should ensure that the content is discussed in detail, teachers participate in case study analysis, and indeed of a sustained duration. The most common perceptions of professional development in schools are a short-term view with a one-off session conducted and a box ticked. If teachers believe that administrators deem digital citizenship in students as a goal, then time, trust and tools will be devoted to the success.

So how do we address the issue of internet courage amongst our student population? For one, I talk about it. In my discussions with students who are facing disciplinary consequences, I enlighten them on the phenomenon and allow them to process the idea that internet behavior is not a separate facet of their life. Through dialogue, I encourage them to consider stories of people who are now being held to account for internet conduct in the past. They are asked to reflect on how their group chat behavior could affect them as they seek employment or seek business partners. So far, my students are getting the message as I am yet to deal with a recidivist.

Additionally, assembly and advisory content has been buttressed to open the conversation and educate students about cyber ethical conduct. Using the opportunities for in class dialogues and sharing, we are compelling our students to understand themselves and each other. In a recent Niqash discussion, with a group of students, I introduced the term, Internet Courage. Within a second, one girl in the class pointed to someone and highlighted him as a student exhibiting that conduct. So, I believe, that an open conversation with students is a starting point.

In conclusion, the contemporary issue that has been analyzed is the level of preparedness that teachers have in a fast-changing technology space to handle matters of digital citizenry. With students having more and more access to technology and schools actively encouraging this direction, it is vital that controls are put in place to teach and guide students about what kinds of behaviors are approved of in the cyber space. Without role models interacting with students in this space, students copy the behavior of the popular students, also called influencers, leading to a separate personality for online and another for “real” world connections. This presents a real challenge in the future if student behavior is being shaped online. Especially as more online activity will be the norm, the risk is that this deviant behavior may become their “actual” personality. Schools will need to ensure that a resolute focus on explicitly teaching digital citizenship is apparent and unambiguous to at least mitigate against its negative effects. It is in this area, a mindful professional development mantra will let the expectations stick, prepare teachers for scenarios, and equip teachers with the efficacy to challenge this conduct.

As technology is constantly changing, the paradigms will shift. Humans, with the need for ethical practice will need to find explicit needs to preserve acceptable behavior despite the difficulty posed. The contemporaneous nature of this issue is relevant now and will be in the future.

Megel is the Middle School Principal at ABA Oman International School. 

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05/02/2022 - Dr. Dwayne Dyce
This article is direct and sufficient for all of us to see the problems and to make changes! This has added value the educational arena's discussions on what to change and how to change the landscape of technology integration!
Thanks Dr. Barker

04/30/2022 - Sally
Excellent well-written and researched article, which is thought-provoking and a call to action.