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During the pandemic, not all students have had reliable access to the broadband connections that make remote learning possible. Without broadband at home, students are forced to connect to their lessons from McDonald’s parking lots in the Mississippi Delta or from churches in rural Nebraska. In Arizona, some students drive across town to access Wi-Fi “beamed” from specially equipped school buses, while in Appalachia, one student has to connect from mountaintops near her home, above the treeline where there is better cellular signal.
The benefits of bringing broadband access to students at home are indisputable. However, gaining that access may impact students’ and families’ privacy. As we have covered, student privacy may be implicated by collecting and sharing data to provide those connections or by the settings on the devices provided by schools.
The Need for Digital Literacy Training for Connected Students
Those privacy implications, however, do not end once students are connected. By bringing connections to students’ homes, schools risk introducing new forms of digital intrusions into their online experiences. Intrusions into “seclusion” (personal spaces such as homes and backyards) have long been recognized as a violation of an individual’s right to privacy. As seen during the pandemic, some of those intrusions can come from outside the school, such as strangers “zoombombing” online classrooms by appearing in video conferences and displaying swastika tattoos or child sexual abuse material. Other intrusions can come from within the learning environment. Students have the capacity to take advantage of online learning platforms to bully one another with racist usernames or harassing comments on shared documents.
Schools can address intrusions by preparing students to minimize them with digital literacy training. Digital literacy training equips students with the skills to evaluate media and messaging for bias and harassment, to proactively protect their privacy, and to understand the risks—and benefits—of engaging online. Digital literacy training is particularly important for newly connected students, as studies have shown that students without broadband access at home have lower digital skills in navigating communication online.
One federal law passed in 2008 requires schools receiving funds under the FCC’s E-Rate program to “educat[e] minors about appropriate online behavior, including interacting with other individuals on social networking websites and in chat rooms and cyberbullying awareness and response.” The FCC declined to define “cyberbullying” or “social networking” or to “detail specific procedures or curriculum for schools,” but instead determined that Congress left those decisions to schools and local authorities. The FCC did, however, point to a number of resources that may help schools build their digital literacy programs: the FTC’s OnGuard Online program provides resources for students and educators. Those resources include a booklet for students, and an in-depth guide for adults, on their roles in helping navigate the online world. Other resources are available through organizations such as the public-private partnership Stop Think Connect, and the nonprofit Common Sense Media. Those resources are a sound starting point for schools to develop digital literacy curricula for their students.
In providing connections to students at home, schools are providing students with new opportunities. However, in providing those connections, schools should ensure that students have the digital literacy training to navigate their newly connected worlds.