I've started to think about how important the internet is in spreading ideas very quickly at virtually no cost, something Seth Godin refers to as "digital gifts". I've also started to think more about whether or not we are doing our students a disservice by keeping much of what they are doing within the "walled garden" of the school domain. Many of the excellent things they are doing with technology should really start to form part of their own digital footprints. I wonder, if by insisting on anonymity when we publish student work, we are actually hindering the creation of their digital footprint. If the only things that are found about them are inappropriate photos on Facebook, for example, rather than evidence of real work and achievements that have been completed at school, what impression are these students making on their digital footprint?
There is a lot of talk about keeping children safe online and therefore not publishing names and photographs. Recently I've also read a number of reports about how the dangers of online predators has been over-exaggerated. Of course, there is some danger, and one of the things we do as teachers is to educate our students how to stay safe and to keep others safe. But compared with the dangers of teen drink-driving or drug taking, for example, or even being hurt or abused by someone they actually know, I would imagine the chances of being harmed by an online predator is much less.
When I first started teaching I was involved in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme at a school in England. Students who completed their gold award got to go to London and be presented with it by Prince Philip. The school was very proud of these achievements and the full names and ages of the students and where they lived was always published in the local papers. Their photos appeared too. I can't remember anyone at that time thinking that it was dangerous to publish this information to the local community or that this would increase the chances of these students becoming targets.
Getting back to the idea of digital gifts, I started to think about all the positive things students can do online and the audience that they can reach. A gift is something that is given away for free. Godin writes about how the artist Monet gave gifts of his paintings to his friends, and other paintings he sold, yet now these paintings are hanging in art galleries and museums where they can be seen for free or for a small donation by millions. It is these millions appreciating the art that means we now call Monet a great artist and we can all share in his gift.
Godin writes about trade (for money) and gifts (for free). A good example is open source software, used now by millions of people for free. Another example could be Wikipedia or even Facebook. I know I appreciate the digital gifts I receive when I look at photos on Flickr or watch music videos on YouTube. Godin says "the power lies in the creation of abundance", for example the more people who use the internet, the better it works. He also writes that the giver usually comes out further ahead, which is surprising because he also says it's not necessary to reciprocate a gift as this involves keeping score and monetizing the gift - but gifts don't have to cost money, most of the time they just cost time and effort.
Why do people spend so much time and effort creating digital gifts? Most probably do it because they want feedback, they want to connect with others. They do it because it's fun and they enjoy it. When I think about most of the things I do outside of school, yet connected with education, these are not things that anyone has told me to do. When I skype with a teacher in another country and help him or her with something, I'm happy to do it for free. When I present at conferences, nobody pays me to do it, but I enjoy connecting and sharing what I do with others and learning from them in turn. When I make a website with resources on for students to use, I'm happy to give them something useful. When I write a blog and share tools with the teachers at my school I'm pleased when they find them helpful for their students. Basically I'm motivated to do a good job, even when these things are not recognised as my job and I'm always amazed at the wider impact. The small resources blog I update for our teachers weekly has been viewed thousands of times - and more than half of these views are by people who are not even living in the country where I teach. This audience creates the chance to share a digital gift, and this audience then amplifies the gift by sharing it with others.
The interesting thing I've gone on to read is that it doesn't matter if people don't want your gift. Godin talks about buskers. Many people walk by them who don't want or value the gift. The busker carries on performing - he or she doesn't change what he's doing or run after the passers-by. Other people choose to stop and watch or interact with the performer. Godin writes "Great work is not created for everyone. If it were, it would be average work." What does the audience give back to the busker - well sometimes money, but often just time or thanks and respect, the things money can't buy. I'm sure this is why lots of people blog - it's for the feedback, for the connections, for the respect - when you get those things you continue to blog, to tweet, to share your gifts, to amplify others' gifts. In the real world, if the busker, who is giving away his or her gift for free, does not get respect or thanks, then clearly it's time to move on to a different street and find a different audience.
Update: What a coincidence - right after I'd published this post I noticed the upcoming #elemchat was about digital footprints. I'd now like to add on the comment from @whatedsaid which I think is important to consider as we teach students about their online presence:
if teachers don't have a digital footprint themselves, how can they teach students to build positive ones?
Photo Credit: African musicians by Jason le Froy