Vernon Christian School computer teacher Jay Donaldson works on lesson plans in the school’s computer lab. The classes use the Petra’s Planet for Schools social media platform to teach students in Grades 5 and 6 to use the internet safely for school and personal projects.

Vernon Christian School computer teacher Jay Donaldson works on lesson plans in the school’s computer lab. The classes use the Petra’s Planet for Schools social media platform to teach students in Grades 5 and 6 to use the internet safely for school and personal projects.

Keeping kids safe on social media

Computer teacher Jay Donaldson connects Vernon Christian School students through Petra’s Planet

Jay Donaldson has watched computer and then internet use in schools grow over his past 25 years of teaching.

“I graduated from the University of Calgary with a major in early childhood development and a minor in computers which wasn’t that relevant at the time. I’d always enjoyed working with kids and teaching Sunday School, even before we had our own family,” said Donaldson, who made the career change after starting as a gas fitter.

He helped students and families as home computers became more common and were used in the school, taking as many workshops as he could to improve his teaching on the subject.

“I always thought about how I could use computers to enhance learning and give the students skills they could use for their whole lives,” he said.

“Now I find, particularly in the last four years, that students bring iPods, cell phones and play stations to school and are able to go on the internet, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks when they want.

“I was talking to a friend in the police force who told me about the problems with sexual predators and other issues like bullying online and I knew we should be doing something to help kids understand what they are doing when they go online and interact with people.”

He wanted young people to know how to protect themselves and others online and to get the best from positive aspects of the internet world. He polled his students about their internet access and use and found that about half the students ages 10 to 12 had easy access and take their devices everywhere with them. Parents may know their children have Facebook accounts but not about other, secret accounts.

“I asked them how they learned to go on the internet, who to talk to, how to post pictures and most of them said from friends, older siblings, experimenting and what they learned at school. Few parents seemed to help them or have any input to internet use, although some families had rules and supervised internet use,” said Donaldson.

“We were teaching computer use at school at the appropriate grade levels but more the learning aspect. I thought it was time to be teaching wider skills, for example how innocent postings or photos can affect them later on when it comes to education or employment opportunities. They need to know how to find out if what they see online is true, and other basic skills.”

Donaldson found a software program designed for students, Petra’s Planet for Schools social media platform. The program mimics the internet with features like email, chat, cameras, sending photos, sharing blogs and shopping online.  Students can not leave the program and can use it only under the supervision of the teacher. He used it as a pilot program last year.

“The kids liked it and it encouraged conversation with the parents about appropriate internet use. Petra’s Planet is used in four countries around the world and I’m looking forward to connecting with other schools which use it so we can do things like the modern version of pen pals. The program lets teachers talk with students about how they use social media and to discuss issues like bullying or inappropriate comments or photos. I tell them, ‘You don’t have to post everything you think.’ We discuss the meanings of post and how to think about posts so that they say what you mean. Teaching social media gives me another avenue to talk to kids about the things in their lives.”

He remains concerned that parents may think their child would never misuse or be mislead by social media and don’t know what their children are doing, but said this is something that can happen to anyone.

“As a parent, you hope what you teach children will prepare them for life and social media is part of our world now and everyone needs to know how to use it. We teach the concepts so that the students can make informed decisions. I had one student tell me last year that he had never thought about the consequences of internet use before and now he will. It’s a very gratifying subject to teach.”

Donaldson hopes more parents will discuss and learn about responsible use of social media and the internet with their children.