Growing Digital Citizens as We Grow Ourselves

Dear Teachers,

When teachers hear the term “digital citizenship”  and want to know more about that topic, they often begin with some kind of interest in addressing cyberbullying. Cyberbullying and other risks of the Internet – computer viruses, identity theft, phishing, etc. – are legitimate concerns, of course, and our students certainly need to be aware of these risks. For too long, though, classrooms across the country have been immersed in a digital citizenship narrative that is based only in fear and warnings. Digital citizenship is about so much more than just “not cyberbullying” or “not talking to strangers” or “being nice online.” Although those are certainly components of the topic, there is so much more to digital citizenship. Teachers who focus only on the “don’ts” of online behavior miss a host of opportunities for their students to claim their full rights – and responsibilities – of true digital citizenship.

Teachers are on a spectrum when it comes to digital citizenship instruction. Many teachers are still doing nothing at all to address digital citizenship – they have the “shut it down, lock it up” mentality. Perhaps they believe that if they don’t use social media in their classrooms or allow the students to bring in devices from home, then it’s not in their purview or responsibility to talk about digital citizenship. And with all that teachers have to do these days who can blame them for not wanting to do “one more thing”?

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Moving along the spectrum of digital citizenship instruction, a common first step in addressing digital citizenship is often to host a school-wide “Digital Citizenship Day” or “No Cyberbullying!” week. These one-shot efforts are usually very well-intentioned and perhaps even get some good short-term behavior from students. Certainly better than doing nothing at all, these event-based digital citizenship efforts may allow teachers to feel as though they can check digital citizenship off a list; if, several months later, a student makes an egregious error on social media, the teacher can respond, “We told you about this at that assembly last fall.”

Once a teacher or a school decides to address digital citizenship in a more systematic way, they may decide to use pre-packaged lesson plans, such as the excellent materials by Common Sense Media. Maybe the librarian shows these videos in library lessons; maybe it’s the school counselor who does so, or a teacher who intends to do the lesson as an “extra.” A first foray into “teaching digital citizenship” often involves a stand-alone curriculum of some kind. These lessons give teachers a springboard for discussion in the future, but students typically do not absorb concepts of any subject when they are presented in isolation. Digital citizenship is in many ways like sex education: everybody hopes that someone else will do a really good job explaining it – and they hope that the kids “get it” with one explanation. This is unrealistic for so many reasons, and one that teachers would understand as preposterous if applied to any content area concept.

Teachers who are paying attention start to realize that the stand-alone, one-shot efforts they have been using to teach digital citizenship might not be the most effective method, and move along that spectrum of digital citizenship instruction. As years go by, more students have more access to devices or might be requesting more opportunities to use social media in the classroom. Teachers often evolve in their thinking to understand that while the specially designated days or weeks or the stand-alone lessons might be good in the short term – and are certainly much better than doing nothing at all – students need more than a very occasional lesson in order to fully understand and assimilate the many facets of good digital citizenship.

In order to truly learn digital citizenship, students have to DO it. They need many conversations over a lifetime about the importance of empathy. They need to be fully engaged in working with the teacher to set the class norms for digital behavior. Jason Ohler, a pioneer of the digital citizenship movement, is fond of saying that students who are given an opportunity to frame the system are much less likely to game the system. Teachers who involve even young students in the process of positive norm-setting from an early age – on a regular, natural, authentic basis – will normalize positive behavior online, rather than focusing only on the potential dangers (which students are likely to tune out anyway). Students need daily authentic experiences where the teachers both tacitly and explicitly weave a digital citizenship lesson into what the students are doing anyway. Layering digital citizenship into what teachers are doing in their classrooms anyway can make the thought of “doing one more thing” somewhat less overwhelming.

ISTE’s and Metiri’s (2017) new way of looking at the student Digital Citizen standard involves encouraging students to develop a great digital self, to be an effective interactor, and to be proactive agents who use the powers of social media for social good. Looked at in this light (which, by the way, is rooted in all the ISTE standards’ Digital Citizen indicators), it might be easier for teachers to see how these elements might be woven into the fabric of what they are doing in their classrooms. A Digital Self can be promoted every time an eportfolio is mentioned; the teacher could say one extra sentence about “making a good digital first impression.” Additionally, a digital self is rooted in the development of the empathy that is so crucial to the digital citizenship conversation.

Sameer Hinduja, a Twitter friend of mine whom I respect very much, says that students should be regularly involved in conversations about morals, ethics, empathy, and resilience. The first three, he says, should aim to create students with “sensitive hearts,” while the last helps students face and deal with the inevitable conflicts that they will face their entire lives, both online and off. This corresponds to Ohler’s (2017) admonitions to introduce character education that address the needs of digital youth. Incorporating character education in relation to technology and device use within a community context – rather than implying that students’ “real” digital lives can happen only outside school – will help develop each student’s digital self in a positive way.

The Digital Interactor develops when students – even young ones – post and respond to the class social media account or respond to another student’s blog post. It takes very little time in a teacher’s day to remind students of the class norms they’ve established for interacting online, but every sentence or phrase that teachers say becomes  a micro digital citizenship lesson. With young students, this might simply involve the teacher complimenting students on their digital communication or the basic courtesy that they use when accessing the class social media account. For older students it could be a discussion about potentially different cultural norms prior to the students engaging in a video conference with a class from another country. If students DON’T interact appropriately, the teacher can use that behavior as a teachable moment and an opportunity to engage students in conversation about more acceptable alternatives, rather than just being reactive and cutting students off from future opportunities.  

Students of any age can be challenged to solve social problems of many types, using social media and crowdsourced suggestions to be Digital Agents for good in the world. Teachers who use project- or problem- based learning experiences in their classroom have a natural avenue to talk about students’ agency and the power of the Internet to help people accomplish amazing things. Connecting students to their passions and encouraging them to claim a social justice issue that is important to them supports their agency – and will very likely change the world. Additionally, teachers who help students to understand the implications of their social media use and bridge the gaps in their knowledge can help to level the playing field for students who might not have tech-savvy role models at home (Casa-Todd, 2017).

These three pillars – self, interactor, and agent – create a much more positive framework for addressing digital citizenship. Instead of a narrative of avoidance, fear and risk, imagine what might happen if every teacher in every classroom every day focused the digital citizenship message on opportunity and empowerment, not as “extra” thing but as a natural part of the thing. Imagine what might happen if every student heard these lessons about digital citizenship – not only about “being a good person” both online and off, but also about the duties and obligations of citizenship – every single day throughout the course of their school career! We need to show students what to do, not just continually tell them what not to do. We might have to get a little sneaky about digital citizenship, making it such a seamless part of our classroom that it is as ubiquitous as the air around us. Breathing in that message over and over again, as part of the natural context of what is happening in the classroom anyway, is what will mold our students into the digital citizens that we hope they become.

There is room in this conversation about digital citizenship for everyone, but many voices are currently missing or underrepresented: people of color, parents of all backgrounds, administrators, and especially the students themselves. All are digital citizens! Student voice is an incredibly important and powerful one, and unfortunately is often ignored. Teachers need to listen to students about their experiences online, ask questions, and use student’s knowledge of the mechanics of social media tools. Teachers have much to learn from students – and teachers have the maturity and life experience that students need to guide them in mentoring relationships in digital spaces. Educators also need to engage parents in discussions about digital citizenship on a regular basis, too, opening the door to conversations about their values and expectations for their child’s device use. Parents, too, are on a spectrum regarding their understanding of digital citizenship. They often have many questions about how to help their children use devices appropriately, and they need to be invited to participate in discussions and to join teachers on their digital citizenship journeys.

Few people can be considered true “experts” on the topic of digital citizenship, as it is such an evolving and far-reaching topic. The journey to fully understanding digital citizenship is not a linear one, and in today’s society touches literally everything that a student might be involved in. It is often uncomfortable and scary to change one’s teaching methods to include anything new or different. But if every teacher in every classroom were to mention a concept of digital citizenship just one time every day, that would make a lifetime of difference for our students – and the world.




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