Why Teach Digital Citizenship and Where to Start

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You walk into any school building, and in the hands of most students you will find a cellphone. One student is creating a meme to post on Instagram, another student is watching a YouTube video about cats dancing, another student is posting a status update on Twitter, and another is taking a picture to send through Snapchat. The list could go on about all the ways our students are using technology and social media to connect with the world around them. Which is really wonderful – they literally have the entire world at their fingertips to explore and learn.

They know how to use all these apps and can “plug in” almost anywhere at anytime. But the question is, do our students understand how to use this technology appropriately, and do they fully understand the repercussions of a negative digital footprint?

Unfortunately, in many cases, the answer to this question is a resounding “NO.” 

When you were growing up, did you just inherently know how to read and write? Did you just pick up a book and know what the letters meant, what sound they made, and how to put them together? Or, did someone teach you those things and ask you questions to help you with comprehension?

There is the assumption that because our students have grown up with technology, they know how to use this technology. Therefore, because they have grown up with technology, they do not need direct training or teaching on using digital tools. However, just because they are exposed to technology does not mean they know how to use it. For example, many students:

  • do not realize that any status update or picture posted to social media is permanent
  • do not realize that it’s dangerous to post personal information in your profile
  • do not realize that you can’t copy and paste it as your own just because it is on the internet
  • do not realize that many photos on the internet are not free to use but are actually copyrighted
  • do not understand “netiquette” and the appropriate way to write and discuss online

The repercussions of this misconception can range from minor to severe, and can even prevent students from getting into college or getting a job.

Also, if students only use technology for social media, then they fail to understand and gain the skills they will need to use technology in the work force.

Therefore, it is imperative that we as educators, in partnership with parents and other stakeholders, model and teach digital citizenship in our schools.

So, I guess the million-dollar question is: where do we start?

  1. Know and use the lingo. We have to know what terms are being used in reference to technology, and we need to know the meanings of different abbreviations. It’s not enough to just know it though; we must also use it with our students.
  2. Know the technology. What programs and apps are the students using? What are they using them for? What do the programs and apps do – what are their features? What are the dangers of the program or app? How can it be used inappropriately?
  3. Use the technology. Demonstrate for students the appropriate use of the technology available to them; do not just lecture them, use it with them: show them how to search using Google to get the best results, show them examples of inappropriate uses of technology, show them how to harness the power of technology to enhance and increase their learning and critical thinking skills. Show them ways to use technology outside of the social aspect – help guide them to the understanding that technology is a tool to gain information and share ideas. Get in the trenches with them – model for them how to have a positive social media presence.
  4. Teach them online etiquette. Have them write memos and e-mails to each other, or to you, using appropriate grammar and e-mail etiquette. Have them research and learn about copyright laws, fair use, and creative commons and then apply those skills. Talk to them about tone and language: how you type is different from how you talk – how can what you type be misinterpreted due to lack of tone? Talk about the rights of others online and discuss cyber bullying.
  5. Teach them how to evaluate content. Explain the difference in url addresses, show them how to evaluate online sources and explain what makes a source credible. Have them practice evaluating websites for credibility. What is the purpose of the site? Partner up with your media specialist: bring your students into the library for a lesson about researching online, analyzing information found from different sources, and compare how the same information can be presented in different ways.
  6. Talk to them about over sharing. Yes, that picture of you in your bikini at the beach making a duck face with your BFF might be super-cute. Yes, you may want to share it with everyone. But, we need to teach students to stop and think before posting: is there any way this picture/video/status could come back or be used against me in some way? With all the photo editing tools out there, how easy would it be to take this innocent picture and alter it? Posting personal information such as your full name, address, or cellphone number on your profile is extremely dangerous; however, many of our students do this anyway. Have students read articles about the dangers of this; discuss with them how people can get personal information online and the dangers of privately messaging or friending people you do not know.
  7. Get the community involved. Teaching digital citizenship needs to be collaborative: all stakeholders need to be involved. Unfortunately, parents often know just as much, or less than, the students. Encourage parents to monitor their students social media presence and to talk to their children about social media. Provide training for parents on different apps or pieces of technology and how their children might be using it. Bring in experts from the community to talk tot he students about digital citizenship, utilize law enforcement, lawyers, college admissions counselors, heads of companies, and others in the community. Come up with a curriculum that all teachers in the building implement and use in their classes.

It is not enough for our students to know how to use the technology. To be truly successful 21st century learners, our students must know how to use the technology appropriately to enhance their learning; that should understand that they can use technology to think critically, think creatively, and communicate with the world around them. In order to do this, we must help them become aware of the dangers of misusing this powerful tool.

Like learning to read, digital citizenship must be directly taught and modeled. It is time we abandon the misconception of “digital natives” and adjust our teaching to best aid our students into becoming strong 21st century learners.

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