Of course the problem with this is that without a healthy conversation about digital citizenship, schools are leaving the door open for all kinds of struggles and embarrassing moments. It's like those commercials that advertise how to talk to your kids about drugs or sex. We need to be less worried about being awkward and more concerned with making sure we are honest and open. The fact that we have the conversation is more critical than the style points we earn in the process.
So, in the interest of moving toward a better, and more inclusive conversation about digital citizenship in education, I offer you a few of my own observations about this topic. I hope that these observations will help put the subject in perspective and will serve as a starting point for future conversations:
- It's about the citizenship- Okay, first off, I've encountered a lot of teachers who have suggested that teaching digital citizenship is just one more thing on their plate. This confuses me because even before social media and the Internet, I always understood that part of my job as a teacher was to give kids social feedback, to help them see when they were making bad choices, and to intervene when I felt they were putting themselves or others at risk. Of course, back then, I was just teaching citizenship. I was helping students to navigate their lives. Somehow because an online life involves technology, we balk at the citizenship talk. Maybe we fear not understanding the technology part, but the reality is that we understand what good and safe behavior looks like, and we are capable of being honest with kids when we think they are making mistakes. Digital citizenship is just citizenship in a digital environment, so if you see a student bullying or being bullied online, react the same way you would to bullying on the playground. If a student Tweets something in appropriate about your student teacher, respond the way you would if you heard the student say the same thing loudly in the middle of the cafeteria. And if a student is using technology to pirate music without paying for it, confront them in the same way you would if you found out they were stealing CDs from Walmart. It's about the behavior, not the tool.
- If you're unsure, ask questions- One of the great things about being adult learners is that we know there isn't any content we can't master. If I'm not sure if what a student is doing is good online behavior, I can always find out. There are lots of gray areas when it comes to rules and best practices related to new media, and it can seem like the Internet is a the Wild West when it comes to what is okay, but the reality is that most of the big questions have been answered or are being discussed. For example, is it okay if my student borrows a CD from a friend and copies the songs to his iTunes? Even if I don't know the answer, I can ask the question. I might turn to experts, or I might begin the conversation with my student. The ethical boundaries of taking digital music are worth exploring, even if I haven't got a hard and fast answer.
- Students need help thinking about their digital footprint- We know that students have not fully formed the parts of their brains that allow them to realistically consider the consequences of their actions (whether online or otherwise). They don't fully realize how everything they share online becomes a part of their history. So, if they share a compromising photo or post something that reflects poorly on their character, they don't fully understand how far that post can travel, how profoundly it can affect their reputation, or how long it can live online. If they choose an email name that represents them in a negative light, they don't fully appreciate how important it is not to use that email in professional contexts. Or if they share vital bits of personal information via a social network, they don't necessarily understand that the information can be gathered to compromise their safety or privacy.
- These conversations have to be ongoing- Like anything, we learn digital citizenship via practice and ongoing discussion. It is never enough to give kids a document to read, a webquest to complete, or a lecture to listen to, and expect that they will own the learning, get the message, or even care about the topic. Digital citizenship discussions have to happen in every class throughout the year as learning opportunities arise. The lessons will be more relevant in context, and the discussions will help to illuminate this complex topic over time.
- We also need to reassess what we mean by "on task" in a connected classroom- Along with that, helping students to use technology well means putting the work into students' hands, but that also means helping them to learn to make good decisions about being productive with technology. Even so, we should be more flexible in our definitions about productivity. Students who are getting their work done in a highly digital environment, may also be highly connected, and learning how to negotiate an open work environment means not automatically shutting down all technology just because a student is online chatting with people outside of the classroom. Learning to teach and learn in a connected classroom requires a lot of active discussions and feedback.
- Most people care whether or not they are perceived as good people- As a result, the easiest hook for these types of conversations is to invite kids to take a moral stand. If they understand that the choices they make help to define them as a person, very few will stand up in favor of cruelty, indecency, or criminality. Students may be very protective of their rights and autonomy, but they are also very protective of justice and fairness. Helping students see that their online actions can have a negative impact on others can be a way to change students' minds about choices they make.
- One benefit to technology is that it provides us a digital record- Unlike in years past, when bad citizenship was hard to prove, students today provide us with very clear evidence of bad choices. If a student sends another student an inappropriate text, we now have that text to use as a discussion starter. If a student writes something rude in an online class discussion, we have a record of that behavior. While the evidence is handy and makes it easier to prove when a child has made a poor choice, it also forces us to confront choices that might have been let go in the past. Personally, I think this is a good thing, but it does mean that we need to learn to use these experiences as teachable moments, rather than just punishable offenses.
- Educators need to be in the trenches- I have a whole bunch of reasons why educators should all be using social networks, should all be texting, and should all be using the collaborative and communicative power of the Internet, but for our purposes, I'll limit it to two: First, we need to be in these spaces because we will help to bring order to spaces that otherwise will be governed by a "Lord of the Flies" mentality. Our very presence will help to curb the wilder behaviors that we've been warned about. Second, we need to be in these spaces so that we can model positive digital behavior. I am not suggesting that we all create Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts so that we can friend and follow all of our students. There are reasonable cautions against entering those environments on the kids' terms. We need to be there, so that we understand how these environments work, and so that we can help our students understand them and use them well for their future.
- We don't need to be the police- That said, I also think that we can afford to give kids their own space to be who they are outside of our presence. I don't think that we need to actively search every students' profile for any hint of impropriety. It is entirely possible for adults and kids to interact differently from one another depending on their audience/social group. I really don't want to know all of the things my son and his friends say to one another online or via text. If I had suspicions, I would do my due diligence and look, but until I do, I recognize that part of learning to be a good digital citizen is practicing on your own. When things come up that raise a red flag, we talk. What I don't know, I can let go.
- We have to be good models- I know that it can be a bit intimidating to try to understand copyright law as it applies to education and online publishing, but we have to do everything in our power to help students understand that they should respect the intellectual property and creativity of others. That means finding ways to blog, post, and tweet in ways that don't infringe on the rights of others. We also have to help students understand that there are responsible ways for how we engage with others online. That means making good choices about what we share online and how we engage others in conversation online. We also have to model how to be productive using technology, so that students see ways that technology can enable the learning that we do, rather than simply serve as a distraction.
- There are standards to help us have these conversations- One of the things that can help us have conversations about digital citizenship is a shared understanding of what our responsibilities are as teachers and learners in the digital age. Fortunately for us, that work has already been done. The International Society for Technology in Education has created a collection of National Educational Technology Standards that are separately defined for administrators, teachers, students and coaches. These standards are easy to understand, and are vertically aligned. While it is not enough to just hand these standards to a person and expect them to live them, having these standards makes launching conversations easier and helps to clarify the issues related to teaching and learning with technology.