George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

The Path to Digital Citizenship

November 26, 2013
Image credit: Veer

I've written and taught about digital citizenship for several years. And, while the term is new in our lexicon, the meaning spans generations. The simple acts of carrying oneself in a civil, appropriate manner are skillsets that have been integrated into every classroom since the very first school. Many would argue that digital citizenship is simply a buzzword and nothing dramatically new. While the underlying meaning is familiar, the medium by which adults and students interact has changed dramatically.

Digital Health and Wellness

Learning digital citizenship is a fairly new category in the student course list. In the past, students were taught to be civil and work toward being an impactful citizen in their society. The principle of citizenship is entwined in many school mission statements as well. In the past, bullying, teasing and fighting were seen as "childlike" behaviors and addressed as necessary. Students were told at an early age to play nicely together, to share and not to call each other names. While these events still happened, they did not have the reach and appeal of today.

With the launch of data networks, almost ubiquitous wifi and the smartphone, adults and students alike now share a platform for consuming and authoring information like our society has never seen. Today's networked world gives everyone a voice, a digital space, a bullhorn to be heard. While this freedom of expression is nothing new to our society, the medium is taking us into uncharted territory.

So how do we integrate standards and skillsets that prepare our K-12 students for an interconnected, digital world that can often be incendiary and hurtful? The unfortunate answer is that we are already too late in some regards. Applications and the pace of technology have outpaced our ability, as parents and teachers, to keep up with what our students can access.

However, this is not to say that we can't teach our students proper digital health and wellness skills. One of the key issues is teaching kids offline before they jump into an online world. They need to know the harsh realities of a networked world, to discern between their real offline personality and tailored online personality, and to understand that both personalities should be the same. They still need to know how to play nicely together, share, not tease or say hurtful things -- and they need to transfer these offline skills to a digital space as well. In short, students must understand that there should be no difference between how they act online and how they act offline.

Elementary Skillsets

Here are some quick ideas for integrating these basic skillsets into the elementary grades:

  • Have students write a letter to each other, and then to someone beyond the school. This reinforces the transferable skill of writing offline to writing online. It's a great way of introducing email and understanding that the digital world also speaks English and uses the conventions and formatting of proper grammar.
  • Have students create something on a large easel paper (a drawing, poem, short sentence, etc.). Once completed, ask them walk around the room as if they were in a museum and make comments on each creation. This is a great way of having students comment in public and provide authentic feedback that is constructive and not hurtful.
  • Digital spaces should not be painted as dark, negative environments. Students should understand how great opportunities might come their way when they construct and maintain a positive digital presence. Students entering middle school should be able to:
    • Generate safe usernames
    • Discuss the difference between personal and private information
    • Explain why there are logins and passwords for some hardware, software and websites
    • Describe why stealing information and other people's creations is the same as stealing tangible items
    • Use technology to explore personal interests
    • Demonstrate to others how to use technology tools in ways that assist rather than prevent learning

This list is not set in stone, but it was created collaboratively with my tech team colleagues at Burlington Public Schools and Groton-Dunstable Regional School District. It offers a good foundation of what elementary level students should be expected to know as they move up to middle school. As students climb through the grade levels, these skills increase. Once in middle school students should begin to understand:

  • How to start gathering research both online and offline
  • How to interact within digital spaces (i.e. a Google doc, Google site, or Edmodo LMS)
  • How to properly find and cite digital media (creative commons, Google docs, research tools)
  • How to discern between positive and negative use of digital spaces and the possible consequences of inappropriate behavior

By the time students get to secondary grade levels, they should be expected to exhibit positive and consistent digital citizenship skills. I've always liked the idea that students graduating middle school should have to pass a digital citizenship "driver's ed" course. This test would demonstrate understanding of the basic standards of what it means to be a digital citizen. At schools that employ 1:1 programs, this would be a good way of obtaining the keys to your device. At Burlington, we made sure that every student and parent met with the administration and tech team over the summer (usually during scheduled days in August) to review and sign our acceptable use policy, get a brief presentation on our systems and parameters, and ask questions.

An Ethical Mission

While we, as educators and parents, can make the best efforts to educate our students on digital health and wellness skills, we know that some may slip through the cracks. You can tell a classroom of 30 students to always look both ways before crossing the street, and one out of that 30 will always run without looking. In my experience creating and teaching a digital literacy course, I've seen this come true too many times. My point here is that we must continue our mission of educating students, not solely on academic merits, but on ethical merits as well. Promote and model good uses of digital spaces in your classroom and school. Building a culture of digital health and wellness across a school district will insure that our students carry out the missions posted on our walls.

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  • Education Trends
  • Media Literacy
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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