Digital Citizenship – Going Beyond Lessons into Action

The question of whose job it is to teach digital citizenship skills becomes more and more poignant with each passing day, as our lives become increasingly entwined with the internet.  Our reputations, both personal and professional, are shaped by our online presence and behavior, and being aware of how to act, treat others, and stay safe online is every bit as important these days as learning how to act, treat others, and stay safe in the real world.  I see digital citizenship as simply one facet of overall character education that we as a society (schools, institutions, parents, etc) should be committed to instilling in all students (and adults!) at all age levels.  

At the school where I currently teach, digital citizenship is discussed regularly in grade-level “tutorial” sessions.  These tutorial sessions meet for 45 minute weekly periods, on Wednesdays, and address topics that are not necessarily specifically linked to an academic subject.  Topics covered in tutorial range from character education, study skills, prosocial behavior, organizational habits, and digital citizenship.  

I believe that digital citizenship should not only be the job of schools to teach, but also include the input and efforts of parents, and other elements of society as well.  The question of how digital citizenship should be taught, and who should be responsible for this, seems to me to simply be a modern version of the question asking who should teach character education and how one can be a decent citizen in society.  

How basic precepts are delivered can come in a variety of formats, and have traditionally been part of at-home education just as much (if not far moreso) as in schools.  Perhaps they will be instigated in some form by a parent’s daily motivational message, or the group dynamics of a Round-Square trip. The two examples linked in the previous sentence don’t have to do with digital citizenship per se, but the idea of good character education is the main point.  Lasting impressions, however, are generally the ones that dig deep and aren’t the subject of one single class lesson, or one Hour of Code week.

In Schools

How should digital citizenship then be addressed in schools?  It seems unnecessary to ask that each teacher explicitly teach digital citizenship skills, as this would likely lead to much overlap, or possibly an inconsistently delivered message.  But on the other side of the coin, this should not fall onto one teacher in one class only either.  Having digital citizenship be seen as only part of the information technology courses seems inadequate, and belittles the importance of these skills.  Such an approach would fail to provide reinforcement, and also risk having students get the mistaken impression that these skills are not applicable outside the compsci/IT classroom.  This is too important a topic to fall on the shoulders of one teacher, or one single department, in a school.  

(Image licensed under Creative Commons. Photo credit: Kai Schreiber

More than “do’s and don’ts”.

So often, we think of digital citizenship as the lessons of “do’s and don’ts” in our classrooms related to digital technology and its use, but the more actionable word here is citizenship.  In a way, I see the word “digital” as simply the descriptive qualifier here, and the core concepts are character based.  Knowing this, we can really draw connections for students between positive, prosocial behavior online, and in the real world. In fact, these digital opportunities can be catalysts for positive behavior online that ultimately creates change agents in our world.  Examples of platforms for this are iEarn, The Wonderment, and Write Our World.  Or watch the video below from UNICEF for a hypothetical example.  

With the ease of communication and collaboration possible with today’s digital technology, students and teachers now have the possibility of reaching out – via a digital medium – and putting the ideas behind good citizenship into practice.  Today’s students are excited by such opportunities, as they are personally engaging, authentic, and meaningful.  Students in the 21st century (and this is especially true in most international schools) travel extensively, and have engaged in community service both in their local community and around the world.  Many are passionate about engaging with the world, which can now be done digitally, as well as directly.  

Today’s students are able to create connections and relationships with people living thousands of kilometers away, and from different backgrounds and cultures.  They play “Words with Friends” and Snapchat with their social networks across the world.  They interview a professional via Skype in order to complete a science project.  They travel to another country for several weeks for a language immersion course, or to a developing nation for service work.  Essentially, today’s students have the opportunity to leverage digital technology to dig deep and act on the principles of citizenship, and those that do are rewarded both intellectually and emotionally for it.

In summary, these past few paragraphs have sought to highlight ways in which some of the principles of digital citizenship can be blended with other educational opportunities such as service learning, to provide meaningful experiences for students that leave an impression.  Traditional, direct lessons that highlight the “do’s and don’ts” of digital citizenship can feel passive, and may not have as big an impact on learners as a project that actually gets students to put some of the core citizenship ideas into practice via a digital medium.  Such activities require students to think critically, and reflect on what digital citizenship really means in the real world.  After all, our lives and reputations blur between the real and digital, so why shouldn’t citizenship and “digital” citizenship education blend in schools as well?  


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