To effectively teach with technology, educators have been expected to set boundaries for appropriate use, help establish guidelines for inappropriate content, and guide students in how to take responsibility for their actions in networked environments. If we look at how education has traditionally supported the ability to form, communicate and exchange ideas, we know that opening and engaging in dialogue about sensitive topics is an ideal first step. But in digital citizenship education, we still find headlines, community advocates, school districts and parent groups who are continually sourcing evidence of misuse of emerging technologies to argue for a “ban and limitation” approach when crafting policies for digital citizenship and the online participation of students.
Limitations of our past approach
After almost two decades of evolving Internet and social media education, educators have to recognize that a fear-mongering approach to aspects of digital citizenship is not beneficial for students who are already fully engrossed online. Instead, a practical approach, rooted in classroom experiences with the realities and concerns of Internet communications, can foster students’ understanding of healthy Internet uses.
Ask young adults if their student experiences between 2000 to 2012 included digital citizenship lessons and whether they were invited to have their voices heard, or if they had an educator who was willing to meet them on their level with tech use in the classroom. More often than not, young adults will say that the majority of their digital citizenship lessons involved being told rules of proper use and how to be safe online, with a primary focus on being aware of predators and threats. Few will report discussing consent or the production of online content.
One difficulty with this primary focus on appropriate use is that the Internet does not acknowledge boundaries structured on guidelines for appropriate or inappropriate; it is a free-for-all that students will explore online despite attempts to block content or websites. The norms of technology and Internet use are incredibly malleable. Being open to the online interests of students helps educators identify where students have found their voice through the Internet, and what they have been exposed to. Students bring their online experiences into the classroom. In a paradoxical conflict of “too much, too soon,” educators today are often addressing themes of the Internet with students as they arise. While the themes can range from video gaming, online interactions, accessing pornography, or peer conflict, the experiences of youth online become conversations because of current and emerging Internet trends.
Rewrite the narrative and hear the students’ voice
Educators have an unenviable task of addressing the Internet experiences that their students bring to their attention. An educator who recognizes that in a networked society, controlling the Internet is not about blocking content but about being prepared to address the content experienced and disclosed by students, will be better prepared than the educator who dismisses these experiences as “bad use of the Internet.”
We do need to establish norms of behaviour concerning technology use and Internet participation, and this definition has to work within the evolving classroom. Using technology skills in a social studies class must be approached differently than in a science class, but a similar foundation of participation and responsible sourcing of information is vital for student success. For teachers, the goal of digital citizenship education should be establishing a culture of appropriate use, as defined by the student voice and expanding outward to the networked online communities that students share.
For primary teachers, this means potentially introducing expectations of use of tech that may conflict with what students have experienced at home. In intermediate education, the challenge becomes one of providing learning opportunities that engage students in a different way from the communication app, video game, or meme that is currently popular. We know that students in middle-school experience a variety of Internet content that would make most parents at the parent council meeting cringe. Guidance in class may be the oversight desperately needed and discussing the media themes and content accessed can help guide students towards more appropriate Internet usage as students progress to secondary school.
In secondary education, how can educators support students’ understanding of how appropriate versus inappropriate use of the Internet is defined – especially when the measuring stick continues to move in each micro-generation of use? Secondary students live in a world where they see any number of examples of “inappropriate use”: mainstream celebrities display their excesses online while YouTubers and streamers on Twitch push boundaries. Perhaps most importantly, the world of social media politics is now on the radar of students, who see that elections have become littered with allegations of fake news without context, voters cast votes solely based on information sourced from social media, and even an elected President ignores the barriers of so-called “appropriate use” of social media with total disregard for traditional decorum or consequences.
Preparing students for the realities of the connected world is critically important. The 21st century learner needs educators who are aware of the importance of providing digital citizenship support to students at all grade levels and within all subjects. This includes dialogues on how the Internet influences learning and community participation, and a recognition that the Internet allows us to see one another and connect around the planet. It is imperative that learners think critically about not only how the technology helps to bring us together, but how much it can separate us.
Find positive examples
It is vital to help students recognize the positive opportunities that exist as they demonstrate their online participation as networked citizens, and to see how their online interests fit into their educational experiences. Examples of digital citizenship can be incorporated into many lesson plans.
For an example of positive video game use, check out students in British Columbia who play online video games in an eSports tour. These students, competing professionally playing video games, earn more than a teenager could ever make working at a fast food restaurant. Where health and wellness dialogues may support kids who feel isolated, share the story of a student in Texas who inspires others daily by sharing photographs of their skin without makeup, to increase positive support for those coping with debilitating cystic acne. Imagine a student who wakes in the morning feeling like they are the only person in the world with a skin problem; they only have to turn to their smartphone for an emotional, visual, and community-driven support system that lets them know they are not alone and things are going to be okay.
With hundreds of positive and negative examples of how the Internet and technology use impacts children, digital citizenship lessons have to not only support learners in their online endeavours from classroom to classroom, but expand to the family home, to extra-curricular activities, and everywhere the Internet takes them along their education and communication path. Digital citizenship education should not be just an introductory concept or policy delivered at the beginning of the school year to establish expectations for learning; it should be a continual classroom pedagogy that extends to the home, with students leading the charge.
First published in Education Canada, December 2018