The part of technology education we should talk about first

by Kerry Gallagher


October is both Cyber Security Awareness Month and Bullying Prevention Month. Quite appropriately, the month kicked off on October 3 with the first National Digital Citizenship Summit.

Digital citizenship encompasses thoughtful use of connected technology including etiquette, communications, safety, privacy, and consumption and creation of media. Without an understanding of how to teach – and how students learn – these concepts, schools can end up policing student devices. Not only is this disciplinary approach to technology extremely difficult, it does not foster a culture of trust or empowered participants in the digital world.

After having the opportunity to be one of the speakers and enjoying every minute of the summit, I have chatted in more depth with the event founders, Marialice B.F.X. Curran and David Ryan Polgar. We’ve talked via email, Voxer, Twitter, and Google Docs. Makes sense that digital citizenship enthusiasts would use social media and collaborative online tools to share our passions, right?

I learned from those communications that both Marialice and David journeyed a long way to make the event possible. A single tweet brought the two together in early 2014, as told in local publication West Hartford Life. Soon thereafter, they met at a coffee shop in Hartford, Conn. and the idea for the summit was born. Marialice brought her networks in education and David brought his networks in industry and law.

“In terms of expertise, the Digital Citizenship Summit was able to bring in top-notch educators, attorneys, psychologists, media specialists, and parenting experts,” said David. “From an attendee perspective, people were able to see the concept of digital citizenship hit from multiple angles.”

Perhaps most importantly, though, there were students there to weigh in. Marialice recalled, “The best part of the day was the students. The solution is students.”

The perspectives that came together that day helped establish, for me, a few digital citizenship best practices for schools.

  1. Avoiding social media is not a solution. We are giving children mobile devices in school for learning activities, and smartphones from home so that they can reach us anytime. We cannot expect them to harness the power of these devices in these ways without wanting to connect with their peers and the world using social media. Jennifer Scheffer, Mobile Learning Coach in Burlington, Mass., asked during her session, when colleges and employers Google our students, what will they find? Will the results be good? bad? or will there be nothing? Jenn noted, “Nothing is worse than bad.” Teachers who also want to get started using social media professionally and with students can turn to resources like ConnectSafely’s booklet, The Educator’s Guide to Social Media.
  2. Ask students how they are engaging on social media. Finding out how our children are using social media can help us figure out how to coach them on creating a positive digital footprint while learning from the rich resources that exist. Timmy Sullivan, a student from Burlington High School, admitted during his session that his Twitter handle was less than professional (@imsohotitscrazy) before he started getting social media coaching and modeling from his teacher. Since then he’s changed it to @TimmyS54 and has built a digital footprint, using multiple social media platforms, that any ambitious professional would be proud of. He’s 17 years old.
  3. Digital native does not mean digital expert. While we should listen to how teens are using social media, we should not assume they know more than we do about protecting their privacy and identity. Look to experts to help coach children. ConnectSafely, for instance, offers Tips for Protecting Kids and Teens from Identity Theft and A Parents’ Guide to Student Data Privacy. Since adolescents and teens sometimes share different information with teachers than they do with parents, this should be a community effort.
  4. Digital citizenship should not be a special lesson. As a teacher and digital learning specialist, I know how powerful technology can be as a tool for learning. I also know that it can be a tempting distraction. When rolling out a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or 1-to-1 initiative, too often schools get excited about the technology and digital citizenship is an afterthought. These schools might add digital citizenship curriculum just in computer science classes, or worse, as a one time assembly. Digital citizenship needs to be a priority beyond one event. As I explained in my session at the summit, schools need to train teachers on how to fully integrate digital citizenship at all levels and in all subject areas. Then they need time to build the curriculum in a meaningful way. In my school, we have been able to do so in classes that range from 12th grade Latin to middle school studio art.
  5. Kids will make mistakes. Prepare them so they will know what to do. Digital citizenship is not just about prevention. Not all children will make big mistakes, but some will. They will also see their friends make mistakes or become victims of cyberbullying. We need to equip our children with the terminology and tools to band together when bullying happens. They also need to know how to reach out to adults and even the social media services themselves to get hurtful posts removed. One organization that is doing strong work around this is #ICanHelp. Matt Soeth, one of their founders, presented at the summit and gave concrete examples showing how teens can come together to make real culture change when given the tools.

There is more to be learned about digital citizenship and its role in the education of the whole child. Schools are starting to work together with students, parents, and the ed tech industry to develop common goals and understandings. David believes the summit is helping this effort. “It was clear that we were starting to break down silos by bringing together the different groups,” he said. “In order to bring more great minds together, we need to speak that group’s language. That’s the key part that we often overlook.”

Sharing resources and best practices among groups is an important first step. Both Marialice and David hope to make the Digital Citizenship Summit into a movement all over the country. As Marialice explained, “This is something we are going to take places. It is needed.”

Kerry Gallagher is a Technology Integration Specialist at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., a 1:1 iPad school serving 1500 students grades 6-12. She taught middle and high school history in Bring Your Own Device schools for 13 years. Prior to taking on a full-time technology integration role, Kerry was best known for her paperless collaborative classroom model which thrived on project-based learning. She is co-author of ConnectSafely’s The Educators’ Guide to Social Media and recently joined us as our part-time Director of K-12 Education