Digital Citizenship – an Overview for Schools

With the ending of the National Secondary Schools Computer Fund Program in Australia school educators are now left with 1:1 ratio of computers, holding on for dear life trying to control the impact and repercussions. It is with this in mind that I organised and attended a Digital Citizenship PD  Dr Mike Ribble ED.D. as guest speaker from USA. Mike is the author of two books on digital citizenship and has presented worldwide.

The need for action on Digital Citizenship in schools has reached a climax with new figures showing that there are over 800+ million Facebook users and over 1 billion photos on the service which is now making its way much more prevalently into schools. Administrators, teachers and school councillors are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of incidents taking place on Facebook and other services and are now being forced to seriously consider their positions on various issues.

In reality, the problem exists because there is a clear disconnect between both home life and school life but more than ever between parents and their children. It is rare to find parents that are engaging students in their virtual worlds and as a result parents are turning to schools for help and understanding, but schools do not know how to handle the problems themselves.

In listening to Mike he makes an interesting parallel when we considered the ebs and flows of society and its access to information. With the invention of the printing press there was a clear line drawn between those that had access to information and read about world wide events and their children. The old adage that information is power was true and parents were in control of this information. But today we find that this has fallen away to reveal today’s children have the same access to the same information and know how to access this information more effectively and do so. This empowering thought provoked an interesting response and started to differentiate those with the power and the access.

This leads to a fundamental question. Are we even speaking the same language anymore? It is clear that as educators we educate students on terms and their meanings but we don’t consider the opposite. That is, we are less likely to use a term that our students understand in explaining a term or concept. An example is the word “cyber”. It is clear to everyone that this word is used to express something in the digital space but have you ever heard a child ever use it to express something digital to his or her friends? Another example are the words “social networking”. This is a term that expresses having a space that connects young people to their friends. No child says they are going to ‘social network’ or have ‘social networks’

So what does this mean? We have a vocabulary problem and we are confusing our students and our children in relation to what they are seeing as all things information communication technology based and how we see them. It is clear that as educators and parents we need to listen to the language being used and start to use it properly ourselves. We can educate young people in the use of ‘our’ language but it will always be seen as something abstract compared to the terms they have been surrounded by in their technological environment.

Sample Language issues

Privacy – It should be made clear that how we as teachers use this word needs to be done with caution. Too often today this word simply means to hide and this does not solve the issue of inappropriate use. Privacy does not exist when it comes to the world wide web and while activating privacy settings puts our minds at ease it does not deal with the underlying issue of young people having done something they want to hide. This is why when parents place parental controls onto hardware, students will always find other ways to hide what they are doing.

Security – unfortunately the only way this is used by our students is when talking about viruses. It is a very small part of the term and what it applies to and more importantly with the Apple platform still being largely virus/malware free it has been lost

Social Networking – This is an educator term and is unrelated to the terms that students use. When a student speaks about their life in the digital space the simply use the word ‘online’. This covers all aspects of social networking instant messaging photos video, any space they look at on the web.

It is clear also that trying to work out what to teach students about their digital citizenship is very problematic. At first educators want to define the term, then work out its sub points, then allocate it to a time frame and finally deliver it. The issue is that it is almost impossible to do this when the access to students is equal regardless of their age. It is like trying to find a way to teach a 11 year old student in Year 6 the same as a 17 year old in Year 12. The reality is they are accessing and experiencing the same environments online regardless of what we want to believe. Reconciling this into a program and scope and sequence then poses great problems.

In trying to scope and sequence, it is abundantly clear that as educators we don’t want to teach a Year 6 student the same as a Year 12 regardless of the environment being the same. So after spending considerable time in doing so the obvious way of moving forward on these issues is to handle them by topics similar to how we deal with curriculum. For example Social Networking. Every Year 6 student needs to be educated about the issues they can face using social networks. That is don’t confine the teaching to that of Facebook or Twitter but in generic terms deal with the reality of the online behaviours. Children are about to approach a time when they can have a Facebook account, even though many have them already, and they need to have the tools to deal with the situations arriving from these spaces. It is no different to teaching the issues involved with drinking, drugs or other health risks we have existing programs for already. By dealing with topics as educators we can move students through a sense of the issues and deal with the issues up to a level that is general enough to be built on over time. Those in our schools dealing with the ‘hot topics’ of the moment can start to map these into their pastoral programs and allow for previous discussions with students.

It is also important not to dismiss the parents from their own responsibilities. It is very clear that they need as much help as the students and it is critical to make sure they become part of the education process at home and at school. Issues that happen outside of school often make their way back into the classroom and while there are two positions schools can take on this parents are left to handle the situation regardless.

Teachers also need to take account of their personal spaces. In an era of growing expectation for employees to act responsibility online it is no wonder that teachers are now being examined on their moral and ethical conduct in virtual spaces. Most importantly, students are in these spaces watching and noting what teachers are doing and forming opinions about them, which directly effects their day-to-day interaction. This extends further into issues of copyright and intellectual property rights, which teachers unfortunately seem to neglect.  Being a role model in the virtual space is the new paradigm of teaching.

No matter where we start the conversations, it is important that we do so as soon as possible. As educators we have a duty to prepare our students to handle their personal environments during and beyond their schooling and this means ensuring they are equipped with the tools to succeed in an online world as well as the physical.

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