This morning I read an interesting piece by my friend Alec Couros and a colleague of his at the University of Regina, Katia Hildebrandt. The post examines a shift happening in some education circles away from a focus on online safety to a focus on active digital citizenship. Online safety lessons and curricula have mostly focused on how students can avoid harmful or dangerous behaviors, like identity theft, online predators, cyberbullying, etc. Digital citizenship encompasses a broader discussion involving how to interact and participate in a positive manner online. Alec and Katia share a useful resource that contrasts the two here.  Taking it further, they advocate that students be taught to move beyond this personal responsibility focus to one that emphasizes a type of “participatory citizenship” that addresses social problems and the systems that perpetuate them.

I heard a great example of this in the closing keynote by Reshma Saujani at ISTE last week. Ms. Saujani shared the revelation she had during a campaign for congress several years back. Visiting  computer classes as she campaigned, she noticed the pronounced absence of female students. Seeing this as a significant problem for our society, she decided to attack the problem head on by creating a website and a coding club for a small group of girls. She engaged leaders in non-profit foundations, schools, industry, and government in conversations about the gender gap in computer science and has been able to introduce tens of thousands of girls to coding and computer science through her Girls Who Code foundation.

The idea of students using the power of technology and the internet to affect social change is not new, but it is also not the norm in too many schools. As Alec and Katia assert, many schools are still engaging only in a discussion of the consequences of negative behaviors and unsafe practices online.  This is depriving our students from the opportunity to experience empowerment as citizens and engagement as learners. In many schools, online safety or digital citizenship lessons are included only as add-ons, filler activities that allow schools to check off their compliance with state or federal expectations, such as e-Rate requirements. How much more powerful would it be to get students involved in actual citizenship and advocacy as local or global issues and needs arise during the course of instruction. Innumerable opportunities exist during the study of history, science, literature, etc.

The following are a few ideas of my own for engaging students in these types of digital activism or participatory citizenship within the framework of an existing curriculum:

  • Build passion by connecting issues to the students’ world. Does this problem still exist? What impact is it having on me or others? Why is it important?
  • Research the problem. Apply critical skills and media literacy to answer the questions still remaining.
  • Engage students in solution-focused imagining. What could be done to alleviate or solve this problem? Who or what is needed to tackle the issue?
  • Give students the tools to be heard. Teach students to use tools such as blogs, podcasts,  wikis, YouTube, or Twitter allow students to share the issues they are passionate about with a global audience.
  • Connect to other stakeholders. The internet can allow students access to experts, other groups working on a problem, or even those most impacted by the issue.
  • Encourage creative and impactful application. As students learn new technologies, have them explore ways to use them to solve real problems (e.g. using 3D printers to create prosthetic limbs).

These ideas are influenced by and sound a lot like project based learning, problem based learning, or service learning, certainly. And like these pedagogies, students engaging in active, participatory, digital citizenship need more time and flexibility with their projects and products and teachers who are capable of facilitating classrooms with greater levels of student control.

What are your thoughts? Is a focus on online safety good enough for schools? What are you doing with students to promote the use of technology for social impact?