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.
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?
Even before Marc Prensky brought the term “digital natives” into our lexicon, the impression of many teachers has been that our kids are young Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, spending their time away from school building robots, coding mobile apps, or creating the next Facebook. The fact is that our kids do have far more technology skills than we did at the same age, simply because an iPad was placed into their tiny hands at the age of two. They cannot imagine a world without smartphones, iPads, laptops, or wearables. However, we are being remiss if we believe that the technology skills most students bring to our classrooms are enough to get them through life. Here, in no particular order, is a list, based upon personal experience, of a few of the types of technology (and life) skills techno-savvy kids still need to learn.
Digital safety/security. Many of our students lack basic knowledge of email, preferring to use social media or texting, making them vulnerable to phishing, viruses, etc. Also, students are much, much less concerned with privacy than you or I probably are, making them more likely to share information that should be kept private. Students need opportunities to practice using email, interacting on social media, filling out online forms, even (gasp!) reading user agreements, so that they will know how to protect their identities, accounts, finances, and more.
Digital ethics. This one is a challenge, but we should at the very least be encouraging our students at every opportunity to be responsible, ethical, thoughtful users of the internet and social media, in particular. The detached or even anonymous nature of life online turns even the most mild-mannered into people who spread discord, misinformation, even hate. While this primarily goes to the core of a person’s moral makeup, adults can model proper, ethical behavior and encourage our kids to follow suit. They should also know that, increasingly, there can be real consequences to forgetting to do so.
Information literacy. The amount of information out there is really fairly staggering. There are 833 Tumblr posts, 463 Instagram photos uploaded, over 3800 tweets per SECOND online. Granted, much of these are nonsensical or pictures of some guy’s sandwich. Still, the cumulative effect is that students have to be smarter information users. They have to know how to wade through the inane or the inaccurate to find the inspired and informative. This takes practicing asking the types of critical questions that examine sources’ credibility, motives, currency, etc.
E-learning. When I say e-learning, I mean in terms of the formal, organized stuff that schools love. Kids do know how to learn online–they do it through YouTube, peer networks, etc. Formal online courses, however, have specific expectations, skills, and deadlines that require students to work independently but on a time table, if that makes sense. They have to be organized and have the drive to meet deadlines without a teacher’s constant reminders and encouragement. If you have ever taken an online course, you know it is an entirely different animal, and more courses are offered in this format by the day.
Higher tech skills. These are the obvious skills like coding or robotics, of course. They also include things like basic hardware knowledge, such as how a hard drive works and, maybe, how to change one that has crashed. Knowledge of the basics of a wireless network have transferability to most homes and business settings. Skills like understanding and creating electrical circuits, simple soldering, disassembling and reassembling devices are all useful and needed down the line. The processes of problem identification/diagnosis, strategizing, and solving problems are ones that are useful far beyond the technology or electronics realm.
Electronic branding. Students need to be taught ways to leverage the internet and its relative permanence to their advantage. Creating “professional” blogs, websites, YouTube channels, etc. to document their accomplishments and learning gives students powerful tools to share with colleges, future employers, etc.
Screen-off time. Studies expressing concern for kids neglecting physical activity in favor of screen time are everywhere and a very important area of concern. Less discussed, however, is how so much screen time actually affects the way our brains take in and process information, even being linked to a reduced ability to stay on topic or focus on longer text. Students need to learn these potential effects and strategies to restore cognitive function, physical fitness, and interpersonal relationships (like actually get together with a friend and take a hike in the woods).
Copyright was the topic of a recent discussion I had with a group of educators, so I felt inspired to create a couple of resources addressing the topic. I hope you find them useful. The podcast is an overview of Fair Use and some tips and tools for teachers to use to teach students about copyright.