By David Siminoff

Remember when the library was the best (and only) place to work on a research paper? When enjoying cute animals’ antics meant going to the zoo or buying a pet, rather than spending a Saturday on YouTube? Or how about waiting eagerly for the release of a new season’s baseball cards so you could marvel at your favorite player’s stats…or going to the record store to buy a new album (do those words even exist anymore?) to find out if the latest music is as good as you’d hoped?

You likely have fond memories of the above but, in 2018, it’s safe to say your students don’t remember nor can they even imagine most of these former realities. Today’s students didn’t just grow up in the digital world, they were born into it. That makes for a very real generation gap. We adults are up-to-speed on the worldwide web, sure, but we also remember the world without it, and we are tuned into the risks of engaging with the internet in a less-than-mindful manner. Some of these ideas will be new to your students, which presents an opportunity to develop their digital citizenship skills.

In my definition, everyone with internet access is a digital citizen in the digital world, whether they realize it or like it. The internet is the greatest tool ever invented for connecting each of us to a truly global community, and for making the global local. The benefits for educational attainment and equity are immense, but educators also have some difficult lessons to teach students about responsible digital citizenship. How can we all be productive, upstanding members of the digital world?

Getting Started: Navigating the Challenges

Teaching digital citizenship, like anything, comes with its challenges. First and foremost is bridging the generation gap to get in alignment with learners. We may have come of age in a time when these things called “desktops” ran programs on “floppy disks” and packed about one percent of the computing power kids carry around in their pockets today, but we know what the digital world is all about. Establishing that we understand students and the realities of their day-to-day, and making an effort at authentic engagement can help them see that we do have a valuable perspective to share. Ask your students about some of their favorite devices and go-to websites. What do they use these tools to accomplish? Tell them how you used to accomplish some of the same tasks, and explain some of the benefits of the tools they have today. Connect your experience with theirs to establish that common ground.

Making digital citizenship topics real and relevant to students is another challenge to address. There may be many concepts they haven’t really considered, or have considered only in the abstract. What does it truly mean for something you say or do as a kid to be online forever? What are the negative implications of free access to content, and freedom to create? What happens when content creators lack even the intent to be truthful? These are some questions that may seem philosophical at a glance but have already shown they can shape public, private, and political life. Make sure you stay up-to-date on modern examples that demonstrate these concepts and share them with students in an open forum. Get their feedback and their insights. Do they see that these are important questions to consider? Once you’ve made that point, you’re well on your way.

3 Ways to Help Students Improve Digital Citizenship Skills

The digital world is fast-moving, so the great thing about teaching digital citizenship is you can get started today. There are numerous entry points to open up the discussion and several key topics to address, so getting started is all about being intentional and identifying your opening. Here are three places you can start:

1. Improving Social Media Etiquette — Blog posts, tweets, photos. Your thoughts, dreams, fears. What you love, what you hate, or what you drank or ate. Once you put it online, it is there forever. For students, that doesn’t only mean the content has greater reach in the present — your mom or grandfather might see what you intended for friends — but that it extends into their future beyond what they’ve considered. A 13-year-old would have had limited opportunity, or any good reason, to think about the interview they’ll have one day when being considered for a dream job. So would he or she know that a future employer might see the NSFW language populating a Facebook page today? Your high schoolers are making plans for college: “I’m going to major in X and have a great career in Y, and that’s how it’s going to go.” But what if one day they decide to run for public office? Better be smart about what they do online now.

Have your students engage in discussion around the following questions: What sort of things should they normally post online and what should they avoid? What precautions should we all
take when using social media? If you were an employer, evaluating yourself as a candidate,
what would you think about your social media accounts? Would it be a factor in your decision-making? Once you’ve had this discussion, try an activity, either in class or as
homework: have students create mock social media profiles that leverage the positive power of the medium. Social media can be used to raise money for charitable causes, to create communities for isolated populations, or to share passions and interests. Challenge students to set a clear purpose and create a profile aligned to their objectives. Show them that the lesson isn’t meant to make them scared; it’s to make them mindful. When we avoid the pitfalls, we can take advantage of the possibilities.

2. Make Crowdsourcing Work for You — Crowdsourcing is a powerful phenomenon in the digital world. It’s the process by which an individual can take his or her fantastic idea and tap into the power of the online community to get it out into the world. We all have ideas but don’t always have the resources to turn them into something real. Maybe we don’t have the money, the right connections, or perhaps we just don’t know what to do next. Crowdsourcing can help.

Once you’ve defined the term for your students, share an idea you had that could have benefited from crowdsourcing. Over the past decade, sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have made a lot of projects possible. But before these sites existed, did you have an idea you just couldn’t get off the ground? Use this as a way to show the invaluable opportunity made a reality in a digital world. Then, have your students consider some key questions about being responsible digital citizens when it comes to crowdsourcing. Have them review some campaigns online and weight the merits. Are they using crowdsourcing for a legitimate purpose? Is there real value being given to the campaign’s supporters? Is the objective of the campaign something that needs to happen, is it a nice-to-have, or should it not be around at all? Then, have your students propose ideas for crowdsourcing campaigns they might want to start. Are there social or legislative challenges that would benefit from disparate individuals working together? Is there a passion project that needs support to get going? Considering the why of crowdsourcing is foundational for getting students to understand the how.

3. Understanding Life Without Internet — Even those of us who grew up without the internet can tend to take it for granted these days. But understanding life without web access isn’t just a thought experiment; it’s a reality for many. Explain to students the two main factors causing the digital dive in this country: cost and location. Cost is a simple one — the internet can get expensive, especially for any kind of high-speed connection, and it’s more than some people can afford. Location is one that may not be as obvious, but many places, even in the U.S., don’t have the infrastructure for broadband access. It makes internet unreliable, at best. If you’re looking to integrate digital citizenship with cross-curricular civics lessons, have your students consider governments around the world that restrict or limit access to the internet. There are many reasons why we’re privileged to have access.

What tasks would be harder, or perhaps impossible, without internet access? Are there any that could actually be…easier? Pose these in class as discussion questions and listen closely to students’ responses. See if they have a good feel for how reliant they truly are on the internet. Are the tasks they’re naming truly impossible without access? For an activity, assign them to do some simple research that could quickly and easily be accomplished with a search engine, but don’t allow them to use the internet. Allow them to think creatively to try finding the information. Allow for the productive struggle. Once complete, reinforce the point: while this activity may have been a simulation in our class environment, it’s a reality for many of their peers across the country and across the world. Being a digital citizen means understanding and appreciating what’s available and using it productively.

Digital Citizens Are Global Citizens

We need to teach students the key lessons to be careful on the internet, but above all, it’s important to remember what a powerful connector it is. You can walk out your front door and have a chat with your neighbor, Tom, and you can do this anytime. But if you don’t really like Tom, you can also get online and chat with someone in Nova Scotia, Beijing, or Tasmania. You can see, hear, show, and tell. Global connection is amazing and the digital world opens up global citizenship for our students. It’s an amazing time to be an educator. Enjoy developing digital citizens in the classroom!

David Siminoff is the founder and Chief Creative Officer of Shmoop, a digital publisher with a comprehensive curriculum and test prep resources. Learn more on Twitter @shmoop

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