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Embed digital citizenship in all subject areas

By Kristen Mattson
September 21, 2018
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The ISTE Standards for Educators encourage teachers to “create experiences for learners to make positive, socially responsible contributions and exhibit empathetic behavior online that build relationships and community.” As a result of these learning experiences, the ISTE Standards for Students describe young people as digital citizens who are responsible, ethical and empathetic in their digital communities.

Empathy, social responsibility and relationship-building can be difficult things to teach and are almost impossible to assess. Schools recognize that there must be an all-hands-on-deck approach when helping students achieve these goals in classrooms, on the playing field and in the hallways of their school, but such an approach seldom helps students achieve the goals of empathy and ethics in their online communities.

According to a 2011 survey of 5,000 teacher librarians conducted by the American Association of School Librarians, 52 percent of digital citizenship education was being conducted by the school librarian in isolation from other educators in their organizations. Another 28 percent of respondents said that the technology teacher was the only one responsible for delivering these lessons in the school community.

Additionally, 42 percent said the biggest barrier to teaching digital citizenship in schools is a lack of an integrated curriculum. We recognize the importance of responsible, ethical and empathetic citizens for a healthy democracy, and in a tumultuous political season that has opened up dialogue about race relations, police relations, gun rights and immigration, it’s clear that much of our civic discourse has moved into digital spaces. However, many digital citizenship programs are simply covering topics related to behavior management in an effort to remain compliant with state and federal regulations.

So how can schools move beyond digital citizenship education that’s awkwardly tacked onto a student’s day for the sake of compliance? How can schools embrace a more holistic all-in approach to help students explore the intersections of humanity and technology, the role of media and algorithms in our political socialization, and the moral questions humanity will face as new technologies push the boundaries between what’s possible to create and what’s ethical to introduce to the world? How will schools ensure that as a result of their digital citizenship efforts, students emerge as more responsible, ethical and empathetic people than they were before?

The answer is to stop thinking about digital citizenship as a stand-alone technology topic and begin thinking about it as an essential component of a well-rounded humanities curriculum.

In my ISTE book Digital Citizenship in Action: Empowering Students to Engage in Online Communities, I write about “hacking learning standards” to create opportunities to weave digital citizenship education into content-area classes. I’d like to share some ideas for how to do just that to help you see that every adult in a school can have an influence in this important work.

The College, Career and Civic Life Framework (C3) for Social Studies Education says that by the end of fifth grade, students should be able to: “Describe ways in which people benefit from and are challenged by working together, including through government, workplaces, voluntary organizations, and families” (D2.Civ.6.3-5).

A social studies educator can add a layer of digital citizenship to the standard by “hacking in” wording related to online spaces. Take a look at this hacked standard: “Describe ways in which people benefit from and are challenged by working together, including through government, workplaces, voluntary organizations, through digital communities and families.”

By adding the words “though digital communities,” educators aren’t taking anything away from the standards they’re required to teach. Instead, they’re helping students dive a little deeper into what it means to be a community member – both offline and on. Countless numbers of social studies, English language arts, health and social emotional learning standards can be enhanced in much the same way to help students explore what it means to be human in our increasingly technological society.

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Here are a few more ideas.

1. Students in an elementary math classroom collect data from their peers, create a bar graph to display average daily minutes of screen time and discuss how their own use is greater than or less than that of their classmates. (CCSS.MATH. CONTENT.3.MD.B.3 Draw a scaled picture graph and a scaled bar graph to represent a data set with several categories. Solve one- and two-step “how many more” and “how many less” problems using information presented in scaled bar graphs.)

2. Students in a middle school social studies class brainstorm and explain the specific roles people play in digital communities, such as contributors, consumers, moderators and tech companies (D2.Civ. 2.6-8. Explain specific roles played by citizens, such as voters, jurors, taxpayers, etc.)

3. Students in an English language arts classroom read, compare and contrast social media posts that have gone viral after a major event. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.6 Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent.)

4. Students in a health class research and report on the impact of wearables, such as step counters, on the overall health and wellness of the population (National Health Education Standard 2: Students will analyze the influence of family, peers, culture, media, technology and other factors on health behaviors.)

Of course, many digital citizenship topics are not so black and white or neatly covered in a single lesson or activity. We also need to give students the opportunity to explore varied viewpoints, reflect on their own relationships with technology tools and digital communities, and wrestle with ethical questions that arise in the digital age. Educators can engage students with these questions by offering up conversation starters, space, time and opportunity for reflection.

This short writing exercise, completed in an English or health classroom, allows students to explore the impact of social media on our perspectives of one another both online and off. Give students a copy of the image on the following page that includes metrics on the social media likes each person pictured recently received.

Have them write a short one- to two paragraph response to each of the three prompts below:

  1. Choose a person in this image. Write a third-person narrative account of their morning leading up to this point.
  2. Choose a person in this image, write a first-person account of the thoughts going through their head right now.

Choose two people in this image. Write a first-person account of what person No. 1 is thinking about person No. 2.

Once the students have completed their writing, ask them to reflect:

  • How did the numbers above people’s heads influence the stories you wrote?
  • How do social media numbers influence the way we feel about ourselves?
  • How do they influence the way others see us?
  • Is it fair to make assumptions about people based on numbers?

Students in a science or engineering course might be introduced to a new type of technology, like Google Pixel Buds, which promise to offer real-time, in-ear translations of up to 40 languages. Essentially, someone who speaks only English could hold a conversation with a Spanish speaker as the Pixel Buds, paired with Google Translate, immediately turn those Spanish words into English ones. On the surface, this sounds like a fantastic feat! A few questions to your students, though, might help them dig a little deeper into the humanity behind a new technology:

  • How might this new technology impact humanity, both positively and negatively?
  • Who benefits from this new technology?
  • Beyond monetary, what is the cost to users?
  • Who might be harmed, isolated or otherwise marginalized by this new technology?

Helping students explore the fine line between our technology and our humanity can be the work of every educator if we’re willing to be creative in the ways we think about curriculum and the ways we think about digital citizenship.

Kristen Mattson, PH. D., is a library media specialist at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Illinois, and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois. She holds an ED.D. from Northern Illinois University, and her research interests include digital citizenship, media literacy, social justice, discourse analysis and the intersections among them.

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