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Learning Library Blog WHAT WORKS: Teaching digital citizenship without devices
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WHAT WORKS: Teaching digital citizenship without devices

By Nicole Krueger
December 15, 2017
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Over the summer, a group of preteens attended a camp to learn how to communicate online. They explored computational thinking concepts, practiced using social media and developed their media literacy skills. 

And they did it all without a lick of technology.

Instead, they put on costumes and role-played social media interactions. They held up emoji sticks in response to each other’s “posts.” And the kids, many of whom confessed to clocking five or more hours in front of a screen each day, loved exploring their unplugged version of the digital world, says Carrie Rogers-Whitehead, CEO of Digital Respons-Ability, which runs digital citizenship programs for underserved student populations in Salt Lake County, Utah.

“It’s not about the computer,” she says. “It’s about the people behind the computer. It’s about how you interact with others. Communication is the same whether you click ‘like’ or hold up a stick.”

When Rogers-Whitehead launched Digital Respons-Ability a year ago, she wanted to take a more holistic approach to teaching digital citizenship. She developed her own data-based curriculum, drawing upon the ISTE Standards for Students as well as her experiences with teenagers as a librarian. Her goals were twofold: Help kids develop their softer communication skills without the distraction of technology and gather data on digital citizenship education to guide future efforts.

She initially partnered with Salt Lake County Youth Services to provide digital citizenship programming for Title I students. During the summer, the organization ran its first four-week intensive camp, serving about 30 students. With more camps planned this winter, she hopes to reach 100 students by the end of the year.

Why does it work?

Students connect online with offline behavior. People often behave differently behind a computer screen than they would in person. By acting out online situations face to face, students learn viscerally that “what happens online happens in real life,” Rogers-Whitehead says. “It gets them to connect in their heads that what they’re doing online is the same thing as if they’re sitting in class and raising their hand. It has the same impact, even if no one can see you.”

They learn to self-regulate. By requiring all students to unplug for a while, the camp helps them relax and take a break from “technology anxiety,” or the spikes in cortisol related to habitually checking their smartphones. In addition to modules on computational thinking, social media use and digital literacy – all taught via hands-on activities and role playing – the curriculum incorporates mindfulness training, such as meditative sensory walks, designed to help kids think through their communications and tap into their ability to empathize.

Data helps educators refine their approach. At the beginning and end of each camp, students take a survey designed to measure the effectiveness of digital citizenship education – a subject on which only limited data exists. Although the survey sample is small so far, the results have already been illuminating. One hypothesis was that developing a better understanding of digital citizenship would help foster an interest in STEM careers. So far, the data suggests that might be true. 

“I think digital citizenship is not just a one-off thing. It’s a mindset, a culture shift, a movement,” Rogers-Whitehead says. “We need more data-driven, intensive work behind it so it’s not just that one-off assembly or that mention in health class. Hopefully, this can help everyone.”

Turning to students for tech support

When teachers at Burlington High School have trouble with their 1:1 iPads, they don’t turn to their limited IT department. Instead, they visit the student-run help desk, where tech-savvy teens help them trouble-shoot problems and learn how to use apps in their classrooms.

Modeled after Apple’s Genius Bar, the help desk was developed to support the Massachusetts school’s transition to a 1:1 environment. Initially, students focused on helping teachers work out the kinks in their technology. But as teachers became more comfortable with the technology, the students’ role shifted. 

“The kids have become like edtech consultants,” says Jennifer Scheffer, instructional technology
specialist for Burlington Public Schools in Burlington, Massachusetts. “Now they’re focusing more on pedagogy. How can we leverage technology to impact student learning? How can we make the most of the iPad and all the apps it offers? How can we use it so it transforms learning?”

Student volunteers who are interested in technology earn credit through the semester-long class that’s offered during every period throughout the day in a central location near the library. When they’re not providing tech support to teachers who drop in, they’re busy making video tutorials and offering mini training sessions to show teachers how to use different apps. 

The help desk has been so successful other schools in the district have started implementing their own versions. The middle school now has a student help desk, and last year Scheffer started a similar program for grade-schoolers at Fox Hill Elementary. Although the help desk functions differently at the elementary level where it isn’t a graded class, it still gives students the opportunity to explore their interest in technology while making a real contribution to their school community. 

Why does it work?

It’s a real world experience. Without standardized tests or state assessments attached, the help desk breaks the rules of traditional education. Students focus on solving problems, creating products and meeting teachers’ needs. At the high school level, they also spend 20 percent of their time pursuing their own independent projects, such as building apps or hosting TED-Ed youth events. 

Students create and share online. In the elementary program, kids learn by teaching. As they master different apps, they make video tutorials to share online – not just with teachers, but with a global audience. “I see so much social and emotional learning,” Scheffer says. “Their self-esteem is tremendous when they see work published and see that it’s impacting their school. The real-world digital citizenship lessons for these kids are so powerful.”

Kids get to choose their own direction. As much as possible, Scheffer lets the students decide what they want to work on. “I don’t treat them like little kids,” she says. “I ask them, ‘What do you think is important? What do people need to know how to do?’ These kinds of experiences really let kids delve into their passions and interests.”

Students at Fox Hill enjoyed the help desk so much they couldn’t wait to do it again this year.

“I had kids doing work for help desk at home,” she says. “They were emailing me over weekend and sending me screencasts. It’s nothing they’re getting graded on, but they’re really passionate about it.”

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter. She writes about education technology and the transformation of learning.