As someone whose academic work and past experience revolves largely around high school students, but who currently works and teaches in higher education, I wanted to take a slightly different approach to this assignment. While I do want to know how we are teaching students, often referred to as digital natives and assumed to have a concomitant set of skills and habits, to be digital citizens, I’m also intensely curious how we have those same conversations with adults who have learned and adapted to the modern digital world from its inception through its developmental stages when no curricula existed to guide that process.
How are the experts defining Digital Citizenship?
Although a variety of specific definitions of digital citizenship abound, each with its own slightly unique take on the matter, they clearly share a focus on the importance of defining responsible behavior as we interact with modern technology in the interconnected world it creates. While Dr. Mike Ribble, Chief Digital Citizen of the Digital Citizenship Institute, defines digital citizenship as “the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use,” the Digital Citizenship Institute declares it as the “area of inquiry and activity related to the ethics, concerns, and opportunities associated with living a digital lifestyle.” Webroot, a cybersecurity firm, defines digital citizens, using a political lens, as those who “[recognize] how their homegrown efforts affect their neighbors and populations abroad [and] use technology to report events, organize action, and mobilize supporters across nations.”
Where I, however, find the definition that most resonates with me is in The Digital Citizenship Institute’s White Paper description of digital citizenship as a quest to “help students, as well as ourselves, develop the skills and perspectives necessary to live a digital lifestyle, that is safe, ethical, and responsible, as well as inspired, innovative, and involved.” This definition both encompasses the benefits of an interactive digital world (connectivity, innovation, and the drastic increase of access to knowledge) and the roles and responsibilities of the individual within that world (acting in a manner that demonstrates awareness of personal safety while ensuring the ethical treatment of others (Keady; Horvath) and awareness of the ramifications of individual action).
Keeping the Heart of a Definition
Here’s a really interesting take on how we perceive and think about digital citizenship…
Teaching Students to be Digital Citizens
Perform a Google search for digital citizenship and it will return a variety of curricula or methodologies dedicated to how we teach students to be responsible digital citizens. While many of them stem from the work of entities (Common Sense Media; Digital Citizenship Institute; New Media Literacies), others are the work of individuals within the field (Ribble; Davis; Hertz; Curran and Ribble). Sites geared toward educating parents and children to be vigilant in an online world also abound (Common Sense Media; FTC; Cyberwise; Youthspark; StopBullying).
Beyond classroom curricula and informational sites, many entities create games to teach students about the concepts of digital citizenship. Ranging from the FBI’s Cyber Surf Island to PBS’s Webonauts Internet Academy to Common Sense Media’s Digital Passport to AT&T’s Safety Land, these games teach key vocabulary, present real life scenarios requiring decisions, provide frameworks to guide interaction with the Internet and other users (for example, PBS’s Webonauts motto is Observe, Respect, and Contribute), and ensure students know how to maintain their personal safety when using the Internet.
For the purposes of deeper understanding, however, I want to compare Curran and Ribble’s P-20 Model of Digital Citizenship with Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship Curriculum. I selected these two curricula for two reason. First, Curran and Ribble (as leaders of the Digital Citizenship Institute) and Common Sense Media are respected as experts within the field and, second, both are recent, having been released within the last 2 years.
Building on Ribble’s Nine Themes of Digital Citizenship, the P-20 Model adopts 9 digital elements across three themes, noted as REP areas: Respect (etiquette, access, law); Educate (literacy; communication; commerce); and Protect (rights & responsibilities, safety, health & welfare). Within the curriculum cycles, each theme is taught across the appropriate grade levels, with content building on prior knowledge. Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship Curriculum asks students to study eight themes across grades K-12: Privacy & Security, Self-Image and Identity, Relationships & Communication, Cyberbullying & Digital Drama, Digital Footprint & Reputation, Creative Credit & Copyright, Information Literacy, and Internet Safety (see Scope and Sequence above for visual). Although the Scope and Sequence covers each of the eight themes in the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12), the lessons for the youngest students focus more heavily on privacy, safety, literacy, and building positive relationships and communication while lessons for high school students see a more equal coverage of each theme.
On the surface (and without having experienced the presentation of either curriculum in person), I appreciate the clear delineation of the nine digital elements and three themes in the P-20 Model, however, I think the scope and sequence of the Digital Citizenship Curriculum indicates a program that introduces themes and follows them throughout the units, building on student experience, prior learning, and ability to engage in more meaningful ways with the content as they age. Further, given the ways we see high school students engaging with social media (Koebler; Helsel; BBC) and the ramifications of their actions, I like that the curriculum continues throughout their K-12 education. As students move into adulthood and technologies continue to advance, it seems important that we reinforce the lessons of responsible behavior in a digital age, rather than assuming (as we’re inclined to do in the era of “digital natives”), that they’ve got it.
Before moving on to examine how we discuss digital literacy with adults, however, I wanted to highlight a few points that stood out when reviewing the curricula and commentaries:
- Students need to be comfortable using modern technologies to be competitive in the job market when they graduate. The P-20 Model quotes third grader, Curran Dee, as saying “If you want us to learn about the world, we have to learn with the world.” As such we need to ensure that our students have access to technology, that technology use is meaningful and relevant, and that the technologies we select promote the level of thinking we want them to demonstrate.
- We cannot assume our students come to us with the requisite skills and attitudes for success with technology. Our students come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and, as such, have varied experiences with technology. We also cannot assume they are savvy users just because they are using the technology.
- Studies show that access to technology is changing how our students view the world and themselves, as such, it is important to have conversations with them about setting appropriate boundaries, understanding the affect social media can have on self-image, etc.
- Say it loud and say it often. Teaching students about digital citizenship once doesn’t cut it. Students must be introduced to the concepts, engage in real-life experiences to inform their perspectives, continue to learn and develop themselves as digital citizens, and reflect on how they will integrate new technologies and knowledge into their lives. The lessons of digital citizenship should stand as enduring understandings we hope they attain throughout their formative years.
- Growing digital citizens, like most things in life, takes a village. Educators should work in partnership with parents, community members, etc. to ensure that students understand the best ways to use and interact with technology. We must ensure that we, for lack of a better expression, practice what we preach. (Curran and Ribble)
- We are citizens of an ever-increasing world. We need to talk with our students about their role within the local community, larger community, and the world. If they don’t understand how their actions may impact others, we’re doing something wrong. Consider Curran’s concept of iCitizen – iCitizens are “aware, empathetic, socially responsible, and action oriented in regard to social justice issues…[they are] citizen[s] of the world” (P-20).
What about adults?
Given that many adults today grew into technology and didn’t have the benefit of curricular programs targeted at digital citizenship in their formative years, I’m incredibly curious as to how the message from official channels may differ. Like many individuals my age, I hopped on the earliest social media and had a MySpace page through college; I held out from Facebook until 2008. I was fortunate to be in education courses at the time where instructors encouraged us to remember our students would also be on these sites and to keep our profiles private. I also have a father who is pretty diligent about reminding us to be safe so I was somewhat limiting what I put out there for the rest of the world to see. For my friends? Not so much. That said, it was after I left college and began working in a professional environment that I learned more about password security, how employers were using social media to screen future employees, and how it was almost impossible to really erase digital information.
While there will always be those who eschew technology and the access it provides to their lives, how do we talk to adults about staying safe as they engage in social media or information sharing across the Internet? How are adults, who didn’t grow up computers, learning these same lessons we’re teaching students? And is there an inevitability that we take a do as I say, not as I do mentality when it comes to our own behaviors?
In an interview between Larry Magid and Rebecca Randall of Common Sense Media, they advocate that the same lessons of digital citizenship we teach to students apply to adults (full article). Although I was able to find several higher education and adult education blogs that addressed teaching digital literacy to adults (Spector; Ahlquist; Pasquini), these blogs assume we have adults face-to-face in a classroom where they are being compelled by grade or requirement to learn these behaviors…which will not always be the case. Clearly quality curricula exist relating to digital citizenship, but they are predominantly targeted at K-12 and that may not always translate well to an adult audience.
As such (and as educators or information professionals), we need to think about how we can build these conversations among our students and peers. Pasquini, who cites Tom Nichols’ quote “…the internet is actually changing the way we read, the way we reason, the way we think, and all for the worse” (The Death of Expertise), provides evidence as to why these conversations are so important. Our students need to know how to use technology to find context, engage critically, ensure credibility, and practice collaboration and problem-solving. Her discussion of credibility and context reminded me of the April Fools’ joke played by NPR several years ago. While funny, the bottom line is that people are posting, and passionately, about a heading (surface level information, at best) without bothering to dig more deeply. This speaks to a larger and more-telling trend when you consider people may be using the same strategies to determine their votes, weigh in on issues of significance, etc.
I’m not sure I there is any easy answer to this question as we cannot mandate all adults take a course and it’s unfortunate that many will learn the hard way (Poppick; Ronson; Samson), however, we need to consider how we can both encourage and engage in conversations with our peers and society at large about the responsible use of technology and all that implies.