Skills We Can’t Teach: Facilitating Authentic Experiences with Digital Citizenship

By Sarah Ludwig |

Can students learn online skills from a teacher? More and more, I’m thinking the answer is no. Countless times, I  see high school students watch a YouTube video to better understand a concept that was already covered in class. It’s how kids learn. When they work independently, they apply and therefore retain the skills.

Yet we can’t turn students loose on social media without some discussion of responsibility. Character education is as important as Internet research. We have a charge to cover copyright, fair use, effective communication, and privacy. But how? Without real-world consequences, how will students understand that they really can’t use someone else’s image without asking? Do we teach our students these topics for the sake of plausibility? We teach them as is our duty, in other words, but they can choose whether or not to listen?

More and more students are locking down their Instagram and Twitter accounts or choosing extreme Facebook privacy. Students don’t want teachers and parents in their space. They are finding creative ways to live a public life with some modicum of control. We, as their teachers, cannot force that control.

At the National Association of Independent School’s 2013 annual conference, I was lucky enough to hear danah boyd speak. She discussed students’ desire for control with specific attention to the American experience of making friends in college. The day after the speech, she wrote about this topic in a March 1st post on her website. Essentially, boyd believes that because incoming college students can use social networks to connect with their future classmates before school even starts, “they begin a self-segregation process that results in increased ‘homophily’ on campuses.” Homophily, boyd explains, is the socological phenomenon of birds of a feather flocking together. She asserts that college is ideally a time to “connect incoming students with students of different backgrounds.” Therefore, this pre-frosh use of Facebook undermines the educational experience.

I can’t stop thinking about this speech. It touches upon concerns I’ve had for a while about the way we teach digital citizenship in schools. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with a fellow educator about the frustrations of introducing digital ethics to students. One day, she lamented, students were handing in well-crafted papers on the pitfalls of social media; a week later, they were being disciplined for online bullying. So how do we authentically teach our students to use technology responsibly and ethically? And how can we avoid instilling a sense of fear in our students through that focus on responsibility and ethics?

Many commenters on boyd’s article disagree with her. “The first semester of college is a really rough shock for many students and being able to retain something of a social safety net can really help them adjust to the change,” writes one. “I would prefer to have a safe place to escape from the world and then emerge to talk to my diverse neighbors when I’m relaxed and rested than be forced to deal with regular conflict in what’s supposed to be my safe space.” So this is the heart of the matter: Are students creating a safe space for themselves online? Or are they simply isolating themselves from the greater world around them?

I have never been comfortable with the scare tactics that I sometimes see in courseware for Internet education. I nevertheless find myself resorting to them at times to get students to understand the seriousness of the topic. Partly because I’m short of time. These lessons often get mashed into two or three days out of a students’ academic year. That’s not enough. These lessons need to be woven right into the curriculum. Any time students are asked to do online research or create a digital product, their teacher  reminds them of their expectations: use fair-use images only. Credit all media, not just text. Represent our school well. Take a moment to analyze the source of your information.

As librarians, we have a responsibility to educate faculty about digital ethics at the school level. If a teacher is not comfortable teaching their students how to filter fair-use images in Google, then we need to model that—for the teacher as well as his or her students. We must be a voice for responsible use of online resources that goes beyond “don’t swear” and “treat each other well.” The ethical issues that surround online research and tools are thorny and complex. They deserve as much class time as possible.

Technology opens up the world. This is a good thing. We need to find a way to flip the way we teach students how to live online. An idea that resonates with me is that we should facilitate student-driven projects that touch upon the concepts of digital citizenship. In a recent column for Edutopia, Andrew Miller writes about targeting ISTE standard # 5 for students, which calls on students to “understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior.” (source) He suggests using this standard’s learning targets to create a rubric for assessment of the project. And he emphasizes authenticity. “Students can create awareness, solve a problem, design a program and more. This authentic purpose will help you focus the inquiry and create a driving question that is purpose-driven and in student-friendly language.” Let the students take the lead. They know far better than we do what issues are facing their peers and themselves.

Some ideas for projects like this:

  • Have students create materials to educate their younger peers on specific issues related to digital life. Encourage them to discuss their own personal experiences, not rely on hypothetical situations. These materials might be videos, webinars, online tutorials, or digital presentations.
  • One of the most fascinating aspects of danah boyd’s talk was her focus on ethnography. Consider undertaking a project like this at your school. Students can identify areas they’d like to research and then undertake a study of particular trends. Using infographics, interviews, raw data, or polls, students could then analyze their findings and put forth theories on how technology affects their community.
  • Similarly, a documentary-style project would be fascinating, either as a film or a written journalism project. Given enough time, students could create a snapshot of their school and the issues that are important to them. By following a small group of diverse peers, students could illustrate how technology affects this generation.

More than anything, I think it’s important for us to remember that our students need to take responsibility for their own behavior online. And responsibility is not the kind of skill that can be forced. It has to be learned through experience. As educators, let’s do our best to provide those experiences, and to let our students share their own knowledge with us. Digital citizenship is a messy subject, and schools should be a safe place to explore it.