In many parts of the world, one of the most universally available international experiences is traveling the world wide web. It’s hard to believe, but the Internet and the world of ubiquitous connectivity have only gained widespread adoption within the last ten years. Yet they are so embedded in our everyday experience we can’t imagine life without them. Wherever we go, the Internet goes with us, providing a continuous environment that most of us have adopted unconsciously as our second homes. We text, check the news, play games with others half way around the world, without giving it a second thought.
It is because the Web is so pervasive and invisible, and provides access to so many different kinds of experiences, that we have developed such a keen and sometimes urgent interest in understanding how best to help students navigate this new world. In the educational arena, this interest has been given the name “digital citizenship,” a reference to our belief that the internet offers a kind of community experience. Our goal is for students to become the kind of citizens who know how to interact safely and responsibly in this new community without losing the sense of hope and creative possibility that the internet inspires.
As we move forward blending and balancing our lives in RL (Real Life) and VR (Virtual Reality), here are some points to consider.
Involve students in developing acceptable use policies. Acceptable use policies (AUPs) about how students should use the Internet and digital technologies are often developed by adults for students. I recommend schools consider adding students to the policy development team. Doing so compels students to think more deeply about the possibilities and pitfalls of their online lives. In addition, having students discuss AUPs with their peers broadens the conversation in ways that can permeate a school culture. And because students have a hand in developing their own AUPs, they are more likely to honor them.
Revisit your school’s mission statement. Most schools have clear behavioral and perspective goals for students. Digital citizenship compels us to ask how these translate into the digital domain. One line of thought says no change is needed; that is, ethical considerations don’t change as we move from RL to VR. While I wish life were this simple, my three decades in educational technology suggest otherwise. The nature of activities like theft and bullying can be quite different between the two worlds; other issues, like identity theft and secording (secretly recording people) are almost entirely products of the digital domain. In short, there are enough differences between the two worlds that we need to shine a light on them so we can see them clearly, understand them deeply, and develop policies that recognize the new experience that digital citizenship represents. I recommend schools look for ways to update their mission statements. If a mission says something like “Students will engage positively with the community,” consider changing it to “Students will engage positively with their traditional and virtual communities.” We need to understand the two worlds we inhabit in terms of their differences as well as their similarities.
Encourage parents to talk to their children. Parents frequently tell me they don’t talk to their kids about their online lives because they feel they are invading their children’s privacy. Hogwarts. Now more than ever, parents and children need to talk about the issues involved in living a digital lifestyle; they have much to teach each other. If parents are worried about sounding invasive, then I suggest they be more curious than judgmental, and more general than specific. I recommend they try talking to their kids about real issues in their digital lives, like what to do if one of their friends is being mistreated on Facebook, how to handle misinformation posted on a blog or whether texting should be allowed during the school day; the topics are endless and always relevant. Students may know more about the digital domain than we do, but we have been alive longer and hopefully have accumulated some wisdom that might be useful to them.
Think about how you will be Googled. Have students use Google and other search tools to put together a composite of how they are seen on the Web. They are often amazed at what they find, sometimes because they see references they don’t like, other times because they don’t find references to accomplishments that are important to them. Based on the composite they create I ask students to ask themselves: Would you hire yourself? Allow you to attend your university? These are not rhetorical questions. It is routine these days for employers and universities to check the web to learn more about potential candidates.
Develop a digital footprint. What if students want to improve their web composites? One of the most effective approaches to identity management is to create the kind of digital presence – often referred to as a digital footprint – that we want others to see. At whatever age we feel is appropriate – an assessment that varies among schools, cultures and families – we should help students create web-published, well publicized ePortfolios that show all of the great stuff they do. And of course, we will be there to help them become the people they want the world to see.
In the end, we want students to pursue a future that celebrates success not only in terms of abundance but also in terms of humanity. We want them to balance the inspiration and personal empowerment that a digital lifestyle offers with a sense of personal, community and global responsibility. Fortunately for all us, school is an excellent place to do just that.
For more information, watch this video of Jason Ohler discussing Digital Citizenship.