Sunday / July 21

The Optimistic Heart of Digital Citizenship

Contributed by Renee Hobbs

Let’s be frank: there’s a right way and a wrong way to teach digital citizenship.

When people hear the term, digital citizenship, most people think of helping students to protect their privacy and be aware of their digital footprint. Educators may encourage students to behave civilly towards each other and not to bully or be mean. They may explore the concept of netiquette and help learners understand their legal rights and responsibilities under copyright. The goal here is to enable students to gain knowledge, reflect on their behavior, and develop good habits that support the effective use of media and technology for learning. All this is good.

However, sadly, sometimes these concepts are taught with a distinctively negative tone. The teacher, librarian, or parent may stand on the soapbox, offering a set of “don’ts” and “shouldn’ts” that children may recite without real understanding. Even worse, some even teach digital citizenship by tapping into or exploiting fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’s easy to scare kids about ruining their future by posting a photo, getting scammed, or even getting in trouble with the law. But it’s not a good way to teach digital citizenship because fear is disempowering.

If we want students to become responsible digital citizens, we must teach digital citizenship with a spirit of optimism. To do this, we must address the real heart of digital citizenship: what it’s really about is the careful balance of power and responsibility that comes in making choices.

Educators recognize the importance of starting the school year off right by establishing a learning environment where respect and trust can flourish, where students can feel safe, free to be able to take risks, and not be afraid of failure.  After all, to truly learn new things, we all must step out of our comfort zones. Here are some ideas to consider as you use the theme of digital citizenship to lay the groundwork that enables students to use digital media and technology productively for learning:

  1. Get to Know Your Students’ Favorite Forms of Media and Technology

Activate your curiosity about students’ media and technology use as you get to know them as unique individuals. Ask them about the games, movies, TV shows, apps and websites they used this summer. As mobile and tablet use increases, kids have a lot of autonomy in their media choices and this is often a big part of what they spend time doing during the summer. It’s OK to acknowledge some of our guilty pleasures: we can own up to the media we know is not good but we use it anyway. Learning to recognize quality from junk is relevant both at home and in school. When you create space for students to talk about their own choices as a consumer of digital media and technology, we recognize that people’s choices matter because they reflect and shape our values. By acknowledging that all students are both consumers and producers, you show you value their responsible choices at both at home and school.

  1. Celebrate Your Students as Digital Authors

It is highly likely that some of your students are media creators: did any of your students capture some of their summer fun using their cell phones to take photos or make sound or video recordings? Perhaps you will ask them to select a photo from their cell phone and share it with the class by writing or talking about it. Researchers have found that children’s and teens’ out-of-school digital media activities can scaffold skills and habits of mind that support their academic work. This sets the stage for talking about the responsible use of tablets, laptops and cell phones as they may support the learning process. Perhaps students can be invited to discover and learn to use some inexpensive and easy-to-use apps that encourage creative authorship, like Shadow Puppet, Strip Designer and Videolicious. Rather than write a “how I spent my summer vacation” essay, ask them to create a screencast or short video about it.

  1. Explore How Authors Shape the World

Digital citizens create and consume responsibly. Help students understand that when people write, take pictures, make videos or use symbols to solve problems, they are really shaping the world. For example, when you see a photo of a place you have not visited, you take it for granted that the place looks like what’s in the photo. But authors make choices of how to depict places, things, events and people.  So media consumers depend on media creators to be fair and accurate in how they represent the world. This form of power is tremendous.  And of course not all media creators are fair, balanced or accurate – and our U. S. Bill of Rights makes this legal.

That’s why an optimistic approach to exploring digital citizenship should include the concept of intellectual freedom, which is at the heart of the First Amendment. Start the new school year by helping students appreciate that their intellectual freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition are what makes America great. Freedom of expression really is the cornerstone of democracy. While all people — including children and teens — are free to speak and write freely, and able to use the power of communication and information to make the world a better place, with this freedom comes great responsibility.

When introducing new texts, remind students about the authors who created these works. Demonstrate how to “Google the Author” whenever you use a text, a website, a video or other learning resource – even the textbook! Help students recognize that authors always have a purpose and a point of view. Responsible authors value fairness and accuracy – but in our system, because of intellectual freedom, the burden of responsibility is on the consumer. Whenever we use digital media and technology, we need to look out to make sure that what we are consuming has quality. We should acknowledge the authors whose work we rely on in learning and creating ourselves.

What I love about starting the new school year with digital citizenship is the opportunity to tap into students’ optimism and idealism about their digital futures. As students think about the relationship between consuming and creating, they will come to understand our shared social responsibility: if everyone tried hard to create and share is true, what is beautiful, and what has value to others, and avoided creating content that harms people, the world really would be a better place. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”




Renee Hobbs

Renee Hobbs is Professor of Communication Studies at the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island, where she directs the Media Education Lab. Hobbs co-directs the URI Graduate Certificate in Digital Literacy, a 12-credit blended professional development program for educators, librarians and media professionals. She is the author of Discovering Media Literacy: Teaching Digital Media and Popular Culture in Elementary School, Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Classroom and Culture, and the bestselling Copyright Clarity: How Fair Use Supports Digital Learning.


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