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Pursuing Digital Citizenship

Monday, February 16, 2015  
Posted by: Sarah Stewart
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By Sarah Stewart

As technology becomes more ubiquitous in daily life, educators are constantly pressed with rethinking how it’s used in schools. The widespread availability of devices and access to the internet have brought schools an explosion of resources and possibilities. The push to get devices into the hands of every child has largely been accomplished. In independent schools, all upper school students have laptops, and more schools offer laptops and tablets for middle and lower school students.  

However, what students can accomplish with those devices has been a developing reality. In an environment where schools and teachers have always had complete control, the internet has at times been an unnerving addition. How do schools keep kids safe, and teach them how to act online, while giving them the freedom to explore their passions?

Located in Charlotte, NC, Providence Day School (PDS) enrolls around 1,600 students grades Pre-K through 12. Along with the standard tenets of a college preparatory education and a commitment to student-centered learning and character development, the school has a strong commitment to preparing students for a global world. PDS began piloting 1:1 iPads in classrooms in 2011, and moved to full implementation in 2014. The school’s leaders envisioned a truly blended classroom where technology was integrated so as to be invisible. Students were able to move seamlessly from platform to platform as learning demanded, and with as little policing as possible. 

Like many schools, PDS had an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) that students were required to sign when they received their device. Items in the policy included topics such internet safety, copyright and ownership of work, digital citizenship, and social media guidelines. However, PDS Director of Technology, Matt Scully wanted to move away from the inherently punitive nature of the AUPs. Indeed the school needed language to address expectations regarding devices and student behavior, but it shouldn’t necessarily be a second document from the code of ethics already in place. 

“I think the AUPs have a tendency to put kids in a ‘gotcha’ situation and faculty in a policing situation,” he said. “We wanted to move it from the teachers being an agent of authority to being more of a coach, and frame their behaviors and interactions online in a positive way.” 

Over the past five years, digital citizenship and leadership have become part of the lexicon of 21st Century topics for schools. In researching the topic, Derrick Willard, Assistant Head of Academic Affairs at PDS, came across an abundance of definitions. The vastness of the nternet and the changing face of technology made the topic unwieldy. Outlining what students should and should not post online, where they should and should not go, who they should and should not talk to, and information they should and should not share quickly became cumbersome. Meanwhile, many tech-savvy kids are prone to rolling their eyes and moving to the next platform that offers what they want most – the ability to socialize privately with their friends and visit the websites they care about.

Willard gathered a group of school leaders for a number of meetings to discuss and hopefully distill a more direct definition. In Walt Whitman’s words, “Simplicity is the glory of expression.” At PDS, they wanted to condense this complex topic into some pearls of wisdom that could encapsulate the essence of digital citizenship as well as behavioral expectations for students at PDS in general. 

After much discussion, they came up with three guiding components: to respect, educate, and protect yourself and others. PDS tasked their marketing team and graphic designer to capture their ideas in a logo. They chose a compass with seven points to navigate the digital world: be present, manners matter, credit others, there is no delete, nothing is private, be real, and protect yourself.

“We took input from a lot of parties,” Scully said. “We had an idea of what to say to upper school students, but we also wanted lower school input in order to keep it accessible to that audience. The language is also tech agnostic. We thought it was important to have something that would survive specific devices like the iPad.”

In addition, the compass and its content was simple enough for parents to understand and apply, despite whatever new app or social media platform their children were using. “It was empowering to parents and allowed them to start a conversation with their children. They didn’t have to know what YikYak, SnapChat, or Tumblr were. They could ask more important questions such as: Are you being real? Are you acting with the knowledge that there is no delete? Are you protecting yourself and others?"

After creating the compass, PDS also created an iBook for parents which expanded on those tenets as well as a website. They also plastered the walls of the school with posters of the compass. One reason Scully and Willard believe the strategy is successful is because it’s a starting point for conversations instead of a set of rules or restrictions. Teachers can have discussions at relevant times about what it means to be present, why it is important to credit others, how they can protect themselves online, how there is no option to delete and that nothing is private. 

“I think there’s something to be said about the blessing of a skinned knee,” said Scully. “Kids need room to make mistakes, and whether they are making good choices or bad choices online, this language is a way for teachers and parents to talk to them about their choices in a way that encourages them to learn and take ownership of their behavior.”

Willard also believes the strategy’s success lies in it becoming part of the school’s culture. “We wanted to think about how we could change the culture of the school, not just how we can make better rules. Our digital citizenship compass is widely displayed and memorable and it creates from kids’ earliest age an ambient awareness about expectations and norms for their behavior online and with devices.”

In addition, PDS educates its parents about how they can help their kids navigate technology and the online world. They hold monthly meetings on different topics such as cyber bullying, different social media platforms, and teaching children to protect their information. Willard and Scully also point parents to a number of resources, including their iBook, to help them navigate the digital landscape. One such book is It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd. Boyd’s work as a researcher examines the intersection of technology and society. She is the founder and president of Data & Society based in New York City, the principal researcher at Microsoft Research, a visiting researcher at New York University, and a research affiliate at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Boyd’s book was based on hundreds of interviews with teens, parents, teachers, and youth leaders between 2005 and 2012. The message of the book is that teens growing up as digital natives are not that different from teens of previous generations. They are driven to be independent and connect with each other. They deal with issues teens have always dealt with - making and losing friends, bullying, teasing, identifying their interests, and distinguishing themselves as individuals. Teens are indeed concerned about privacy, and many have developed ways to get around social media platforms so they can have private areas with their peers. Teens also spend more time online because many are stuck at home, and going online is a way they can connect with friends. For this, Boyd pointed toward the demise of safe public spaces for teens to congregate – the malls, drive-ins, or neighborhood soda shops of years past.

Teens also are not any more savvy about the internet just because they grew up with it. Boyd found many, especially younger teens, did not fully understand the privacy settings when posting content or the damage a reckless post could do. For instance they may think only their friends can see their content and not realize that friends of friends can also see it. So if students posts crass content on their profiles, and one of their friends is a friend of a college recruiter, that connection could harm them if they apply to that college.

It is these types of lessons that teachers seek to impart in digital citizenship curriculum. Another excellent resource for schools and parents is Common Sense Media. Common Sense Media is a non-profit organization supported by dozens of foundations and companies that are committed to helping kids thrive in the world of media and technology. Ten years ago, the organization was largely known for its reviews of movies, books, and television shows. But with the boom of social media, mobile devices, and internet access, the group has developed into a multifaceted platform offering everything from resources for parents to curriculum for teachers to certification for schools. 

Holy Trinity Episcopal School (HTES) in Melbourne, FL, was the first in its state to become a Common Sense Signature School with a Digital Citizenship Certification in 2014. The school had already been using many Common Sense Media resources, and it’s director of technology, Susan Bearden was very active promoting digital citizenship online and offline. Bearden has quite a digital footprint herself. She is a co-moderator for #edtechchat, a 2014 Bammy Award Winner, creator of the TweechMe app (an app that teaches teachers how to tweet), and an active blogger and speaker.

At HTES, digital citizenship curriculum is incorporated into all levels of the school and as part of its character education program. Topics include managing your digital footprint, staying safe online, respecting others, and protecting your information. As part of the certification program, two of its teachers became certified educators with Common Sense Media. The school also had to document evidence of the curriculum being used with students, and the school must be recertified every year.

Bearden also hosts parents’ chats monthly. She finds parents are eager to learn how to better monitor and guide their children’s online use and often just need a forum where they can ask questions. Common questions are, "When should I give my child a phone?" and "How can I monitor who they are playing online games with?" Bearden has also discussed why many social media sites allow children to join at age 13. She found that many parents thought 13 was the magical age when children were deemed mature enough to have online profiles. However, the age 13 is part of privacy legislation prohibiting businesses or groups from mining information about children under that age. However, there is no protection for children ages 13 to 18, which is why parents and teachers need to help students protect themselves and become educated about the internet. 

Bearden also encourages parents to learn about the games their children are playing. One parent asked her child to show her how to play Clash of Clans. After some digging, she realized her child was playing with strangers. Due to her involvement, she was able to ensure that her child was only playing with people she knew or approved.

“It takes a village to raise a good digital citizen and parents don’t know what they don’t know,” Bearden said. “Sometimes parents are not very good role models themselves, so I feel strongly about educating parents. Our school is also very active on social media, which is important. We need to be modeling online behavior. It’s important for kids to see positive role models online because, unfortunately, there is no shortage of poor use.”

Digital citizenship and attitudes about technology also seem to follow other cultural cues at independent schools. The Galloway School in Atlanta, GA, describes itself as a community school that embraces diversity, student-centered learning, citizenship, innovation, and an enthusiasm for learning. Galloway has provided laptops for its upper school students for years, and added a one-to-one program for middle school students in 2014. Peter Dyer, Galloway’s Director of Innovation, oversees its technology program. Digital citizenship curriculum begins in 3rd grade, and while students are required to sign an AUP, the school uses minimal filtering software and strives to work from a place of trust with how students use their devices. Dyer works with teachers across grades, and also with the school’s librarian and media specialists.

“We are small enough to be customized to different situations,” said Dyer. “We draw students together for conversations with teachers and counselors and we like to look at instances as examples to train both adults and students. Reconciling issues means coming up with a solution to a problem, and it’s much better than policing, or confronting, or creating an adversarial environment.”

Dyer also stresses to parents, teachers, and students that there is really no fail-safe filtering or online environment. When you are online there’s always the risk that you are going to come across inappropriate content. Teachers and parents need to teach children to make wise and safe choices. Students need to learn to navigate the online world with adults around them guiding their way.

Galloway’s Head, Suzanna Jemsby, often discusses topics related to digital citizenship during her weekly “Plugged In Parents” sessions. Leading up to the addition of laptops for middle school students, she discussed the role they should play at home. “Parents need to be proactive. This is a partnership; it’s not all the school’s responsibility or all the parents,” said Jemsby. 

Jemsby also stresses many of the same points as Dyer. “From a community standpoint, we aren’t very heavy on policing. We believe that students should be given the tools to navigate the world they are going to enter.”

"However, students need to understand that there’s no digital graveyard," Jemsby says. “I’ve given them practical examples of what that means, how even when I’m hiring teachers I check their online presence, and some are not considered right from the get-go. It matters how you act online just as much as offline. That’s the real message of digital citizenship,” she said.

Scott McLeod is considered to be an expert on technology in schools. He is an administrator, speaker, and author of numerous publications including What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media. When McLeod's book was published in 2011, his call to open devices for students and limit filtering seemed daring if not reckless. However, more schools are moving in that direction. Moreover, independent schools have the ability to be leaders in this arena, an aspect that could also serve as strong differentiators in the school market. 

McLeod also visit schools all over the country and gives advice for those looking to truly leverage technology for learning. "Don’t be afraid to try stuff, to try some things that might make you nervous," he said. "Give kids a few hours a week where they can pursue a passion project and then try to grow that.  In order to really transform technology use in schools, we are going to have to give up some control and let kids go in directions that we don’t know. As soon as you let a kid really investigate what they want and dive deep, their engagement goes through the roof."  

For more resources, visit McLeod's Master List for Digital Leaders. Or see our latest FastStats: Revisiting the Technology Arms Race in Independent Schools by Jeffrey Mitchell, Head of Currey Ingram Academy.  

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