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Stop Asking Them to Turn Off Their Devices!

Digital citizenship – the ethical, safe and responsible use of digital technology – is an essential skill for today’s students and citizens. We need to empower today’s youth to respect, educate and protect themselves and each other, and foster an active and informed citizenry in a participatory and digital age.

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Today’s youth face challenges in navigating a digitally infused world. Yet we often leave young people to make their own decisions about ethical, safe and responsible use of digital technologies, with minimal guidance. In schools, students encounter inconsistent expectations for using technology from one teacher to the next, while different rules again may apply during breaks between classes. They also have to contend with peer pressure to use the latest and greatest apps for communications.

It’s common for students to arrive at school tethered to a personal device, and then enter a classroom where the device needs to be turned off or turned in to the teacher. But when we ask students to disengage with their devices, we lose a critical opportunity to help them learn how to ethically, safely and responsibly use digital technologies, and to promote active and informed digital citizenship. Students are carrying powerful learning devices; they already search online for information, use videos for learning, take photos of assignments, access digital texts, spend time on content creation sites, and use devices to communicate and collaborate with each other and connect with teachers to ask questions about school work.[1] However, learning opportunities for youth to develop a critical 21st century skill – the safe and responsible use of digital technologies – are often limited and overly structured, at the discretion of the classroom teacher or school leader.

We’ve all heard of cyberbullying cases where students repeatedly use technology to broadly share content intended to hurt others. With a single click, a text message with a mean comment about someone else can spread throughout an entire student body. A sexually explicit image or message can become publicly accessible within seconds. How, then, can we ensure we are providing opportunities for young people in school to learn how to ethically and safely use powerful learning and communications devices?

1. Teach students how to practice “safe sharing” of their information. Make safe information sharing a part of everyday learning, and design lessons where learners can demonstrate their understanding. Invite students to explain what they do to protect themselves and others in online spaces. For example, discuss how personal information can be inadvertently shared through hidden identifiers (background images, location, etc.). Talk about ways to protect information that can be shared through images, video, text posts and tags. Focus on how to practice “safe sharing” of one’s own information.

2. Keep online safety conversations current and relevant. Teachers and school leaders need to stay up to date on how technology is changing. Years ago, it was important to teach students to keep passwords secure, change them regularly and not share passwords with friends. Today, students also need to learn about fingerprint security and the risks in storing friends’ fingerprints on their personal devices.

3. Move beyond a one-week blitz. Learning about citizenship in a digital age needs to be part of the daily learning environment at school. Inviting a guest speaker to talk to staff, students and parents once each school year is not enough, nor is discussing online safety only during Digital Citizenship Week. Collective and ongoing efforts are needed to make digital citizenship a part of daily learning outcomes in schools.

4. Share examples of youth service and leadership. Share how students are using technologies for social justice and to help others. There are daily news posts about youth who are providing service and helping others locally and globally that can be used to foster conversations about student leadership and action campaigns.[2]

5. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look at guiding documents developed in your local context. For example, guiding documents from provincial ministries in Canada[3] can be used as a starting point to help students develop responsibility in safely and ethically navigating online spaces. Educators may also find such guides helpful for ideas about how to protect students as they work in open, collaborative online environments.

En Bref : En cette ère numérique participative, nous devons donner aux jeunes les moyens d’être des citoyens numériques actifs, informés et éthiques.

Illustration: iStock

First published in Education Canada, March 2017


[1] Project Tomorrow, Speak Up Research Project for Digital Learning (2015). www.tomorrow.org/speakup/index.html

[2] For example, see the campaigns sponsored by the WE Movement. www.we.org/we-at-school/we-schools/campaigns

[3] For example, Alberta Education, “Digital Citizenship Policy Development Guide” (2012), https://education.alberta.ca/media/3227621/digital-citizenship-policy-development-guide.pdf ; Government of Saskatchewan, “Digital Citizenship Education in Saskatchewan Schools” (2015), http://publications.gov.sk.ca/documents/11/83322-DC%20Guide%20-%20ENGLISH%202.pdf