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26 Mar, Sunday
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Montreal Families

How (and why) to raise a digital citizen

Most parents’ questions about their kids’ use of digital technologies concern one of three things: how do I control the amount of time they spend online, how do I keep them safe from cyberbullying, and how do I keep them from posting dangerous or explicit material online?

All worthwhile questions, of course. But teaching our kids responsible use of digital technologies is about so much more than making sure they aren’t sharing nudes on social media or wasting hours on Minecraft; it’s also about all the useful and creative things that can be done. From coding to calculating, designing to composing, they will need many of these new skills to move into whatever jobs their futures hold. We need to spend more time channeling kids’ energies into responsible, ethical, creative and productive avenues. To do that, we need to spend less time saying “no” and “don’t” and more time saying “do.”

That’s the underlying premise of a new digital citizenship approach to teaching kids about the Internet. Originally conceived by two American educators, Mike Ribble and Gerald Bailey, this approach sees the use of digital technologies as having redefined society. As citizens in a wired world, we benefit from access to incredible information and communication resources. But just as citizens of a country have certain rights and responsibilities, digital citizens must also learn the rules of this virtual space, respect others and inform themselves.

That’s where schools and parents need to step in. The tricky part is that so much of this is new, so there aren’t universal best practices that teachers and parents can rely on. We’ve learned a  great deal in the last 10 years, but a lot is still emerging. And it’s already clear that some schools are doing a much better job at it than others.

The Digital Citizenship Program developed by Ribble and Bailey has been reworked and reinterpreted by many educators, but the core idea remains. Adopting a digital citizenship program in our schools means not just relegating it to a weekly computer  class, but actually integrating various components across the curriculum.

What does that actually mean? What does it look like in our classrooms? There are a lot of possibilities, but the following examples offer some illustrations.

A Grade 1 class uses an electronic reading log for kids and their parents to record how many pages are read each night. When the teacher introduces the concept in the classroom, he explains to the children that passwords are private. Just as you wouldn’t steal a snack from someone else’s lunchbox, you also wouldn’t log into someone’s online account without his or her permission.

A Grade 3 class gets a weekly list of French dictée words for students to learn. Instead of rote memorization, the children use iPads to snap pictures of the objects (or search them online) and then create simple weekly iBooks showing the words and illustrating their meanings.

A Grade 7 class is challenged to write a weekly math blog, explaining new concepts as they are learned. The students can use words, music, illustrations, photography, video or animation to present their brief explanations, but the media must be copyright-free. The students are given a list of digital images, music sound effects and video, or challenged to produce their own.

A senior high school class is discussing access to resources across the globe. They include digital access (who has electronic resources, access to the Internet?) and digital literacy (who can read, write, code?) in their discussions of economics, race, class and gender, and based on their research, build a class-wide “Wiki” linked to worldwide resources.

Schools may face a few challenges implementing this new approach. The first is obviously finding room in their budgets for new resources. But even when there is no money for hardware and software, there are creative approaches to this. One teacher in a very cash-strapped school challenged her students to write 140-character “Tweets” on Post-It notes to cover a classroom door after each unit, since she didn’t have computers to get them online.

A second challenge is changing perceptions and school culture. Some schools worry that students will get into trouble online and the  school will be legally actionable, so they outright ban all social media. This small-minded approach neglects the important fact that schools are charged with an educational mandate to prepare our children for the challenges of tomorrow. And not teaching kids about digital technologies leaves a serious gap in their preparedness.

Finally, many others face the task of retraining and supporting teachers who didn’t learn anything about digital technologies when they were studying education. This is the most frequently voiced concern when I consult school staff regarding their approach to digital tech. Professional development is one part of the solution, but so is supporting teachers to research and use new, creative methods of their own.

The last critical piece in any digital citizenship program is parental support. Many parents are anxious or worried about their kids’ use of the Internet and social media. And even if they support school programs, as many do, they are unfamiliar with how to reinforce this with effective guidelines at home. As one participant in a parent workshop told me, “I can call my own mom and ask her for advice on how she handled it back when my siblings and I went to parties where alcohol was served, but I can’t rely on her advice about when to give them their own smartphones.”

Alissa Sklar, Ph.D. is an educational consultant and blogger, with an interest in kids, technology  and digital citizenship. You can find her blog at risk-within-reason.com.

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