Why Digital Citizenship is Digital PBIS- and Why It Really Matters

by Brian Casey, Ed.D.Director of Technology Stevens Point Area Public School District

"Our kids are growing up on a digital playground and no one is on recess duty."

Kevin Honeycutt

Technology has changed the world we live in. Today’s digital landscape is very different from when most educators began their teaching careers. According to authors Rainie and Wellman (2012) we have undergone a ‘triple revolution’ with the proliferation of mobile computers, widespread participation in social networks and the expansion of access to high-speed internet connections. The way our children interact with others and learn new things has changed since we grew up. Online behavior is no longer external to education. Most older students now carry around a portable computer in their pocket and many receive a device from their school to use (Anderson 2015).

Our schools must help students navigate this new world. Social media, YouTube, blogging, Snapchat, texting and virtual reality such as Pokémon Go are often denigrated as pure entertainment outside the scope of education. Some educators still hold a negative view of smartphones and schools often prohibit students from using their personal devices during the school day. Whether we like it or not, or agree, the majority of Americans (64%) are now smartphone users (Anderson, 2015). Mobile computing is fully entrenched in our daily lives, including education, family life and work. We use our phones to shop, bank, play, get breaking news, find information, navigate, talk or text, and interact on social media and email. 

Our students will be expected to participate in a digital world where tweeting, posting, snapping, and geo navigating are common. They will have to work, play and learn in a digital world that blends their private with public lives and intersects with their future educational and professional careers. Americans don’t uniformly agree about the purpose of schools but a growing percentage (26%) say schools should teach students how to be good citizens. Fewer parents than ever before reported that the main purpose of schools was academics (46%) and an overwhelming majority of parents (68%) say schools should focus more on job skills (Richardson, 2016). The majority of parents are also concerned about their children's online presence and online safety (Madden, Cortesi, Gasser, Lenhart, Duggan 2012). Our schools need to address digital citizenship to prepare our students for life. 

Our teachers help students learn how to be respectful, be kind, be safe and be responsible. The most modern approach to this learning has been PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support). Educators are not just teaching kids academic content; they are teaching and reinforcing behaviors and skills that will allow students to be successful in the workplace and postsecondary education (Mancabelli & Richardson, 2013). We also need to ensure that our teachers understand the importance of digital citizenship and receive professional development. If teachers do not understand digital citizenship they cannot teach it to their students.

What Do Teachers Need to Know About Digital Citizenship?

Digital citizenship instruction involves teaching students how to be responsible, respectful, kind and safe online. We cannot assume that teachers know what to teach and model for students. Nor can we assume that a younger teacher does not need professional development and coaching because they grew up using similar or the same technologies as their students. All of our teachers need high-quality professional development on digital citizenship. Common Sense Media provides the easiest and most accessible set of tools for educators to use for professional development and curriculum. Digital citizenship is divided into eight topics by Commons Sense Media. Understanding these topics and their importance to our children is crucial for teachers.

Self-Image and Identity

As students interact with others in the digital world much of their concept of self can be tied into online activity. Our teachers need to understand how to help students develop healthy and appropriate ideas about their own persona both offline and online. Mental health concerns for students are increasing. We can’t ignore the impact of online activity if we hope to help students develop healthy personalities (Ehmke, 2016).

Relationships and Communication

Relationships and communication are also moving into the digital world. Students use online tools, apps and social networking to communicate and build relationships. Our students develop online relationships with their peers in school but also with people that live in other geographical areas that they have never met. Fifty-seven percent of teens have friends that they meet online through social networking or online gaming (Lenhart 2015). As students grow they need to learn appropriate communication skills. Teachers often complain about students using text speech in their writing (Purcell, Buchanan, Friedrich 2013). What are we doing to teach students how to write and communicate effectively online and in digital environments? Are students taught how to write an email, blog post, online review or comment on a discussion thread? Students also need to know when and where they can use a mobile device. We cannot teach and model these behaviors if we simply ban mobile devices from our schools

Digital Footprint and Reputation

Teachers need to understand that students start leaving their mark on the digital world even before they are born. Some parents now begin posting ultrasound pictures of their unborn children. As children grow parents and family members post pictures of them on social networks. When students begin using devices, the apps and games they play allow them to interact online with others. The opportunities for this access will only increase with time. As children move into the teenage years their level of interaction increases even more with access to personal mobile devices and social networking. Seventy-three percent of teens have smartphone and 87% have access to a computer (Lenhart 2015). We can’t wait to teach them about this world until they reach thirteen years of age. It needs to start as soon as they begin using a device. Every time a student posts, comments or interacts online they leave traces that can be found by others. This digital footprint will follow them. Their digital footprint and reputation might even be as decisive as student grades when they try to get a job or get into college (Knorr, 2016). Digital footprints really matters and we need to teach students about them.

Cyberbullying and Digital Drama

Cyberbullying and digital drama often consume an inordinate amount of principals’ time. Sixty-eight percent of teens have reported seeing or being involved with online digital drama (Lenhart 2015). What if there was a way to reduce these incidents? Wouldn’t educators embrace this? Being proactive about teaching students responsible online behaviors can reduce the countless hours spent dealing with the consequences of online drama. More often than not, the online drama and bullying takes place outside of the school day on private devices and manifests itself in face-to-face interactions at school. We must ask ourselves, what are we doing as educators to address the problem? How are we teaching students to avoid this? We must acknowledge social media as a standard form of communication and teach students how to communicate online or we will continue to see online drama spill over into schools. We may never fully eliminate cyberbullying and digital drama but anything we can do to reduce it is a good thing.

Information Literacy

Information literacy is another important topic for digital citizenship. Students today have instant access to information with smart phones and computers. The age of memorizing content is fading fast into oblivion. If you can Google something it probably is not worth taking the time to memorize it. The most important skill for students and teachers will be analyzing information, evaluating the credibility and determining how it should be used. Employers are looking for people with problem solving and critical thinking skills, not photographic memories. Some of the fastest growing new jobs in America involve critical thinking, creativity and technology. YouTube creators, data analysts, social media managers, app developers and bloggers are all new jobs that did not exist ten years ago (Digital Marketing Institute, 2016). In order to meet the demands of future jobs and postsecondary education our teachers need to understand how to do digital-age research. Unfortunately, many schools have cut Library Media Specialists. There has been a fundamental misunderstanding that Library Media Specialists merely shelve books and shush students in the library. A really good school Library Media Specialist is the key to helping staff and students learn how to do digital research and critically evaluate digital information (Office of Educational Technology, 2016).

Privacy and Security

Students need to understand how to protect their online accounts and personal information. It may seem burdensome to teachers and students to manage and update multiple usernames and passwords. This is a fact of life in the 21st century and a valuable skill that students need to be taught. Teachers and students also need to know the basics about computers, email, malware, ransomware, phishing and social engineering to prevent their data and identity from being stolen and misappropriated. 

Internet Safety

We also need to teach students how to be safe online. Some educators and parents believe that limiting access to technology and blocking communication online is sufficient to protect our children. We certainly want to block access to objectionable and dangerous web activity, and we can do this at school, but what happens when the children are not at school? We need to be proactive and teach students to be wary of providing personal information online and interacting with strangers. We must help our students gain the skills and knowledge to navigate the digital world safely.

Creative Credit and Copyright

Images, text, video and audio can easily be found online. Without proper guidance and instruction teachers and students can easily violate copyright laws and plagiarize work unintentionally. Too often teachers think educational fair use provides carte blanche to copy and use almost any material as long as it is for teaching. Too few schools take the time to train teachers about creative credit and copyright. Once again a good school Library Media Specialist is the best resource to help guide staff and students about how to obtain permission and acknowledge the authorship of digital materials (Office of Educational Technology, 2016).

What Can Administrators Do to Promote Digital Citizenship?

Assess Staff

School leaders need to know where the staff stands with their knowledge and teaching of digital citizenship. Anecdotal evidence and observations often do not tell the whole story, especially for larger districts. One of the best assessments available is the Clarity survey instrument by Bright Bytes, which is comprehensive and includes measurements for digital citizenship. Another professional assessment of technology is offered by School Perceptions. School leaders can also design their own assessment using Google Forms or Survey Monkey. Without data it is difficult to make the case for more professional development or investing resources into curriculum. We need to be able to show results and what gets measured, gets done.

Train Staff

Digital citizenship professional development needs to be ongoing. It cannot be a one-time training during an in-service day. Administrators need to understand and recognize the importance of digital citizenship and expect teachers to address it both formally and informally. This can be accomplished through formal trainings, coaching and changes to curriculum. Common Sense Media has created professional development tools that are free, easy to use and comprehensive. School technology leaders can use the materials provided by Common Sense Media to create custom trainings or even provide individual one hour courses. There are also two online courses for middle school and high school educators. Individual educators can become digital citizenship certified by Common Sense Media. Principals can also seek to have their school become a Common Sense certified school.

Provide Instruction to Students

Teaching digital citizenship does not have to be burdensome. It certainly is not as hard as implementing Common Core standards or changing grading practices. Common Sense Media provides a wealth of ready-to-use materials including a scope and sequence, interactive lessons on Nearpod, iBooks lessons for iPads, and even assessments. Elementary students can be taught using these lessons by classroom teachers, counselors, library media specialists or technology integration specialists. Integrating digital citizenship curriculum for middle and high school students is crucial. The lessons from Common Sense Media can be incorporated into existing family and consumer science, business, computer science, health, and personal finance classes. Another possibility, is for schools to create online courses for students to take using learning management systems (LMS) such as Schoology or Canvas. Online courses could be taken for credit, as a requirement for a 1:1 program or even as a behavioral intervention for students involved in inappropriate online behavior. It is important for principals to emphasize that teaching digital citizenship is everyone’s job-not just the teacher down the hall. Secondary content experts need to understand how digital citizenship fits into their curriculum and how to address it.

Find the Fit with Existing Initiatives

Teachers often complain about initiative fatigue. Every few years a new initiative comes along and they have to learn about it and use it in their classrooms. School leaders can create win-win situations when they incorporate digital citizenship into existing initiatives. Digital citizenship fits well as a digital extension of current PBIS initiatives in schools. If schools or districts are considering launching or have already launched one to one computing initiatives, a digital citizenship component will help these initiatives succeed by alleviating many parental and teacher concerns. 

Look for Community Partnerships

Any digital citizenship education program needs to include parents and community members. There are many community groups and organizations already providing education for parents and families about digital citizenship. Police departments, PTOs, and other community groups may already be offering education for parents. Districts with police liaison officers have a natural connection to help coordinate public education efforts. Principals should seek out these organizations and join forces to provide high quality learning opportunities for parents. 

Why Do We Need to Implement Digital Citizenship?

Starting a digital citizenship program for staff and students has never been more necessary than now. Our students deserve it. As with traditional PBIS, we identified a need to help students learn skills that are not traditionally academic. The skills students will learn through digital citizenship curriculum can last a lifetime and prevent our students from falling into many of the pitfalls of the digital age. As educators we can either choose to complain about social media, cell phones and technology or choose to address technology challenges by doing what we do best, teach.


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