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Character Education and Digital Citizenship

How to Create a Successful Character Education Program That Teaches Digital Citizenship

Aug 18, 2017 2017-08-18

By Jason Ohler

This post is part of a series of blogs from passionate digital citizenship advocate, Dr. Jason Ohler. The series explores the importance of digital citizenship and provides strategies for integrating digital citizenship into schools.

In my last post, we discussed how character education can serve as the basis for a great digital citizenship program. Now I'd like to give you practical steps you can take to implement a successful character education program in your school.

Develop a Mission Statement
The most important step for school districts to take is creating a new mission statement or modifying your current one to reflect digital lifestyle considerations. Your mission statement will serve as a guide for your character education program. Here are a few sample mission statements that have incorporated digital citizenship components:

“Students will use technology and the internet effectively, creatively, and wisely. They will learn not only how to use them, but also when and why, with a sense safety, community, fairness, and responsibility.”

“Students will learn to use technology and the internet safely and responsibly while maintaining a sense of inspiration and opportunity about the value of both in their lives.”

I particularly like the second mission statement because it acknowledges that the positive and empowering influences of technology need to be part of the vision.

Most school districts, for a number of strategic, bureaucratic, or political reasons, won't be adopting a new mission statement anytime soon. In that case, I suggest blending elements of the sample mission statements above into your current mission statement. Many school districts have already adopted character values in some form in their mission statement. These can be modified to reflect digital lifestyle considerations. Let's take this mission statement from a real middle school as an example. The words in bold are ones I have added to include students' digital lives.

“At our school our mission is to provide a safe environment, which promotes respect and motivates students to learn and act responsibly within their local and online communities. We believe education is the shared responsibility of the student's home, school, and community.”

This simple addition recognizes that students live two lives, one in the real world and one in the digital world.

Adopt Principles
As a foundational move, I suggest using character education as the basis for your digital citizenship efforts. Character education is a well developed and respected area of research, inquiry, and practical application intended to help students develop good character along with good academics. In many ways, digital citizenship is simply an updated version of character education specifically focused on living a digital lifestyle.

An effective way of using character education is to adapt Character.org's 11 Principles of Effective Character Education for life in the digital age. For example, review the first principle:

The school community promotes core ethical and performance values as the foundation of good character.

This principle could be modified to:

The school community promotes core ethical and performance values as the foundation of good character in all communities, local, global, and digital.

You might also consider leaving all 11 principles intact, but simply add a few new evaluation criteria that reflect student behavior in a more digital environment. These could include the following:
  • Uses internet etiquette
  • Practices empathy in virtual communications
  • Helps others in virtual settings
  • Shares technical expertise

Create a Brand
Digital citizenship covers a huge area of activity. Therefore I strongly recommend that schools develop a brand for their digital citizenship efforts in order to concisely describe what is truly important to them about digital citizenship.

Why a brand? One of my favorite speakers, Guy Kawasaki, claimed that if he walked into any organization and asked anyone he met to tell him the organization's mission statement, most could not do it. That's because mission statements are far too long for anyone to memorize. He believes that every organization needs a mantra that speaks to what is truly important to that organization.

Your brand should be one sentence that can serve as a starting point to help all members of your school's community begin to navigate digital citizenship. That one sentence will be what you use to facilitate conversations between students, teachers, parents, administrators, and members of the school community. Make your brand easy to remember so that it can begin the conversations that you need to have. For example, here's one that I like: Use technology responsibly, safely, creatively, and wisely.

Implement Student Activities
Now that you've laid the groundwork for your character education program, I want to share with you a few activities that I have used with students of all ages to help them think about their digital lifestyles. These can also be used with administrators, community members, parents, or teachers to start conversations about digital citizenship.

The first activity asks students to think about their digital footprints-the trails of information they leave online, often unknowingly. Some refer to digital footprints as digital tattoos because of the permanence of our online information.

We have all heard horror stories about people losing jobs or friends over a tweet or an inappropriate photo posted online. The threat of a negative digital footprint is only one part of the story though. My strategy with students is to ask them to approach their digital footprints from a deliberate and positive point of view. I ask them to think about how they want the world to see them. Then I have students design reflective e-portfolios or LinkedIn profiles that describe the best they have to offer.

I also recommend the activities You're in Charge and Being a DeTECHtive, as well as Being Your Own Futurist, all of which I discussed in detail in previous blogs.

This concludes our digital citizenship blog series. I hope you have enjoyed the series and that you will continue the discussion in the comment section.

Dr. Jason Ohler is a professor emeritus, speaker, writer, and a lifelong digital humanist who is well-known for the passion, insight, and humor he brings to his writings, projects, teaching, and presentations. He has been helping community members, organizations, and students at all levels understand the ethical implications of being digital citizens in a world of roller-coaster technological change. His most recent book, 4Four Big Ideas for the Future, reflects on his 35 years in the world of educational media and innovation in order to chart a course for a future. He is first and foremost a storyteller, telling tales of the future that are grounded in the past. Find Jason on Twitter @jasonohler or visit his website: JasonOhlerIdeas.com.

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