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Digital Citizenship Series

Seven Strategies to Get Students Talking and Thinking About Digital Citizenship

May 19, 2017

By Dr. 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.

One of the challenges of teaching digital citizenship is to get students comfortable openly thinking and talking about key issues. We know students are constantly facing issues and making choices in their online lives. Creating an environment where students are encouraged to discuss issues helps them think critically about the choices they're making online. Here are some strategies to start students thinking and talking about digital citizenship.

1. Build Great Relationships

When I was growing up my parents could find out where I was whenever they wanted by using nothing more than rotary dial telephones and the informal networks they created with other parents. I compare this to today, when our children can enter the online underground and assume as many untraceable identities as they like. You may actually be talking to your kids in a chat room and not know it—now that's a scary thought. If the days of always knowing where our children are have come to close, what should we do?

Parents’ best approach is to have such a good relationship with their kids that their children want to tell them what they do online. Of course, you can track their Internet history, install a keyboard reader that sends everything they type to you, and use the Cloud to monitor whereabouts. However, monitoring tools breed an atmosphere of mistrust and disrespect. This level of monitoring is also incredibly time consuming. Even if you could find the time to monitor children this way, you could never prevent them from getting around every system you use. If we don't let students frame the system, then they tend to game the system.

I recommend cultivating strong relationships with your children, so that they feel comfortable telling you what they do, what inspires them, and when they feel unsafe. I recommend the same strategy for teachers. Building a strong relationship with your students and a place for open discussion keeps your students thinking and talking about digital citizenship issues that arise in their lives.

2. Depersonalize Conversations

Parents and teachers can help students feel more comfortable opening up by depersonalizing the conversation. For example, if you ask, “Do you have more than one identity on social media?” You will most likely get an evasive answer. However, if you instead ask, “Why do you think people want more than one identity on social media?” You will get a more informed and honest answer. By depersonalizing the question, students feel less threatened because they don't have to reveal any real information about themselves. The result is that they actually do begin to open up and reveal information about themselves.

3. Help Students See the Big Picture

In our conversations with students, we want them to think about what it means to engage online and how their online lives connect and disconnect them from their communities. We want them to develop a big picture perspective about blending real life and immersive reality on the other end of their smartphones. We should always be drawing students back from the screen and asking them to consider their lives in a larger context.

4. Get Students Involved in Policy Decisions

Once you've begun to help students see the bigger picture, it's time for them to apply that perspective to themselves and their digital lifestyles. One way to do this is to help students frame the system by bringing them to the policy table. To do this, I recommend the activities I discussed in detail in my last two blogs, You're in Charge and Being a DeTECHtive, as well as Being Your Own Futurist.

5. Go Beyond the Classroom

We need to get families, students, and schools to converge on digital citizenship efforts. Leaving digital citizenship to schools alone won't work. The territory is so expansive that schools could devote their entire curriculum to helping students become ideal digital citizens. Even if that were possible, the BYOD (bring your own device) movement ensures that students take their second lives with them wherever their first lives go through their smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Whether students are at home, school, or out with friends, they are accessing the same social media and online resources. The conversation about digital citizenship needs to extend beyond the classroom so schools, parents, and students are on board with the same policies and perspectives.

6. Encourage Awareness Over Fear

Students need to be aware, rather than afraid, of their digital lifestyles. It's understandable to want students to be afraid of the harmful elements of the Internet. However, when students understand the cautions, rather than just heed them, they have a better chance of transferring understanding to new situations and identifying warning signs.

7. Help Develop Positive Ways to Use the Web

The focus of digital citizenship efforts is often spent warning children of the dangers that await them online. This is one half of the digital citizenship equation. The other is to focus on how to use the web in positive ways, as consumers and producers of information. For example, if we are all leaving a digital footprint on the web, then let's cultivate a deliberate, positive footprint. This is an activity I often do with students by showing them how to create an online portfolio featuring their accomplishments and hopes for the future.

I hope you will follow along with this blog series as we delve deeper into digital citizenship and the strategies you can use to help your students become digital citizens. In the next post, we will discuss the skills students need to become good digital citizens.

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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