5 Digital Citizenship Trends to Watch this School Year

What is it that students need to know about operating in the digital world? How do we encourage them to be responsible citizens both online and off? And how do parents get involved?

These were some of the questions discussed at the “Be Internet Awesome” digital citizenship event in August at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Kicking off the event, Jeff Dunn — Outreach and Education Manager at Google — moderated a panel of education atechnology veterans, focused on the state of digital citizenship for students. The packed room of 60-70 attendees included teachers from elementary to high school who represented many subjects taught, including English, math, business, and technology. They all had one thing in common: an interest in helping their students be safe and smart online.

Joining for the kickoff discussion were panelists:

The trio shared five digital citizenship trends that educators, parents, and students should watch this 2017-18 school year. Here’s an overview of what what covered.

1. Connecting Digital and Offline Reputation

“[Students] learning about their digital footprints and their responsibilities online are going to be the keys for the year,” Hanley says, starting off the discussion. Hanley says that these discussions should begin early in the school year. “Thinking about what they’re sharing, what they’re posting, who they’re communicating with — those are the key [topics] to focus on.”

Building on Hanley’s thought, Magid believes this school year is a pivotal one for digital citizenship, leadership, and progress. “This year is a little bit different,” he says, reflecting on the rise of hate groups and the recent violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “This year, we need to move from protecting ourselves to [thinking about] where we go forward. How do we turn online safety into online progress? Of course we’ll talk about countering cyber bullying, but let’s also talk about promoting kindness. Of course we need to talk about protecting our reputation, but let’s also talk about projecting character.”

Attendees at Google’s “Be Internet Awesome” included elementary, middle, and high school teachers across a number of academic disciplines.

Magid noted that children spend more time with their parents and teachers than with media, celebrities, and politicians. “So, we are the leaders,” he states, “We in the online safety community and education community need to step up to the plate.”

Tying it all together, Wong says that greater focus on social-emotional learning this year could enable students to better see the connection between digital and offline reputation. “Most of the areas of concern [with student technology use] are around social-emotional intelligence,” he says. “Student behavior online can be very different from when they are interacting with somebody in-person. You can start to see behaviors that are not necessarily reflective of how we should interact with other people.”

That’s where social-emotional learning comes in, Wong says. Summit Public Schools offers a Digital Safety curriculum, grounded in materials from partner Common Sense Media. The curriculum focuses on helping students reflect on their place in the digital world, the impact of digital life, and the changing landscape of relationships, research, the economy, and more as a result of ever more of our lives being online. Wong says it’s important that teachers are given the tools to facilitate conversations around digital citizenship — students, otherwise, may not be having these important conversations about how what they do online affects their lives, for better or for worse.

2. Connecting Digital Citizenship with Academic Outcomes

There’s only so much teachers and school leaders can make fit into a day, so it’s important for them to see the tangible outcomes of digital citizenship training, the panelists agreed. Digital safety works when leadership is bought in, they concluded — if the superintendent or principal recognizes the importance of educating students about digital safety, that’s when the ball gets rolling.

Nothing helps school and district leaders see relevance and importance better than a connection to academic outcomes. If a direct link can be made between digital citizenship fluency and academic outcomes, it becomes a greater priority.

“We should be aligning back to academic outcomes,” Wong says. “What we see, with misguided technology behaviors, is that those have a negative affect with academic outcomes we expect our students to have. But once you start to ground students in the building blocks of good technology use, you can correlate between online behaviors and positive academic outcomes.”

The connection between digital citizenship and academic outcomes is often overlooked, but 2017-18 could be the year more schools begin to measure that connection, Wong says.

3. Building Student Agency

“In our academic model, we focus on student agency, but we are also starting to discuss how we can enable student agency on the digital citizenship front,” says Wong. “We want to educate our students to know how to make good choices. In order to do that, they need some agency.”

The 2017-18 school year is as an opportunity to bring students to the center of their journeys towards online discovery and learning, with the support of teachers and parents.

“The ideal state is shared ownership,” Wong says. At Summit Public Schools, that shift towards shared ownership between students and adults has begun. “Beyond the adult’s role as a leader and teacher, we also expect our students to take some accountability and ownership of their world. We do this in a structured, thoughtful way that still enables agency.”

Wong continues: “The more you can enable students to have choice, while having good guidance from adults who lead that process, the more you see a change in how students behave. They’re owning their academic outcomes. They’re starting to plan out what their goals and objectives are — for the day, for the week, for the year.”

“The more you enable student agency, the more they think about the long-term effects of the actions they’re taking. They start to make fundamental changes in themselves, and all of a sudden, you’ve created a world where students have much more awareness around actions and how they interact with technology.”
— Bryant Wong, CTO, Summit Public Schools

Panelists at Google Be Internet Awesome Digital Citizenship Event_Summit Public Schools CTO Bryant Wong
Summit CTO Bryant Wong discusses the importance of student agency in digital citizenship.

When we give students agency, they can surprise us with the outcomes and how far they take their learning.

“Kids can be teachers,” Hanley says. In 2014, Hanley’s organization, FOSI, hosted a panel with guest speakers from the documentary film Cyber-Seniors.

“Kids were going into nursing homes and helping senior citizens learn to go online,” says Hanley. “Have your students do that with their family members, so they can show them all of the skills they have and teach them how to responsibly use the Internet.” Even today, Cyber-Seniors continues to pair tech-savvy youth mentors with interested senior citizens through a program and related starter materials which can be found online.

4. Empowering Creators

“Even though we talk about rules and controls in our world [of digital safety], we want it to be about having a positive, empowering online experience,” says Hanley. “That’s part of why I love ‘Be Internet Awesome,’ because these are positive statements about ‘being brave’ and ‘being kind.’ There is really good stuff happening online.”

In its 2014 research, FOSI found that a majority of parents believe there is more potential benefit than harm when it comes to their children’s use of technology. “Parents know students need these tools and skills for their futures, for their careers,” Hanley says.

Part of that benefit comes in using technology to be creators. “Kids are doing really neat stuff online,” Hanley gushes. “They’re shooting videos. They’re editing. They want to be the next YouTube celebrities — these aren’t bad things. Students are getting to express themselves.”

“There’s a lot of positivity online,” Magid agrees. “Students are using online platforms to deal with social problems that [our world is] faced with. Young people can have a voice, a creative opportunity — through YouTube, blogs, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. When I was in high school, you were basically seen and not heard. You had no voice.”

“Today, that it is possible for a young person to have a huge social impact in their community and potentially throughout the globe, is phenomenal.”
— Larry Magid, CEO, ConnectSafely

This year is about addressing the negative, but also about focusing on the good. Hanley encourages teachers everywhere: “Highlight the really awesome things that students in your community are doing.”

5. Personalizing Engagement for Parents

Just as students should have personalized learning experiences, parents should also have personalized engagement opportunities. Just like with students, the “one-size-fits-all” approach isn’t the most effective. Parents, like students, are on different trajectories when it comes to digital safety knowledge, and they internalize and process information differently.

Wong explains that Summit Public Schools focuses its digital citizenship parent engagement on delivering targeted, bite-size, progressive content, instead of huge, overwhelming parent guides.

“Think about Back-to-School Night,” says Wong, setting the scene for the one night first semester when teachers are most likely to see parents. “It’s hectic, and parents are first and foremost focused on making sure their students are academically successful. Technology is not usually front-of-mind. Rather than hitting parents all at once that night with a digital safety guidebook, we recommend giving parents that first small chunk of information to get them to the next conversation. That builds persistence, interest, and long-term engagement.” A few sample resources that Wong suggests providing parents early on include:

  • A “device housekeeping cheat sheet” that informs parents and students of best practices for maintaining school-provided devices, such as laptops in a 1:1 environment, and
  • An opportunity to sign up for an events mailing lists where parents can “engage with the experts” on topics of utmost relevant to families.

Another starting point for parent engagement, for example, is a technology use agreement between students and their parents. One such contract example is FOSI’s Family Safety Contract, which outlines ground rules and promises for both children and parents. FOSI also provides other parent resources around digital safety on its website, including digital parenting best practices and a worksheet on cleaning up one’s digital footprint, an activity parents can lead with their children.

Final Thoughts

The 2017-18 looks bright for digital citizenship. What resources are you using to teach students about digital safety? Share your ideas with us on Facebook and Twitter.

About the author

Erica Swallow
Erica Swallow is a storyteller at Summit Public Schools, dedicated to sharing informative and inspiring stories from around the Summit Learning community. Erica's thoughts have been published in Forbes, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. A first-generation college student, she believes education is the key to opportunity. Erica holds degrees from New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.