Students may be digital natives, but they don’t understand the consequences of their actions online. Teaching them how to navigate safely and communicate effectively is essential to their success.

I often hear teachers refer to kids as “experts” when it comes to using technology. I disagree. While they are great at navigating a new app or figuring out how to use the latest gadget, kids are not experts when it comes to properly communicating and ethically handling everything that goes along with using digital tools. From my experience as a library media technology specialist at a school for grades five through eight, I’ve seen that kids don’t understand what a digital footprint is. They don’t realize that posting private information could put them at risk or that writing in all caps means that you are “shouting.” Most students also don’t consider it dangerous to post personal details and pictures online or give strangers access to this information. Understanding how to properly navigate and ethically participate in a digital society means knowing the rules that come with being a good digital citizen. For this reason, teaching digital citizenship must be part of every school curriculum across the globe.

Digital citizenship can be defined as how a person conducts herself while using digital tools. This encompasses understanding how to safely and appropriately participate in everything from texting to email to social networking. Students must understand how to navigate the Internet safely and communicate effectively using digital tools. They need to know the rules and manners associated with the digital world and the consequences that they face if those norms are violated. They also need to understand the laws of privacy and copyright as they pertain to accessing and using information in the 21st century. As digital natives, they only know what it is like to live in a world with instant connectivity to anyone at any time. Luckily, this is a great advantage for educators as well since it gives us opportunities to create meaningful, real-world, collaborative experiences with experts and classrooms all over the world. At the same time, unless we teach our students the expectations that come along with communicating digitally, students may never know how to safely navigate the world in which they will be expected to participate as members of a global society.

I teach a semester-long class to all 5th-grade students at my school that focuses entirely on digital citizenship. Throughout the semester, students work to answer these four big questions:

  • What is digital citizenship, and why is it important?
  • Is privacy important in the digital age?
  • Should 5th graders be allowed to have Facebook or Twitter accounts?
  • What are my rights as a user and producer of information in the digital age?

We begin by discussing the definition of digital citizenship in general and then go on to explore specific elements such as email etiquette, social networking, online predators, privacy, cyberbullying, copyright, and digital footprints. Common Sense Media is my go-to resource for excellent lesson plans, videos, and reviews on various web tools. Once registered on the site, teachers have access to lesson plans that are searchable by grade level. One of my favorite lessons is their “Trillion Dollar Footprint,” which asks students to determine which person out of two applicants should be hired for an assistant producer job, based on the information found on each individual’s social networking profile. Students work in teams to make this decision. The decision causes much debate, as students quickly learn that both profiles contain information that proves the candidates to be less-than-worthy. Through this lesson, students really begin to understand how their digital footprint, or what they post online, affects how others view them. It is especially poignant for 5th graders who are just beginning their experiences connecting virtually.

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Comments on A 21st-Century Model for Teaching Digital Citizenship

  1. […] Young's "A 21st-entury model for teaching digital citizenship" (February-March 2014) promotes a semester long curriculum at the 5th grade level that covers […]