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Digital Citizenship… How Does That Happen?

January 9, 2015

The first day we started STEM School Chattanooga, we sat in our large commons area with all of our students and one-by-one handed each an iPad. Some students waited patiently for more instruction on what to do next while others immediately began downloading everything they already had access to on their phones. Of course, as a trained educator in compliance, my first thoughts were obvious… no!!!!!! stop!!!!!! give me your phones and iPads!!!!! lets collect all the iPads back up!!!!!

What kind of madman was I that I would give kids (no longer students in my mind) access to the world?   And thus, out of initial fear, born was the concept and conversations of digital citizenship for our school.

Below is what we learned.

The first item we learned was that somewhere along the way, for almost all of our students, it turned out that we didn’t open Pandora’s Box to the world, it was already opened.  The stories for each child were different and yet eerily similar. Here is one of the most common and popular.

  • A parent gave the child a cell phone. The parent told the child the cell phone was for emergency purposes and communicating with the parent only. When the child left the house, the child showed the phone to his/her friend. The friend immediately introduced texting, facebook, instagram, and all sorts of other social networking options to the child’s new world. Well, you can figure out the rest of the story.

It is clear. Students look at a mobile device from a very narrow viewpoint. In their experience, the device is meant for communication (in particular, social communication) and gaming.

So then, digital citizenship… what does that mean in kids terms? It means we had to start by figuring out what the device is intended to do. And we had to be transparent and honest, because students see right through anything else.

Here are the three basic ways we chose to describe device usage:

  1. The device is a WORK device. By work, we mean it can be used to research information needed for school; access programs and apps that enable you to do schoolwork better, more efficiently, more effectively; not only consume educational material but also create products; and access, use, and apply information.
  2. The device is an APPROPRIATE PLAY device. By appropriate play, we mean that it can be used to communicate with others for social items, play games, listen to music, etc.. All the fun stuff that is not school related.
  3. The device is also an INAPPROPRIATE PLAY device. By inappropriate play, we mean using the device for play when you should be working (for example, playing Angry Birds in class) or using the device to access vulgar content, send vulgar content, use the device to bully or harass another student, or have communication that your grandmother wouldn’t approve.

Our digital citizenship focus became about openly talking about these three different ways you can use the device. It also became about figuring out structures that were needed to support the first two and minimize the third.

Some of these digital citizenship structures are below:

  • We created an elected team of students, who act as our Student Support Senate. Their role is to define the school expectations, rules, consequences, and interventions for technology use. They also include bullying and harassment tech expectations in their policy. This policy is provided to staff and implemented by both staff and students.
  • We use the policy developed to have grade level conversations in the first quarter to talk about what kind of school the students want to attend.
  • We institute a practice that all digital communication (24/7) is accountable to the policy implemented by the Student Support Senate. So if you degrade someone else on Saturday night online (regardless of whether this was through your personal phone or the school issued iPad), you are still accountable to the Student Support Senate rules and consequences on Monday morning.
  • We create and implement short discussions and/or lessons as needed for specific topics that arise. For example, we know that we need to discuss the concept of work, appropriate play, and inappropriate play with our 9th grade students. So we will implement lessons to do so with all the 9th graders in the first months of school. As another example, there could be a new app (like a Snapchat) that comes along and quickly becomes popular among students. We then create a lesson to discuss items applicable to that app or genre.
  • We wait for the first sharable inappropriate play issue to occur with our 9th graders, and then show the entire grade level the posts involved. We look at the choices that were made and what could have been done instead, and also discuss setting school cultural expectations.
  • We bring new issues to the Student Support Senate that develop and have the Senate debate and develop a plan to address the issues.
  • But, most importantly, we expect students to use their devices in every class every day. We believe that the content we are to teach them is already at their fingertips and our role as educators is to help the students in learning how to access the content, use and figure out the content, and then apply the content. In other words, the device isn’t just a tool, it has content necessary for learning and creation opportunities necessary for applying our knowledge.

Digital citizenship is an evolving concept for us. But I no longer fear handing a device to a child. I welcome the opportunity. I love helping the child become a student who can recognize the device as a work device, play device, and inappropriate play device, know the difference between each, and make good choices.

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