In the Beginning
I began teaching digital citizenship for students in 2010 – it was a much more innocent time. We were only worried about the students believing all websites were real. I directed students to The Dog Island website, where you could pack up your dog in a crate and send them off for a week long romp on a beach. The site was very believable; pictures of dogs, and even information about how to ship your dog. There’s other sites too; you can learn how to save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus from extinction. They’re cute, but harmless. There are other sites though that drift a little into the lunatic fringe; Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie will prevent aliens from getting access to your brain, thank goodness. This site would start a conversation about questioning resources.
I would tell the story that Alan November wrote extensively about; a student working on a Holocaust report used a website created by a Northwestern University professor. The problem was the professor believed that the Holocaust didn’t happen and the concentration camps were lice disinfestation treatment centers. That was the beginning of the dark side of the internet for me. I knew I had to explicitly teach my students that you can’t believe everything you find on the Internet and false information is easy to find. Both then and now, it is incredibly important for our students to be able to tell the difference between truth and lies in media.
Digital Citizenship for Students
In 2012 I noticed my students were behaving irresponsibly online. It wasn’t malicious behavior, it was more not knowing any better, like using simple passwords and leaving them around for other students to see. I found Common Craft videos that explained Digital Citizenship concepts in simple straightforward ways, and they’re awesome. I created a worksheet with items to locate from the videos and my first true Digital Citizenship lesson was born! Since then I’ve gotten fancier. Today my students create a slideshow from what they learn in the videos, but it’s still a solid lesson I use every year.
I kept looking and finding more and more resources. It was nice to see the educational community addressing the issue. I use a number of resources, including, EVERFI’s Ignition – Digital Literacy & Responsibility program. It is an online module that students can complete at their own pace. It’s relevant for today’s student; one piece has the student trying to convince their friend to put down their phone and concentrate on driving. I like assigning it for homework so parents end up sitting down next to their kids and learning a few things too. The quiz at the end of the module is great for assessing them and makes them accountable for the learning.
Just last year, I was part of the team that created Digital Citizenship resources for NYC teachers. We made infographics and activity books for teachers and parents to use about the rules to follow when using the internet in school and at home. It made me really think about how best to approach this subject as a student, teacher, and parent.
From all these years teaching Digital Citizenship, my philosophy could be boiled down to this: Students will live online for a lot longer than we will, and they will be creating a digital footprint that could follow them for decades. Trying to keep them off the internet until they’re old enough is as dangerous as keeping them in the backseat of a car and then handing them the car keys on their 18th birthday. We need to guide them as they learn to navigate the internet, allowing them to make small mistakes now rather than big ones later. I encourage them to put as much positive stuff out there as possible. They need to create their own digital footprint, or someone else will do it for them. Avoiding the issue is not the answer. Play offense, not defense. They should develop their voice and share it with the world. That’s what I try to instill in my students.
Digital citizenship is not a subject that is required yet, but it obviously should be. I’m hoping it’s a subject that any teacher can master, as long as they have the support and training that’s needed. It’s too important of an issue to just hope for the best. We’ve come a long way from just worrying about Aluminum Foil Beanie websites, and we will be constantly trying to keep up. We owe it to our students to prepare them for wherever they will go.
Eileen Lennon is an EVERFI Teacher Ambassador and EVERFI Certified Teacher from New York, NY where she teaches technology. This excerpt was originally shared on Ms. Lennon’s Blog, “One Teacher’s Approach to Digital Citizenship.”