Why Every Classroom Should Teach Digital Citizenship

Why Every Classroom Should Teach Digital Citizenship

Every Classroom Should Teach Digital Citizenship

by Paul Barnwell, Teacher of English & Digital Media

Students buzzed about the latest uproar on Instagram.

Anonymous sources had posted a ‘questionable’–and NSFW–list for multiple public schools in our city on Instagram, leading to distraught girls, viral Twitter reactions, and an investigation.

This type of cyberbullying and reckless use of digital communication is rampant among teens, but this recent episode was only unusually due to its elevated publicity.

Every day, I see a student deficit on how to mindfully employ the unbridled potential and power of their smartphones and other digital tools. But who’s to blame? Is it students who decide to post explicit photos? Who sext people they believe they trust?

Is it those cruel sources who exploit the images?

Is it parents who purchase smartphones and laptops for their children and fail to set boundaries or teach their kids about responsible use?

Is it the lack of education and discussion in schools about the ways students can be more mindful, responsible users of technology?

A combination, of course.

See also 9 Rules For Digital Citizenship

With many schools now shifting to allow BYOD (bring your own device) at school, combined with a general push for integrating more technology in the classroom, it’s obvious that students need to examine the consequences of their online activity–both good and bad. Here are five reasons why schools should take a lead by promoting digital and social media literacies curriculum, and promoting digital citizenship inside and outside of the classroom.

5 Reasons You Should Be Teaching Digital Citizenship

1. The Growing Gap

If you accept the fact that most people will continue to embrace new technologies without fully examining the consequences of implementation, then it’s time to bring our curriculum up to speed. Some educational technologies are fads, of course, but students will continue to devour opportunities to use devices available to them, whether or not they are being embraced at school.

The gap between what students do with their phones and what they could do is striking in schools, and the gap will only grow unless we fully embrace the ubiquity of digital connectivity in all of our lives.

2. Digital Footprints Are Easy To Make

Given that many colleges and employers judge prospective students and employees based on their social media profiles, we need to teach students to create online personas that project more positive constructions of self. Many students are shockingly unaware that adults are able to access their profiles.

Case in point: the other day I played the role of a colleges admissions officer for my advisory class full of relatively high-achieving juniors. As a Twitter user myself, I found student profiles with ease. Students squirmed in their seats and reached for their phones. “Let’s see who projects a digital persona that I’d be happy to help enroll at my college,” I told them.

By the end of the class, many students were deleting inappropriate photos and tweets. It’s a start.

3. It’s Real Life

We educators frequently hear the need to make learning authentic and real to kids. There is nothing so consistently entrenched in students’ daily lives as their use of digital technology, and ignoring this fact leads to missed learning opportunities. In fact, one of the Common Core State Standards reads: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

This is a vague directive, but it leaves the door wide-open for testing out all possible digital tools to spur student writing and collaboration. Don Wettrick’s Innovations course at Franklin High School (Indiana) is a wonderful example of harnessing the real-world potential to challenge students to connect with various experts and sources around the world.

4. Students & Their Culture Of Relentless Multitasking

With evidence mounting against the efficacy of multitasking–and anecdotal evidence swamping we educators, it’s foolish to avoid deliberately challenging the students to resist multitasking. If we desire for students to thrive the digital world, they must be taught and practice mindfulness and sustained attention, in addition to understanding the consequences of constantly checking their phones and jumping from window to window on the computer.

The consequences of accepting constant multitasking might not seem as important as teaching students about cyberbullying, but I’d bet money that there is long-term, adverse academic impact on students who fail to regulate their attention.

5. Content Curation Is Information Literacy

One of the most empowering elements of social and digital media is the opportunity to learn anything, anytime, anywhere. There are thousands of worthwhile sources out there; how to seek out, select, and streamline information sources is often ignored in schools. In English class, students should be able to cite and compile websites or blogs dedicated to literature or writing. In social studies, students should be able to create a Twitter list and follow updated current events from reliable sources.

Regardless of the class, students should seek out and analyze information, then share their findings. From Scoop.it! to Pocket, Feedly to Flipboard, and Pinterest to even facebook (which now lets you save and organize content), and other curation tools, it’s up to us to learn how these tools work and pass on their promise to students.

Some may argue that it’s easy to embed lessons about the above topics into any course. This may be true, but with so many different issues to consider, requiring a dedicated digital and social media literacies course elevates the discourse and, given the right professional development, opens more opportunities for teachers to learn about skills and issues that are affecting students each and every day.


The digital implementation and comfort gap among teachers is vast and also needs to be addressed.

I’ve been encouraged by student response to my first edition of teaching Digital and Social Media Literacies at Fern Creek High School–most students believe it should be a required course. It’s my hope that our collective exploration will serve as a building block for greater consideration and implementation of similar courses down the road.

We’ll never stop students’ cruel and immature online activity, but we can teach them how to be proactive and mindful in how they employ their devices, opening the door to more productive classroom technology application.

Your Comments

So without a strong, universal set of digital literacy standards (assuming such a thing would be a good idea), how can we respond in schools and classrooms?

What do you do already? What have you seen others doing that looks interesting?

What do we stand to lose if we don’t respond?

And what role can and should parents and community organizations play in the process?

Paul Barnwell teaches English and digital media at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, Ky. When not experimenting with urban gardening, bow-hunting, writing at his blog Mindful Stew, or watching football, he’s an active participant in Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Teacher Network and the Center for Teaching Quality‘s Collaboratory; image attribution flickr users hoyasmeg and nicocavalato; 5 Reasons You Should Be Teaching Digital Citizenship