Find your portal

Why schools must lead on developing digital citizenship

This post has been updated on June 29, 2020.

It seems somehow antiquated to speak of technology as if it is a distinct category of life experiences. Of course, from an industrial or commercial point of view, the distinction makes sense; but from a sociological — and in our case pedagogic — aspect, our experience of modern life is practically indistinguishable from technology.

Positing that “technology affects our lives” is as redundant as claiming that the alphabet affects our lives.

So when schools set themselves the task of “incorporating technology”, or “developing digital citizens” they are, in fact, revealing the disconnect between education and the rest of the modern world.

Read more: DOs and DON’Ts of teaching digital citizenship

How crazy would it be if schools began declaring they are hoping to incorporate books into education?

To make matters more acute, young people, in particular, lead their lives enmeshed by technology, to the point where it is indistinguishable from their social and work life. Their educational experience is, by comparison, antiquated. I imagine they smile with bemusement as they simultaneously Google, Twitter, and Snapchat below their desk when a teacher proudly declares her lessons are now available online, or that they have created a group chat for the class.

Schools must lead on developing digital citizenship

Enabled by technology, the world changes at a rapid pace, and young people’s social, psychological, and civic development increasingly occurs via their interactions online. The digital landscape provides a compounding volume of differing, and at times conflicting inputs. Schools that do not prioritize lessons that aid students to navigate the digital landscape risk falling woefully short of producing young adults that are able to critically assess their online experiences and make reasonable, responsible decisions.

Read more: 5 Aspects of digital citizenship students must be aware of

The civics curricula is a golden opportunity for the education system to bridge its self-imposed divide between education and technology. In addition to exposing students to dry facts about the role and structure of government, and what it means to be a US citizen, civics lessons must also begin to converse with students about the impact of the digital landscape on important concepts like free speech, critical thinking, open-mindedness, and responsibility.

Today, more than ever, young people need guidance on how to navigate the online world: to reflect on the discrepancies between their online identities and real selves, to identify their own and others’ bias, to distinguish between real and fake news (specifically with regard to civic issues), and ultimately find a way to think for themselves.

Read more: The 9 elements of Digital Citizenship your students need to know

This brings to mind a speech Thomas Jefferson gave when he opened a school in Charlottesville in 1818. He said the role of primary education was

to give every citizen the information he needs… to enable him to calculate for himself… to understand his duties to his neighbors and country… and in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.

In 2016 The Stanford History Education Group conducted a study among 7,800 middle school, high school and college students across 12 states. The study was designed to measure what the group calls “civic online reasoning” - the ability to judge the credibility of information online. The results were astoundingly negative, to the point that the researchers felt compelled to use the decidedly un-academic word: “bleak”. The study includes a helpful section demonstrating the various tests used, which teachers are encouraged to adapt to lessons in their civics class. Highly recommended.

All in all

Digital citizenship is not distinct from everyday citizenship, and because we, and young people, in particular, don’t distinguish between the two, we should pay profoundly more attention to building up civic reasoning online.

Schools have the opportunity to lead in this critically important endeavor.