February 9th, 2021, marks the 18th edition of Safer Internet Day, a day to come “together for a better internet,” which is more important than ever in light of recent events. The campaign emphasizes a need to make the internet safer for young people and teach them the skills needed to navigate the online world. In other words, how to be a digital citizen.
While digital citizenship has been a trend for many years, not all schools have a comprehensive program to address the most critical topics that affect almost every young person today.
Aside from no curriculum, in some cases, a focus on the negative aspects tends to monopolize it when it does exist. That’s because it feels more urgent to build lessons around the perils of online life, such as being wary of strangers and choosing a strong password.
These are unquestionably valuable lessons, but the downside to this approach is that children aren’t likely to follow a list of dos and don'ts. This method of “Beware! The internet is dangerous!” can backfire because children and teens are naturally curious and will try some things on their own, such as signing up for social media accounts way below the minimum age requirement.
In turn, students will learn their lesson the hard way later on when dealing with difficult situations, which is precisely what digital citizenship wants to prevent in the first place.
Should we change the way we teach digital citizenship?
Moreover, teachers’ go-to method follows a curriculum that mostly gives students the facts, but not the authentic experiences they need. Students also need to learn online habits and behaviors that are positive, meaningful, and constructive, not from hypothetical situations but from demonstrating those behaviors.
That’s why some teachers have taken a whole different approach and decided to embed digital citizenship into the curriculum, finding opportunities for students to practice positive behaviors.
As the line between online and offline gets thinner and thinner, here are some things that should be at the forefront of teaching digital citizenship with ideas on creating activities centered around the positives, such as community building and empathetic communication.
How to actively seek news and create them
Media literacy is about finding positive examples of trustworthy, well-written, and well-documented news. It includes the ability to make correct judgments about our "news diet" and its impact on our lives. Students usually start consuming news early in their lives but need adult guidance to make sense of current events.
Lessons centered around news don’t always have to focus on politics, for example. A STEM teacher can encourage students to research a science-related topic, sparking amazing conversations about fake news, accurately identifying news sources, using critical thinking skills, and seeking additional information from reputable sources.
They can also become journalists by writing articles or creating videos. Your learning management system (LMS) class blog feature is an excellent place for students to learn how to research and write while receiving feedback in a safe environment.
How to build and be involved in online communities
Now that schools are closed, we have a new understanding of what community means and how online ones are just as important for keeping us connected. Online communities are not that different from offline ones, and they can be a source of support for any student.
The school medium offers an opportunity to build communities and participate in a safe environment, moderated by the teacher. This can be as simple as allowing students to have a separate group for discussing their interests (school-related or not). Some of them might appreciate theme days such as “Share a picture of your pet” day since it brings them closer to their peers.
Good practices include teaching students how to create rules, such as keeping conversations civil, asking for help, and giving constructive feedback.
In time, as students grow up, they'll find engaging communities on social media that share their love for something positive, such as books or knitting or photography, and usually also share their knowledge.
How to put technological literacy to work
Groups, forums, blogs and chats are great places to start, but it doesn’t have to stop there. Something that many students still struggle with is technological literacy and being confident in using technology.
Since the start of the pandemic, aside from school staff support, some institutions have enlisted more knowledgeable students to assist others with resolving tech issues. For example, if a student has problems installing something, they can contact another directly through the school LMS. You can also create a support group in which anyone can volunteer to help.
In this way, everyone learns something, and some students might feel more comfortable asking for assistance if they’re talking directly to a peer.
How to have a productive online discussion
This is certainly a tricky situation since we see discussions escalate into full-blown online “wars” all the time. Your students will not be able to avoid them, but as digital citizens, they can learn how to do the right thing each time it happens.
Your online school community can be a place to start the conversation around what constitutes productive and unproductive attitudes. You can use real-life situations to intervene and teach students basic approaches. Students can also be encouraged to give each other feedback on their work.
Some online conversation techniques include monitoring reactions such as "Do I get mad when I see a certain reply? What happens then?" It's also about taking a step back and deciding whether to engage or not, as in "Am I dealing with a troll?" Students also benefit from learning how to compose an assertive and kind response. Most importantly, a useful skill is knowing when to agree to disagree with people or move on when the conversation is no longer civil.
How to have a positive impact and influence change
The internet can be a distracting place but also a powerful tool for change. It all depends on how they choose to engage with it rather than avoiding it altogether.
All people that are dedicated to specific causes use tools such as social media to influence change. All they need is a real problem to solve and to come up with a solution.
For example, your students can create a website to raise awareness about a cause that they care about and even organize fundraisers. There are many opportunities to learn something new, such as writing an inspiring message that moves people to take action, designing a PSA infographic to promote their cause, and which platform works best for raising money.
Digital citizenship for building communities
All in all, online safety is a significant issue and one that should be taken seriously. However, a safer internet also means engaging in a community where digital citizens consciously choose to use their voices to do good and engage in meaningful discussions. Classroom activities should reflect that.
Students need to learn valuable lessons about internet safety, and if they do so in an environment supervised by the teacher, they’ll have a safety net to fail safely. They’ll also be more motivated to pay attention to things such as their digital footprint rather than seeing it as a hypothetical situation that may or may not apply to them.