School Security

Teaching Parents Digital Citizenship at Katy ISD

This Texas school district has decided that the best way to help their students learn how to use online resources more responsibly is to educate parents as well. Evening technology showcases provide a launch pad.

Katy Independent School District in Texas is on track to have about 60,000 students by the next school year. With 3,853 classrooms connected to the Internet, a student-to-computer ratio of three to one, and a technology expenditure reaching $91 million a year, the district sought to increase technology's impact on student achievement--a culture change that required teachers to instruct and engage with its digital learners in new ways, frequently integrating Web 2.0 technologies and practices into the mix. But as is common with the change journey, resistance has become a constant companion. Interestingly, said Katy ISD CIO Lenny Schad, that conflict came not just from inside schools but also from outside, in particular from parents.

To address parental concerns, Schad and his IT organization set up technology showcase events at individual schools where parents could go and learn more about how their kids were using technology. Typically, the event would lead off with a panel discussion where high schoolers would explain what they do in class, how it's different from previous years, and how they like it. Then parents would have the chance to ask them questions. "That has been the most valuable part of the evening, allowing parents to get a perspective from the kids' standpoint," Schad said. "We want parents to understand technology is a way of life for these kids."

Following the panel discussion, parents can attend one of several breakout sessions on topics such as Web 2.0 tools, interactive whiteboard usage, and another on digital citizenship.

An Alternative to the Cocoon Mentality
The idea of "digital citizenship" is an important one to Schad. As he explained, "The analogy I use is that for seven hours a day, school districts have been forced to wrap all of our kids in a very tight cocoon--this protective layer. Then for 17 hours a day they walk out of our doors and operate in the adult world. And we're not doing the kids any justice at all. We want to broaden their exposure so they can be prepared and know what to expect."

That means helping students, teachers, and parents to understand what is involved in being a responsible digital citizen, from promoting personal safety online to adhering to the district's acceptable use policies, from providing cyber-security training for district personnel to including cyber-security lessons for all students within the curriculum.

Schad reorganized his department this school year to create a role called the technology integration specialist. "Their whole job is to go to campuses and work with teachers on various technology tools we have available," Schad said. These are the people who put the technology evening programs together and do the talking during the parent-oriented breakout sessions.

Topics include digital commerce, digital literacy, digital communication, digital security, digital etiquette, digital law, digital rights and responsibilities, digital health and wellness, and digital access.

Frequently, parents will ask, "Is this a specific course in the district?" The answer: "No. It's something we talk about in all of our classes...."
"All of our classes in some form or fashion are doing something that incorporates digital citizenship," Schad explained. "This is just part of what teachers are responsible for teaching their kids now." Teachers themselves are trained by those integration specialists.

Parents are also concerned about online activities, especially Facebook usage. "We spend a lot of time explaining, 'Here's what we can do and what we can't do as a school district and why it's important for you to be monitoring what your kids are doing,'" Schad said. "We get questions on research and what sites kids should and shouldn't be using to do research papers. We talk about digital responsibility--'Here's what we expect from your kids from a behavior standpoint when they're using technology and here are things that we don't allow.'"

Parents also want to know where to go to get more information, so the district provides a list of online resources.

Parental Conversations
The breakout session makes school conversations with students and their parents easier later on should the need arise. "We've had some incidents where the schools have had to go back to students and their parents and talk to them: 'Do you remember when we had this conversation in class about digital citizenship and the responsibilities that go along with users and posting things? This is what we meant. What you just did was not part of what we expect as far as digital citizenship.'"

And then there's the feedback, which Schad said he and his team get from parents "all the time." "We get comments from parents coming back to us: 'Wow! I went home and talked to my son about the things I learned in that session, and I had no idea. We were able to have a great conversation with my child.'"

Frequently, parents ask Schad why their kids don't talk about Web 2.0 or the other things they're learning about technology. "The main thing we want to get across for these parents is that technology for your students is like the pen and pencil was for us," he responds. "When you were in school, did you come home to your parents and say, 'I used a pencil in school today?' The technology is a pencil. Why would I come home and be excited about something that is just part of how I operate as a young person?"

For the next school year, Schad is considering breaking out the digital citizenship portion of the program and dedicating an evening event specifically to that. Plus, the district is considering distribution of an e-mail communication similar to "Tech Tuesday," a newsletter sent out online every week to district employees, which includes tips and tricks. The one for the community of parents, however, might include a component in each issue specifically on digital citizenship and be distributed--of course--via the district's Facebook page.

Doing these kinds of communication on a regular basis will avoid the "fear factor" for parents, he said. "The intent isn't to scare them--just to open their eyes to what we're doing and why we're doing it in the district," Schad said. "The way we rolled it out this year, it was a component of a technology showcase night. Now when we break it out as a separate program next year, there's not going to be this suspicion or concern. We're trying to help parents understand the world their kids live in and what the school district is doing to prepare them to be good citizens in that world."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.