21st Century Literacy | In Print

Turning Students into Good Digital Citizens

Schools have always been charged with the task of producing good citizens. But how has our definition of a "good citizen" changed over the ages?

Video Exclusive: Cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch at Kansas State University discusses the tools today's students need to be good digital citizens. 

In today's world of near-ubiquitous connectivity, in which ordinary people have almost instantaneous access to unlimited stores of information and the ability to interact with anyone, anywhere, anytime, what does it mean to be an effective citizen? What skills and knowledge do our students need to participate fully in a world transformed by technology? What role should our schools play in developing effective digital citizens?

Ask a K-12 educator these questions and chances are the answers will have something to do with teaching proper behavior and setting appropriate prohibitions. Good digital citizens don't engage in cyberbullying, they might tell you. They don't give out too much personal information, and they don't post crazy videos on YouTube that will come back to haunt them in future job interviews.

But some educators, particularly those who think about this issue in higher education, will say that digital citizenship has less to do with safety and civility than participation in the worldwide online conversation--participation that requires a set of relatively sophisticated skills. But who's to say those questions, and those skills, must wait until our prospective citizens are college freshmen?

"One of the challenges and important priorities for K-12 today has to be broadening our understanding of what it means to be a digital citizen," says Joseph Kahne, Davidson professor of education at Mills College in Oakland, CA, and chairman of the MacArthur Network on Youth and Participatory Politics, "so that we're talking about young people as producers and managers of information and perspectives, and not simply as people we need to keep safe and civil."

'A Day-to-Day Skill Set'
In his work, Kahne focuses on the connection between students' participation with digital media and their levels of civic engagement. He does not suggest that schools shouldn't make every effort to keep their students safe and civil. He does, however, argue that when they focus on this "thin vision" of what it means to be a citizen, they are not preparing students to become fully engaged digital citizens.

Not surprisingly, Kahne maintains there is little consensus among K-12 educators and their administrators on exactly which skills should be developed in an increasingly digital society. While they may be getting closer to an accord, he says, technology is evolving so quickly that a standard set of skills is hard to set in stone.

What it meant to be literate and write well may have changed little between the beginning and the end of the 20th century, but the digital revolution that has taken place in recent years indicates there are new forms students will need to master if they're going to be considered truly literate in the 21st century. The five-paragraph essay students have had to master for decades isn't going away, but digital forms of communication have different rules and limitations.

"We do have a sense of what [digital communication] skills should be," Kahne says. "The ability to find information, for example, has always been on the list. Also, the ability to judge the credibility of information. But now we're seeing things like the ability to present information online in compelling ways emerging as another basic skill of the digital citizen."

One simple way K-12 educators can help their students, Kahne advises, is by creating assignments that require them to build 21st century skills. In a survey conducted between 2005 and 2009, researchers in the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College queried 967 juniors and seniors from 28 high schools in California about what Kahne calls "sort of a day-to-day skill set." The students, who came from urban, rural, and suburban districts, were asked how often they were asked in class to assess the trustworthiness of information; how often they were required to use the internet to get information about political or social issues; how often they were required to find different points of view about those issues; and how often they were asked to create something and publish it on the web.

Above, Michael Wesch explores the effectiveness of current efforts to teach digital citizenship and technology in the classroom.

"We found that, when young people are required to do those things--when they're part of the school assignments or the classroom content--the students became more likely to do those things during their discretionary time," Kahne explains. "The kids who had been given assignments that required them to find different points of view online were more likely to be exposed to different points of view outside of school--which makes sense. If you teach someone how to do something well, or highlight the need to do it, they're more likely to do it."

The survey findings confirm--for Kahne, at least--the importance of encouraging K-12 educators to integrate into the curriculum the skills students will need later in college and the workplace.

"Of course, there are some kids who would have done those kinds of things no matter what, and some kids you won't motivate," he says. "But if we leave these activities to the so-called self-motivated student, we're abdicating a big responsibility."

Social Responsibility
Just as any list of standard literacy skills may be in flux, so too a concept of social responsibility is evolving. According to Jeff Livingston, senior vice president of McGraw-Hill Education's College and Career Readiness Center, technology is changing the very definition of "community." In an analog world, he argues, good citizens are engaged productively with--and feel a responsibility to--their local communities: the neighborhoods, districts, and states in which they physically reside.

The internet, on the other hand, transcends physical borders. Consequently, digital citizens engage both locally and with groups not connected with their geographic reality. A true digital citizen is simultaneously engaged with both, Livingston says.

With the need to manage relationships in this geographically untethered digital community, what could be called a set of survival skills emerges, Livingston says. Among that set is a sense of what he calls information discernment.

"We learn on the playground to evaluate this person I'm speaking to who is standing in front of me physically," he says. "But who is this person I'm communicating with online without physical clues and cues? How do I develop a sense of discernment, and how do I keep private certain things about myself until I'm certain that this is someone who should be a part of my life? Just deciding where someone fits in your life is a cornerstone skill of the effective digital citizen, and something that teachers and parents are beginning to talk with students about."

Beyond Basic Skills
To some observers, all this talk of required skills is not that complicated. Mark Frydenberg is a senior lecturer on computer information systems at Bentley University, a technology-focused business school in Waltham, MA. He defines a digital citizen as someone who uses web-based communication and collaboration tools as part of his or her daily routine to share ideas, plan activities, and stay in touch with others. His version of digital citizens blog, comment, like, chat, tweet, connect, and follow--they "live" on the internet and use it to stay in touch and build relationships, often with people they may never have met in person.

Given that definition, Frydenberg's list of skills every student needs to engage effectively in the ongoing online conversation is fairly straightforward. It includes basic computer literacy skills: how to use databases and spreadsheets, for instance and how to maintain a computer. It would include some basic web literacy skills: how to distinguish between information that is credible and deceptive; how to manage information (and how to determine, for instance, if it is private and secure); and how to understand the difference between synchronous communication (chat, Skype, instant messaging) and asynchronous communication (e-mail, VoiceThread).

Frydenberg also believes those basic web skills should include how to create a web presence beyond Facebook (blogs, wikis, Twitter, web sites, etc.); how to tell the difference between personal and professional presence online (Facebook vs. LinkedIn); and how to use online collaboration tools.

Finally, he would add two skills he feels are essential before one can be granted full digital citizenship: first, the ability to make the leap from consumer use of the web to using communication and collaboration tools as enterprise tools and, second, how to use search engine optimization (SEO).

"Anyone who writes a blog or starts a company wants their information to rise to the top of the search engine's results," Frydenberg says. "While SEO is part art and part science, there are techniques one can do to influence where a site appears within a search engine's results listings."

But not everybody believes the path to digital citizenship is simply a list of skills that can be checked off once mastered. Helen L. Chen, a research scientist at Stanford University's Center for Innovations in Learning, agrees that K-12 schools need to give students technical skills that will serve them after they have left the classroom. But to Frydenberg's list she would add more foundational disciplines that go beyond the ability to use technology skillfully--and yet hark back to the kinds of skills and values parents and teachers have always worked to teach and instill in students.

Above, Michael Wesch discusses the difference between being knowledgeable and knowledge-able.

"Knowledge about technology and the ability to navigate the web and social media are no replacement for the very basic foundational skills of critical thinking, written and oral communication, and, increasingly, flexibility, teamwork, and the ability to adapt to new working environments and collaborate with people from a wide range of backgrounds," Chen says. "In my opinion, developing those skills is a process that requires some degree of rigor, self-reflection, and self-understanding." 

Susan E. Metros, deputy CIO for technology-enhanced learning and a professor of visual design and clinical education at the University of Southern California, agrees that being a discriminating consumer of online content is not enough. "We teach them to read, we teach them to speak, so why don't we teach them to see?" Metros asks. "We have a responsibility to give them, not only the skills, but the theory and the context to understand the ethical implications of media."

Kahne agrees, adding schools need to take more responsibility for providing that context. "Many kids know a lot about producing content and being creative online, but it isn't always clear how much the schools have done to develop and nurture those skills," he says. "Many students have simply done it on their own--which, of course, is also one of the exciting things about online spaces: the possibility of doing it on your own. But some youth take advantage of those opportunities, while many don't. The key role of the schools is to make sure that everybody develops these skills."

Encoding and Decoding
Michael Wesch, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, goes a bit further and suggests that fully prepared digital citizens have the ability to see "see behind the curtain" and to create, not just their own digital content, but their own digital tools.

"This notion of digital citizenship is no longer about the old questions about the quality of sources," Wesch says. "We've been asking those questions forever." Nor is it merely about computer literacy--what he calls "netiquette." It doesn't stop at critical thinking either.

"The newer, more interesting questions that are, I think, unique to the digital world revolve around things like algorithms," Wesch says. "When my students are freshmen, I try to get them familiar with the digital space in a new way, to begin to give them a sense that what they're seeing on the screen is encoded. By the time they're seniors, my hope is that they not only see those structures, but start to manipulate them and put things together in new ways."

Wesch is a researcher, but also an active developer of innovative teaching techniques, including the World Simulation Project, which is the centerpiece of KSU's Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course. He describes the project as "a radical experiment in learning, created in a fit of frustration with the large lecture hall format which seems inevitable in a classroom of 200 to 400 students."

Understanding that what a person sees on a screen is a construct created by somebody--perhaps even oneself--is part of "building a scaffold toward digital citizenship," Wesch says, and the next step beyond critical thinking, information literacy, and creative thinking.

"Our lives are so entwined with the digital--so incredibly enmeshed in the digital," he concludes, "that, if you're going to be a good citizen, period, you have to be a good digital citizen."

Social Media 101

Plagiarism, personal conduct, privacy. These are just a few of the complex issues related to responsible digital citizenship and ethics that students wade through every day on social media sites. But what exactly are these social media ethics, and how should kids learn them?

To help answer these questions, one Harvard research group has looked at the skill set required for effective digital citizenship from the perspective of ethics, and its lead researcher is working on a new curriculum designed to link ethical thinking skills with new media literacies.

Carrie James, a research director and principal investigator on Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, heads up the Harvard group, which has been working with other groups, including Common Sense Media and Project New Media Literacies, to establish a concept of digital citizenship that encompasses what James describes as "the skills, knowledge, and ethical sensibilities that we feel young people need to participate successfully in new media environments."

James also co-directs the GoodPlay Project, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation-funded study of the ethical character of young people's activities in the new digital media, which includes online games, social networking sites, blogs, and other virtual communities. The project has conducted qualitative research with young people between the ages of 10 and 25 on the extent to which they think about the moral and ethical dimensions of their media use.

As a result of that research, the GoodPlay Project has collaborated with Project New Media Literacies to develop a curriculum titled "Our Space: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World," a set of classroom materials designed to link ethical thinking skills with new media literacies.

James says ethical thinking skills include: complex perspective-taking; reflection on roles and responsibilities; and consideration of community benefits and harms associated with actions taken online.

The ethical issues the curriculum focuses on are divided into five thematic areas:

  • Self-expression and identity
  • Privacy
  • Ownership and authorship
  • Personal and information credibility
  • Participation or conduct in online spaces

As an example of how the curriculum works, in the lesson "Should You Be in MySpace," students examine a fictionalized social network profile of a college student named Jeff and are asked to consider the extent to which his online conduct (and that of his online friends) is socially responsible. The "Authorship and Ownership" portion of the curriculum features a lesson that asks students to reflect on the line between inspiration and plagiarism by comparing original source materials with contemporary remixes and other forms of appropriation.