Sometimes the terms “Internet Safety” & “Digital Citizenship” are used almost interchangeably. I contest that not only are the terms not interchangeable, they convey completely different beliefs about how students should participate in the digital landscape. Internet Safety implies that students need to have a defensive approach to the many dangers lurking online. This approach is fear-based and does not connote empowerment. It also discourages contribution to the digital world. Curriculum that focuses on Internet Safety tells a story of the dangers in engaging with anything on the internet. In this approach, the Internet is a necessary evil. Students are taught how to mitigate the potential damages that come from taking risks by getting online. The most damaging effect of this focus is that students do not gain the skills to be prepared to use the digital tools that they will need to be successful beyond the classroom.
Digital Citizenship, on the other hand, promotes wisdom and the responsibility that being able to access the world demands. This approach emphasizes empowerment, not fear. Students who are learning Digital Citizenship gain skills to be more than consumers of content. They become citizens who can create and contribute positively online. Students who understand how to discern sources of information and can critically consider the motivations of those sending the messages. They are developing the critical thinking skills that they will need to be the leaders that society needs. Rather than putting out the fires that happen when students go online without the necessary preparation, they are taught to not only avoid danger, but recognize the paths to danger and the consequences of posting or sharing unwisely. Principles of Citizenship should guide the decisions students make with technology, as opposed to adults keeping up with every new dubious app that becomes available and making sure students are not using them.
The ability to use Cloud-based applications like Google’s G-Suite is important to helping students gain the technology skills to be productive and positive contributors. Creating things in the classroom through project-based learning has never been more possible with student-access to technology at school. This gives the school the power to not only be a laboratory for students to learn to interact with adults and one another, but be a digital laboratory as well. School districts employ filters that help protect the students from harmful content at school. Any teacher who has allowed students to use technology can attest, these filters do not always perfectly keep students from viewing content or accessing sites that are not appropriate. Students may use technology access improperly and engage in off-task or negative behaviors using the tools available. Teachers who understand Digital Citizenship use the mistakes that students make online in the classroom as teachable moments. For instance, an elementary student who is writing harassing comments on a Google Doc and sharing it with others can be held accountable very easily. The teacher who understands how to view the Revision History in a Google Doc can share with the students that she is accountable for what she posts online. This is a lesson best learned before permanent damage can be done. Like many other examples of classroom misbehavior, the lesson to be taught in this instance is not that Google Docs are dangerous or even that the students should not use Chromebooks- the bigger picture is that students should be good people that do not seek to harass anyone through any medium- this is Digital Citizenship. In this example, the student used classroom technology that the teacher understood and was held accountable for the mistake. Had the teacher not taken advantage of the teachable moment for this student, an opportunity would have been lost and the student would potentially have gone on to make larger mistakes online. The Internet Safety approach might have suggested the classroom should not have access to technology devices or Google Docs to avoid these negative effects in the future. Disabling the tool that allowed the behavior misses the point.
Preparing students through the authentic use of technology is critical to helping them become contributing citizens during their time in school and after they have graduated. This means teachers need to be more savvy than ever. This does not mean they need to know every program, app, slang term, or device. Digital Citizenship means they know how to apply principles of being wise, honest, and responsible online. Helping to teach students to be reflective and accountable for their actions is what will help these students to make positive choices that will propel them to success. Technology offers a wealth of resources to know all the world has to offer. There are many aspects of having access to the world that are dangerous for students. The adults who care for these students have a responsibility to help protect them from these dangers. I believe that Digital Citizenship is the approach that will help students to recognize the potential dangers as the see them and then avoid those paths. Students who are not aware of the dangers online can be lured into trouble and risk the safety of themselves and loved ones. Good Digital Citizens see that they have a responsibility to not only keeping themselves safe, but also to never jeopardize the safety of anyone else. An Internet Safety curriculum narrows the focus to individual dangers and does not encourage the critical thinking that goes beyond the potential peril that can occur from going online. Digital Citizenship encourages leadership and helps the students stand up for and help one another. Through this approach students not only learn to be safe online, they learn to make the digital world better than they found it.
Resources for teaching Digital Citizenship: