September 22, 2021

The Promise of Schools as Digital Citizenship Hubs

Category: Digital Citizenship

A 2018 study of student digital literacy skills found that only 2% of eighth grade students in the U.S. scored at the highest level of computer and information literacy. Education experts were quick to point out that this should not be considered a failing of individual teachers or students. Indeed, students’ digital skills varied based on how many computers they had at home and what resources schools had available. Fast forward to the return to school in fall 2021 and K-12 students are experiencing unprecedented access to computers and devices (e.g., laptop, tablet) due to the shift to remote learning prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Record numbers of devices are being distributed to students starting as young as kindergarten, opening up new digital learning opportunities that can span home and school contexts.

As the physical digital divide narrows, we must consider youth’s ability to use technology in empowering and knowledgeable ways. From connected learning to social interactions, digital technologies have major benefits as well as challenges, raising questions about whose responsibility it should be to help young people navigate and thrive in a digital world. The wider access to technology brought about by the pandemic underscores the importance of learning how to use digital technologies in responsible, informed, and ethical ways, often referred to as ‘digital citizenship’.

Digital citizenship education can and should span learning about everything from biased algorithms to misinformation to sexual or racial harassment online. Understanding these issues is essential for youth to reap the benefits of technology while reducing risks. There is a lot to unpack, and as more attention is drawn to the need for digital citizenship, the question becomes “Who is responsible for talking and teaching about digital citizenship? Families? Schools? Both?”

If we expect families to send youth to school with all the digital skills and understandings they need, we are ignoring the fact that families are not equally comfortable facilitating these conversations, nor do they necessarily have equal access to information and resources. It is hard to think of schools being asked to do more, especially in light of concerns over missed learning opportunities related to COVID-19.

Yet, it makes sense for schools to step in to address digital citizenship in a community-informed way, as digital citizenship already aligns with many school-based initiatives around school climate, social emotional learning, and preparing 21st century students for the future. There are a number of strategies school communities can use to center schools as hubs for digital citizenship skills—not just for youth, but for their families as well. Families experienced a crash course in digital technologies over the past year and a half, highlighting how some families could use support in navigating digital landscapes and acting as media mentors for their children. Schools can help by using in-house programming along with many free digital resources to build comprehensive digital citizenship programs with the school community.

Need for Parental Media Mentoring

Parents and caregivers matter when it comes to digital citizenship. Media research tells us that parental use of technology predicts how children use technology, making parents valuable media mentoring partners for schools interested in developing digital citizenship. But parents vary in the ways they interact with their children around media, with research suggesting that children benefit when parents restrict certain kinds of media at specific ages and help children think critically about the media they consume. There is also evidence that caregivers’ media mentoring efforts decline as children get older, highlighting the need for more parent education in both elementary and secondary schools.

Given the various patterns for mediating children’s technology use and the confusion about “educational” media, it’s not surprising that many families report feeling concerned about youth use of technology. According to the Pew Research Center, many parents look to others for help navigating digital aspects of parenting. This suggests parents need more accessible resources for media mentoring and digital skills. If some schools provide these resources while others don’t, we run the risk of exacerbating aspects of the digital divide in student digital literacy and citizenship. But in an era when schools are already attempting to meet varied student needs, how does a school begin to build a comprehensive partnership approach to digital citizenship programming?

Possibilities & Strategies

The shift to remote learning highlighted the importance of student and parent digital literacy for digital equity. It is crucial to consider a range of strategies schools can use to become hubs of information, shared decision making, and shared understandings of digital citizenship for students, teachers, and families. This infographic offers a number of strategies schools can start with. A few key strategies are highlighted below:

Family Digital Skills Training & Family Tech Nights: Families would likely benefit from parent education efforts offered through schools, considering not all parents report feeling comfortable with technology. Family digital literacy training or technology events could occur outdoors or online given COVID-19 precautions. Students, teachers, or community volunteers could host one-on-one or small group sessions using devices available at the school. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance provides a helpful checklist for schools to begin family digital literacy training. Meanwhile, it’s also important to create spaces for families to learn and discuss the benefits and challenges of youth media use. Schools can ask experts to join or use resources from Common Sense Media to facilitate conversations. It’s important to note that these programs should consider the childcare needs and language diversity of school communities when planning programming, as well as value family insights about technology use.

Tech Team Advisory Committees: Decisions about school-based technology and students often rely on a small group of people making decisions for the whole community without a diverse set of perspectives. Schools can invite family members, representative school staff members (e.g. special education teachers, English language teachers, content teachers, counselors), and students to be part of tech advisory committees. Committees can create shared visions around technology use and proactively address related issues. Family surveys can be one starting point for gathering feedback to inform local technology decisions. Surveys could include family concerns, questions, and needs related to digital technologies and children.

Schools as Digital Citizenship Hubs graphic School Level Programs graphic

Digital Citizenship/Literacy Courses: There are many digital citizenship topics to discuss with  youth, but teachers are also under pressure to cover test material for the end of the year, creating tension around when classroom teachers can “fit” digital citizenship into the curriculum. Ideally, digital citizenship would be integrated into content classes as a complement to a standalone class dedicated to digital citizenship or digital literacy. But it’s worth creating space for topics that don’t fit neatly into subject areas. In secondary schools, this could be an elective, while elementary students could add digital citizenship into rotations along with art, music, physical education, etc. Technology district coaches, technology teachers, school librarians, and technology staff could play a role in facilitating these classes.

Paid Time to Integrate Digital Citizenship: Schools can allow time for classroom teachers to integrate and align their content with free digital citizenship resources. Social emotional learning, sex education, civics education, media literacy, and school-based mental health programs can be updated to include topics like bystander awareness online, sexuality development online, laws affecting sexting and consent, misinformation campaigns, taking a critical lens to social media feeds, and finding media balance for healthy sleep and physical activity.

Schools can be powerful places to develop digital life skills because parents and caregivers regularly interact with the school system, making schools well positioned to offer parent outreach, digital skills training, family meetings, and more to pursue a partnership approach to digital citizenship education. There are numerous comprehensive digital citizenship curriculum options available to schools, but this is just a starting point. Determining how to implement digital citizenship should not fall on individual teachers. School community members must be given the time, space, and support to do this work. Media organizations such as Common Sense Media advocate for this kind of whole-community approach to digital citizenship.

Accessible Partnerships

Parents and caregivers have a lot to offer when it comes to school-home partnerships around technology. To reap the full benefits of these partnerships around tech, schools must include non-dominant voices to leverage family strengths and avoid exacerbating opportunity gaps or isolating culturally and linguistically diverse families. There are a number of ways schools can be inclusive about school-home partnerships. Schools can consider using multiple routes of parent outreach (e.g. social media, texting programs, calls home), ensuring events and materials are accessible to families whose home language is not English, and conducting events both in person and remotely to allow for maximum participation, where video or screen recordings can provide asynchronous access for parents unable to meet in real time.

Next Steps

Surveys from over a thousand K-12 teachers suggest that 60% of teachers used a digital citizenship resource or curriculum in 2019, but this statistic does not speak to how often teachers were able to talk about digital citizenship over the course of the year (once a week, once a month, once a year?). To ensure digital equity, we need a systematic approach to digital citizenship and digital literacy that does not rely on local wealth, a family’s ability to purchase devices, or the capacity of an individual teacher to address digital life.

Schools and districts can initiate this work by beginning to fund programming and professional development that moves towards digital equity. But this work will go even further if it is sustained by educational policy and steady streams of funding from state and federal government. Right now, only 14 states have any kind of state law related to media literacy, digital literacy, or digital citizenship. School and district administrators, as well as students and families, can advocate for digital literacy legislation, drawing on Common Sense Media’s model policy as a template for legislation. School leaders, educational technology specialists, and policy makers should consider taking steps to build schools as digital citizenship hubs for the students, teachers, and families within the school community. Without this work, we run the risk of a generation of students experiencing even more unequal access to the digital competencies needed to thrive in a highly digital world.

Guest post by Allison Starks


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