Digital Citizenship: From Compliance to Culture

  • This article originally appeared in THE Journal. Republished with permission.
  • By Jeff Mao 
  • 10/26/17

My oldest son just started his senior year in high school. The night before his last “first day,” I was looking for the annual photo of the occasion from his kindergarten year. I scrolled back through my Facebook posts only to discover — face-palm moment — I didn’t use Facebook 13 years ago. I also I didn’t have a cell phone with a camera then either. How quickly the world is changing around us, especially the technology and its use.

According to a 2015 study from the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of teens are online daily, and 24 percent of them describe their use as “almost constantly.” In a Common Sense study, teens also report spending nine hours a day (with tweens ages 8–12 reporting six hours a day) using media and the internet — not including time spent on school work. Looking deeper at the data, we find that TV is still the dominant medium, with 58 percent of teens reporting daily viewing.

So, we know that traditional and internet media are central to the lives of our kids. Does it matter? The simple answer is yes. TV viewing can shape how children develop their sense of self. Research suggests that TV viewing can teach girls that their bodies exist to be sexualized and even that women are partially responsible for their own sexual assaults.

Additionally, kids report that they struggle to discern fact from fiction online when presented with “news.” While kids say they prefer to get their news from social media, they also reveal that they trust and get most of their news from parents, teachers and other adults. Unfortunately, according to Pew Research, the majority of adults are getting their news from social media — and mostly from a single social media site. That can be problematic, as one analysis showedthat leading into the 2016 presidential election, engagement with fake news stories outpaced real news stories on Facebook. So, are the adults actually helping kids discern fact from fiction?

While this may appear to paint a bleak picture, I see it as a call to action! As educators, our role is to help students learn to be safe, responsible and thoughtful digital citizens. Some may argue that digital citizenship instruction isn’t a priority for schools or districts without 1-to-1 computing programs. Others may acknowledge the need for digital citizenship instruction but provide only compliance-level lip service with a single school assembly or require signatures on an unread Acceptable Use Policy. However, as I’ve outlined above, our students are watching TV and interacting online daily, and it is having an impact.

It’s critical that schools recognize the importance of teaching digital citizenship and building a healthy school culture that includes responsible and thoughtful use of media and the internet among students and adults. Building a community’s culture takes more than providing instruction; it takes a systematic intentional approach that engages the entire community of students, educators and parents.

Planning and Implementing a District Digital Citizenship Program

The first step to a successful program is establishing a shared vision for digital citizenship in your school community. It’s important that this vision is understood and shared because the end result of the work is a community that absorbs and exhibits shared norms of behavior. While there are academic curricula available to aid with student instruction, this is less about completing lessons and scoring well on assessments and more about developing habits of mind and behaviors.

Once you have a shared understanding of your district’s vision for digital citizenship, the next steps, while not necessarily easy, are generally straightforward: 

  1. Select the resources and curricula you will use to support student instruction;
  2. Determine who will provide instruction and when, and then teach your students;
  3. Provide staff professional development to both support student instruction as well as to develop universal understanding of the issues; 
  4. Engage and support your families; and 
  5. Celebrate your successes.

How districts complete these steps, including all of the planning and coordination, will vary district by district. Here are three examples from districts in California that took similar but different paths.

District: Capistrano Unified School District
District Lead: John Morgan, Director of Educational Technology

With 58 schools and over 2,000 teachers, Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) modified its digital citizenship program four years ago. At that time, the district began a large-scale 1-to-1 student computing program, which served as the catalyst to make a more unified and consistent digital citizenship program.

They started with a simple goal of providing a K-12 instructional program for digital citizenship. John Morgan, director of educational technology, along with the education technology department, gathered a group of 70 teachers representing different grades and content areas to curate and select instructional resources. This group selected Common Sense Education’s curriculum. In CUSD, all K-5 teachers teach a digital citizenship lesson, while in grades 6-8, math, social science and English language arts teachers provide the digital citizenship instruction. At the high school level, along with the science teachers, the district’s college and career planning teachers provide a significant amount of instruction. You can see which lessons CUSD selected at each grade level on their website.

What’s most innovative about CUSD’s program is how they’ve engineered the coordination of the instruction. Using a Google Form, teachers can very simply log when they have completed a lesson. It took Morgan some virtual elbow grease, but Morgan was able to construct spreadsheets that used the data collected through the form to generate reports so that principals can see a simple dashboard of which teachers have completed which lessons, and when. Further, the spreadsheets create simple bar charts to display lessons completed by school. These data displays allow both district and school leaders to monitor progress, and the data can also be used later for record keeping for CIPA/E-rate compliance. Additionally, CUSD’s plans were developed around the Common Sense Education District Recognition program requirements, so Morgan can easily use this data to submit his district, school and educator recognition applications. CUSD’s teachers and schools earned Common Sense Recognition last school year, as did the district.

The automated tracking system makes the management easy for a district of 64 schools. As Morgan noted to me, “It’s not hard. We did a lot of work on the front end to make it digital, so that it would be easy on the back end.”

District: Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District
District Lead: Tim Goree, Executive Director of Administrative Services and Community Engagement

Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District (FSUSD), like so many other districts, has been working hard to improve broadband capacity and internet access for teachers and students. With 31 schools and over 21,000 students, they blocked students from using YouTube and other streaming video platforms mostly due to bandwidth constraints. Leading into 2015, Tim Goree, executive director of administrative services and community engagement, had the bandwidth ready, so they could open up some of the blocked content. However, he recognized that both educators and students would need more support with the potential digital distraction that pervasive access could bring. The district already had a baseline digital citizenship program in place to maintain CIPA compliance, but Goree recognized that this wasn’t going to be enough.

Goree and his team developed a Digital Citizenship Checklist that includes tasks that a school needs to complete annually, including a digital citizenship instructional scope and sequencethat has “Must Do,” “Should Do” and “Can Do” lessons for each grade level. Schools that complete the “Must Do” lessons along with the rest of the checklist maintain CIPA compliance. However, most of FSUSD’s schools complete lessons outlined in the Should Do category and earn not only Common Sense School Recognition, but also access YouTube and other streaming services.

Goree’s IT team worked with developers to create a method that allows them a simple way to easily set different levels of internet content access for students and staff. At the heart of it is an automatic account provisioning system that Goree describes in this FSUSD document. Goree further explained to me that his real goal is to help connect what happens in school to what his students encounter outside of school. He poses a good question, “If what we do in school doesn’t connect to what happens outside of school, then why would we do it?” Goree recognizes the need for schools to prepare students for their lives outside of the school, which includes social media and unfettered access to the internet.

District: Corona-Norco Unified School District
District Lead: Luis Carillo, TSA Ed Tech

Corona-Norco Unified School District is the nation’s leading issuer of digital badges. Its over 50,000 students and nearly 2,000 teachers earn digital badges to document their learning — a true expression of life-long learning. In 2015, the district began to build a culture of positive digital citizenship on the heels of increasing use of education technology in the classroom. Luis Carillo, a teacher on special assignment for education technology, explained that the district was very focused on making sure that digital citizenship wasn’t going to be a “one and done” but instead “a cultural change.”

A committee that included teachers, administrators and parents explored resources and discussed goals for creating a culture of digital citizenship. They adopted Common Sense’s Digital Citizenship Curriculum, and then the district took the time to create easy-to-use versions of the lessons in their online learning management system. Carillo noted that some teachers teach the lessons using the paper versions, but they wanted to ensure that if a teacher wants to leverage digital tools that they remove as many barriers as possible to doing so. This provides teachers choice and flexibility. Teachers provide three digital citizenship lessons for their students each year.

When students complete the lessons and successfully demonstrate their learning via an electronic assessment, Corona-Norco issues digital badges or micro-credentials. Corona-Norco has automated data exchange to facilitate issuing the badges as well as progress monitoring so that the district can ensure all students complete lessons and demonstrate their learning. To date, the district has issued over 1 million badges to students for digital citizenship. Teacher badges related to digital citizenship are in the works now, and the district hopes to have them available by the 2018-2019 school year.

Digital badges as a method for documenting and celebrating learning in the Corona-Norco schools is normal to its students and community. It’s simply how things are done — it’s their culture, and digital citizenship is simply a part of it.

Culture Building

It’s often said that culture is the extension of leadership. These districts are just a few examples of how district leadership with a shared vision planned and organized digital citizenship instruction for students, professional learning for teachers and outreach to parents. I encourage all districts to consider how to ensure that digital citizenship for its entire community is part of its cultural norms. Digital tools and media have tremendous influence on how we interact with each other, and it has the power to shape what we think about ourselves and the world around us. Ensuring that we control how we leverage that influence and power versus being influenced by it is, I believe, one of the greatest challenges we face today as a global society. We will not overcome this challenge by simply complying with regulations, but only by creating a culture that openly examines the issues and empowers our kids and ourselves to be safe, responsible, and thoughtful users of technology.